Ask The Salty Waitress: Let's Talk About The Huge Pay Gap Between Servers And Cooks

Dear Salty: Do you have any comments or thoughts you'd care to share on the pay disparity between the front and back of the house? Or is this situation endemic only in my area?

Servers where I live routinely make two to four times what the cooks make, once you take tips into account. This is not a fly-by-night observation, I've got about 25 years back-of-the-house experience.

I am among the top 3-5% of chefs in my area. I do savory cooking, I do pastry, I bake breads, I make hard candy and chocolates, I do recipe development, portion control, pricing, and ordering. I have even made wedding cakes. As a member of our industry, think about the last 20 cooks you have known, and ask how many of them could do all that. I don't think I'm being too generous in my self evaluation. Oh, and I don't drink or use drugs so I avoid some of the worst pitfalls that chefs fall into.

And yet, for all this, I literally cannot find a cooking job that will feed my family without the benefit of food stamps. I know owners like making the excuse that waitstaff take a "chance" on their wages whereas mine are guaranteed, but when a bad day for them means they make as little as I do, it hardly seems reasonable, especially given the amount of work and skill that goes into making the food they deliver to the table.

I'd have long ago swapped into waitering, except that as a short, not especially handsome, male, I am disqualified from being waitstaff. The owners want pretty women, not experienced men. It has reached the point that, if I never cook again professionally for the rest of my life, I will be perfectly happy with that situation.

Problem is, job prospects in my area are few and far between, and the $11/hr I get cooking is SLIGHTLY better than the $7-$9/hr I could get as a convenience store clerk. I've tried asking for raises but no matter what I can do most owners view cooks as unskilled labor and easily replaced by any other cook. I'm told to take it or leave it, over and over.

Most grateful for your insight,

Broke and Broken Chef

PS: I know this will almost certainly never make your column, my missive is too long and most readers probably wouldn't care about my issues.

Broke and Broken,

Your letter hurts my heart, BB. It sucks to hear from people in this industry who bust their asses, up their games, and still barely scrape by. It's a crying shame, and I know it's all too real. Now, few of the servers I know are millionaires, either, but depending where you live and what kind of place you work in, the gap between FOH and BOH can be major.

So—despite your P.S., ahem!—let's look at how servers and bartenders are paid differently than cooks and dishwashers. The Bureau Of Labor Statistics says average pay for cooks in restaurants, schools, hospitals, etc. is $12.12 an hour. For servers, it's $12.42. But there's an asterisk the size of a kiddie pool next to that $12.42-an-hour figure, because David Jordan, a Houston-based employment attorney, tells The Takeout the IRS thinks about 40% of tips go unreported. (I would never do such a thing, of course.) If 40% of tips are unreported, that $12.42 is more like $17.39 an hour.

The gap between front and back of house is usually largest in high-end restaurants. If a table-for-two's bill comes to $100 and the server makes 15% of that, that's $15 on just one table. And assuming they're serving a few tables an hour, now we're talking $30, $45 an hour in tips.

Now you and I already know this, but a lot of my non-industry readers might not. Tipped employees can—by federal law—be paid less than the standard federal minimum wage, which is $7.25. Federal tipped minimum wage is just $2.13, but restaurants can take a tip credit and apply tips toward the front-of-house staff's hourly wage so that it reaches $7.25. Who's a tipped employee? Any workers "who customarily and regularly receive more than $30 per month in tips." So, if you regularly earn tips, you're a tipped employee. Most cooks and dishwashers aren't regularly tipped, so they make whatever the standard minimum wage is in their area. It gets even more headache-y when you factor in all the state and local laws that are different from federal laws. If a state or city passes a minimum wage law that's higher than the fed's version, the local ones is the law of the land. Someone hand me an aspirin and a margarita, already.

(Before we go further—why is there even a tipped minimum wage, you might ask? Essentially, the Fair Labor Standards Act created it to ensure a more-even playing field. The government didn't think it was fair that servers like me could get a regular minimum wage plus tips, and theoretically, this would make things more equitable.)

Now, why can't the servers just share some of those tips with you guys in the back, right? For a long time, legally, that couldn't happen—there were plenty of lawsuits over it, believe me. So usually, servers kept their tips while BOH workers made whatever they made hourly. But last year, Congress got off its ass and actually passed legislation. I'll give you a moment to recover from the shock. Attorney Rick Warren, an Atlanta-based partner at the firm Ford and Harrison, explains it like this: Under some new rules, federally speaking, if a company pays at least the federal minimum wage and does not use the tip credit, then the tips FOH gets can be shared with cooks and dishwashers who participate in a tip pool.

This sounds like what you'd ideally want, right, BB? For BOH to get a share of the tips, right? But whether this could ever happen at your specific restaurant depends on where you live, the structure of your wages, whether you could persuade the staff and management to set up this type of tip pool, and on and on. If there's anything I learned from talking to these friendly lawyers, it's that I shouldn't dispense legal advice and that everything varies based on where you live. But it could be worth looking into, depending on where you live—some exclusions apply, see store for details, yada yada.

Another option that some restaurants have tried is nixing tips entirely and switching to a mandatory service fee. That means a standard rate gets added to every bill and customers don't have to leave a tip. Then all workers are non-tipped employees and that service fee can be applied to their wages however the restaurant owners want. Now some servers don't like this system at all, and sometimes customers don't either. A few restaurants tried the mandatory-service thing and switched back. Still, depending on how fancy or progressive there restaurant where you work is, it could be worth floating that idea to management. Just be prepared to duck and cover.

At the end of the day, BB, only you can decide what's right for you and your life and your family. If you feel like better pay just isn't possible where you live, then that's a shitty, hard-ass reality. It's a reality with no good answer, no matter what kind of low-wage job you have. You might have to move. You might have to borrow money to start a small business of your own. You might have to lean on your family for money while you switch careers. You might have to take a boring, soul-crushing job that pays a little better. If it's take it or leave it, and honestly can't take it anymore, you might just leave it. Best of luck. I'm rooting for you. Keep in touch, okay?

Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: