In 1993, I woke up one fine afternoon and found myself wearing a Navy Blue suit, standing in a 200-seater restaurant in Mumbai … apparently I had taken a job as the Restaurant Manager and so there I was supervising 17 people segregated as follows: one accountant cum cashier, seven waiters, two captains, one bus-boy, one kitchen supervisor, one chef (he preferred being called a cook), three cooks, one bouncer (for the attached pub), and two cleaners.
The bus-boy was 18. I was 22. Everybody else was older. The average age of the waiters was 33, the oldest was 47. All of the captains and waiters were married, most of them had two kids each.
It was a mighty fine restaurant and I soon had my first lesson on how the Economy works in the lives of restaurant: It was driven by the Roster and Table Allocation – these two sheets of paper governed the lives of the waiters. Within two weeks, I realised two of the older waiters were not taking any leave, they were working even on lean days when business was really slow. By the fourth week, I understood why when the senior-most waiter came grumbling about not getting bigger tables – the bigger tables (6-8 seaters) increased the chances of a waiter getting big tips, if they served really well. Then, there were the regulars, customers who came in every week, and each waiter seemed to have a a few regulars because they knew what they wanted, the level of service required, and the corresponding amount of tip that would be left.
All the waiters hated the two-seaters. These were usually occurred by young couples, who sat for two hours, had a coffee each, and left nothing or a few bucks in tips.
By the end of the second month, after a manic Tuesday when we were short-staffed and over-customered, the bus-boy made it to waiter and everything changed. The regular waiters did not have to wait the 2-seaters because the bus-boy was thrilled serving the enter row of 2-seaters by himself (5 tables) – it fetched him 20-30 bucks in tips during lunch and 50-100 bucks at dinner time (that’s when lone drinkers came in to nurse a drink or two before grabbing a good meal after a long hard day).
The waiters’ salaries ranged from 1500-2000 bucks – if they didn’t make the 100-300 in tips after 9-10 hours of hard, physical work, (and being nice to people all the time), I don’t see how they could manage to take care of their families needs. And I knew what it meant to be waiting tables. You see, much before I became a restaurant manager, I (like all my classmates from Dadar Catering College) worked evenings (after 9-5 college) and weekends as a waiter. Some hotels paid us 40 bucks and a meal for 6 hours of work, some hotels paid us 50-75 bucks and a meal. And we all kept an eye on the ‘Waiting’ opportunities at big fat weddings, or Foreign Consulates or the biggest Catering firms because those Waitings paid anything between 150-500 and tips. And for a middle class student working through hotel management school, every buck counted.
It wasn’t until 1996 when I shifted to Pune that I had to start eating out regularly. Here, I discovered the salaries of waiters ranged from 600-3000 a month, and attrition was very high with staff moving restaurants frequently. The fancier restaurants and five-stars paid better, of course, but it wasn’t easy getting into those.
Captains didn’t have it any better. They had a slightly better pays and in some places, got cuts of the tips if they were pooled. Pooling of tips has always been a two-edged sword – the best and hardest working waiters usually feel they are short-changed, because typically, a really good waiter could make an average of 1000 bucks in tips a day. In some – very rare – establishments, the kitchen staff also got a percentage of pooled tips.
All this was, of course, before the era of Service Charges, which by itself should have dramatically changed the lives of waiters and captains and kitchen staff. I have seen it work very well and evolve in the United States – a Service Charge or Gratuity is par for the course in the USA and waiters (male and female) are so customer-service oriented that you leave paying not just the Gratuity as part of the bill but also Tips because the service personnel provide banter, local information and engaging conversation along with your food and drinks.
But it didn’t change much in India due to various reasons, mainly in the way Service Charge is perceived by establishment owners, the general customers, and of course, the government.
So while there has been a good bit of discussion and clarifications in recent weeks, between hoteliers, consultants, government, media, and the general public, on Service Charge, I couldn’t help thinking that it might help to get a perspective on why the service you get in a restaurant maybe good or bad, and how important that tip or service charge may be to the lives of the people who provide that service. There is no fixed formula on what works in a restaurant – tips at customer discretion, billed Service Charge, pooled tips, higher salaries, individual tips – it depends on the management and which method works.
The question is how does the broader society perceive the value of service. You see, everything in a society is connected and relevant to other parts directly or indirectly. The maid in your house may leave the job for better pay because her waiter-husband has had a run of 2-3 months without decent tips. Or, the young waiter at your favourite restaurant might be a student working their way through college.
Sanjay Mukherjee is a Pune-based business consultant. He is Founder of RedstoneSummerhill and The Mountain Walker and also serves as Chief Strategy Advisor for the Hong Kong-based learning technology company, Peak Pacific Limited