They say too many cooks can spoil the broth. But in cities like San Francisco and Boston, restaurants are facing a shortage of kitchen staff, caused largely by low pay.
The problem can be traced to the wage gap between tipped and nontipped employees. In an effort to bridge that gap and attract kitchen workers, some restaurants are now trying an experiment: revenue sharing.
You can see that experiment play out at Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, a Jewish deli in Cambridge, Mass. On the day we visited, the post-lunch crowd noshed on knishes, pastrami and chopped liver, which is made by line cooks like Marvin Bonilla.
Bonilla loves his job — but there’s a “but.” On average at Mamaleh’s, those who work in the front of the house and earn tips make twice as much as do staffers in the kitchen.
“If we get busy or we are slow, we make the same, but for these people upfront, if they get busy they make more money,” Bonilla says. “And then you see who really does the hard job. The back kitchen is the part of the kitchen that’s making [all the] food.”
Restaurant owners say the wage gap is at the root of a shortage of kitchen workers. To address the problem, Mamaleh’s is one of at least a dozen restaurants in the Boston area to adopt revenue sharing.
It varies from restaurant to restaurant, but the mechanics of revenue sharing are simple: take a percentage of sales and funnel it to kitchen workers.
At Mamaleh’s, they’re experimenting with raising prices and dedicating 5 percent of food sales to kitchen staff.
Restaurateur Keith Harmon is trying a different approach at his three Jamaica Plain, Mass., restaurants. There, customers pay a 3 percent fee on all sales that goes directly to the kitchen staff.
The goal, says Harmon, is to help close the wage gap so that “the busier the restaurant is, the better it is for everyone who is working in the back of house.”
And he wanted a way to close the wage gap without eliminating tipping entirely.
“We didn’t want to alienate the tipped staff to take care of the nontipped staff, and so we came up with this pennies-on-the-dollar approach,” he says.
Before revenue sharing, tipped employees earned about 2 1/2 times as much as back-of-the-house staff, according to Harmon. Now, that pay gap has been cut by a third.
Harmon admits revenue sharing is only a partial solution, but he calls it a highly effective form of “duct tape.”
Revenue sharing seems to be confined to a handful of wealthy cities on the East and West coasts. Officials at restaurant associations in Texas and Pennsylvania, for example, say they don’t know of anyone implementing the model in their states.
But it’s taking off in California. Sharokina Shams, vice president of communications for the California Restaurant Association, calls revenue sharing “the emerging new norm,” especially in the Bay Area.
“The costs of operating a business in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, are astronomically high,” Shams says. That has forced restaurants to experiment with new ways to raise revenue to pay staff, she says.
Back at Mamaleh’s in Cambridge, the higher prices are fine by regular Dan Meyers.
“I’m happy to pay another 20 percent — no really, I mean it,” Meyers says. “It’s a great thing, and it shows that the people running the place — it’s not just lip service. They actually care about their people.”
Mamaleh’s also cares about keeping its kitchen staffed. The restaurant is constantly hiring, and its management hopes revenue sharing will reduce turnover.
Meanwhile, the only thing line cook Bonilla is turning over is the potato latkes. He is beaming at the idea that his pay will go up by as much as $3 per hour.
“We are all happy about that,” Bonilla says, adding, “This is one of the best places I’ve ever worked in my life.”
And then there are the fringe benefits: all the matzo balls, chopped liver and latkes a line cook could want.