So, this morning I somehow found myself on Radio 4’s Today programme, debating a government report with Jay Rayner, the Observer‘s food critic. How I ended up in that situation, I’m not entirely sure, but I guess it had a lot to do with this blog, the podcast and the momentum both have been gathering of late.
On Sunday afternoon, I got a call from a producer asking if it was correct that I was an actor who had worked as a waiter to supplement my income. Well, that much was true; I am an actor and after six years of working in restaurants in London, I cursed my last bad tip over a year ago (when I eventually decided it was time to move on, largely as a consequence of one too many punters assuming I must be the owner, based – I can only assume – on my age relative to that of the manager). The next bit she introduced as an ‘odd request’: would I be interested in debating a report into tipping practices in the UK? Jay Rayner, it appeared, was for banning tipping altogether in favour of increasing restaurant prices and passing on the increased revenue to staff in the form of better wages. He’d written several pieces on the subject, most recently in his column for the Observer, and they needed someone who wasn’t convinced. I know what you’re still thinking: why talk to an actor? Well, I guess it made sense to me on account of the fact that the Honest Actor’s project was borne of my desire to see actors be honest about the realities of the job, including what we do when we’re not acting; it would have been odd for me to shy away from a discussion like this on the basis of being an actor. And on top of that, I think that there’s one thing we rarely celebrate about London’s restaurant industry; that while you may get served by a career waiter in Paris, in London you’ll likely have you order taken by someone creative.
Anyway, the findings of the long-awaited government report into tipping were made public today, with Business Secretary Sajid Javid suggesting two main reforms:
- We should be making it illegal for restaurants to change waiting staff a levy based on their sales (yes, that happens and it’s legal)
- We should incentivise well-run troncs – basically staff-managed kitties as an alternative to all tips going through the till and being added to wages.
When it comes down to it, Jay and I were actually agreed on the fact that change is necessary. We’d both like so see a cultural shift to an industry in which staff are paid better, abused less, and to which the best people are attracted because it’s seen as a viable career with a genuine trajectory. I just disagree on how to get there and how fast. And while I like the idea of being served by a ‘career waiter’, I don’t want to see the industry get to the point where I’m not being served my flat white by a visual artist or my flatbread pizza by a musician. I know I was glad to say goodbye to waiting tables, but it served me well for years and I know many actors for whom it is the perfect ‘other job‘
The real issue is that the industry isn’t actually one industry and it can’t be treated as such. The conditions at the top are very different from those in the middle, let alone the bottom. It’s one thing for Danny Meyer, one of the US’s top restaurateurs, to announce he’s doing away with tips in favour of upping prices and consequently wages, quite another to expect that if the same were to happen wholesale in the UK, that in the average zone 3 independent restaurant where a ten pound burger would go up to £12, that the extra two quid would ever find its way to the serving staff. I’ve worked in enough of those to know that what Jay is suggesting would be seen by many as an opportunity to increase profit margins.
While it pains me to say it, because he has hardly covered himself in glory in recent weeks, Sajid Javid had made some sensible suggestions today and they have been rightly welcomed by unions. We need stronger legislation to protect serving staff. The law, as it stands, is laughable. Restaurant owners can do what they want with tips – take 100% if they wish – as long as staff disclose this when asked. Incentivising well-managed tronc systems is a very good start. Put simply, troncs protect staff because managenent are legally forbidden from interfering. The servers pool tips, split them according to a pre-agreed formula and distribute them among themselves. But this needs to be encouraged, enshrined and protected. I’ve worked in restaurants where all tips have gone into the till, for a set per-shift amount to be paid at the end of the week, and have friends who have been forced to work without access to tips – at all – for months, whilst on a ‘training wage’. Troncs, on the other hand, run by the staff themselves, ensure that tips go where the customer intends, without interference. In a political context where workers’ rights are being eroded every single day, our focus should be on protecting those at the bottom. And that’s more important than any idealistic aspirations Jay and I might share for the future of the industry.
Anyway, here endeth the sermon. Have a listen to the show and see what you think. It’s a long time since I’ve done a live radio interview, and the first that hasn’t been directly related to a creative project, so go easy. It took me ten minutes to warm up and settle into it. Unfortunately, we only had six and a half…
Click here to visit the Today site. We’re on at 02:53:20.
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