Which brings us to you.
Though young cooks currently find themselves in the rare position of having leverage to demand better pay and perks and that their bosses don’t throw hot skillets of oil at them, as I mentioned before, there are not exactly piles of money sitting around in the restaurant industry waiting to be handed out. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that chefs and head cooks mean annual wage was around $46,000 nationally, which is below the national mean annual wage of $48,000. And that’s for people at the top of the restaurant food chain.
So if kitchens are going to make serious strides to better compensate their staffs, and continue making that melted raclette cheese scraped table-side onto cauliflower rice you’re currently “obsessed” with, they will be forced to increase costs. And that means that, in the future, your $14 grass-fed cheeseburger might turn into an $18 grass-fed cheeseburger.
Whether or not you’ll be OK with that is a source of intense debate amongst the restaurant people I spoke to.
“On one hand, I feel like the simple solution is just to elevate prices and just be super transparent explaining it to the customers,” says Finn. “But then again, most of those customers are usually salaried, and the last time they were making hourly wages, $10 an hour was great, so I’m not really sure how they’d react.”
Recently, down in Tennessee, I tried to find out. Sitting at the bar at Little Octopus, a hip East Nashville restaurant, I awkwardly intruded on the conversation the three women in their late 20s were having next to me.
“Excuse me, ladies,” I said, as they looked up, seemingly bracing for a cheesy pick-up line. But instead of telling them that I want to live in their socks so I can be with them every step of the way, I asked if they’d consider a hypothetical question: Would you support a 20% increase in food prices if it meant paying the cooks and dishwashers in the back a fair, living wage?
At first they all quietly stared at me and one another, as if trying to figure out why a union organizer would be eating ceviche next to them, until I explained a little more about why I was curious. One of the women, Kristin, spoke up. “I’m all for paying fair wages, but if prices across the board go up 20%... ” she trailed off for a second. “I’d still want to go to these places, but I don’t think I’d go as often.”
Her friend, who didn’t give her name, chimed in somewhat conspiratorially, “To be honest, I’d probably only be upset about it if someone else pointed it out.”
Kardosh thinks he’s seen a preview of what’s to come nationally if restaurants raise their prices in San Francisco’s Health Mandate surcharge (a fee SF restaurants add to the bill to help cover the city-mandated cost of giving their workers health care), and it’s more in line with the second Nashville woman’s comment. “People were so pissed when the mandate passed, and there were stories in the news about it, and we started adding the surcharge to the bill,” he told me over an extremely fancy donut at a breakfast spot in the Outer Sunset neighborhood. “They would demand to speak to the manager, and claim they were taking it out of the tip, and all sorts of apoplectic behavior. But a year later, they adapted to it like everything else and now 95 percent of guests tip on top of it.”
He bites into the posh donut. “Most people are decent and honest and good, and will come around to price increases as long as they make sense.”
He chews for a second and looks at me. “So I guess the question is: Do they?”