The restaurant server problem

La Playita Mexican Cafe in downtown Hermosa Beach distinguishes itself from the area’s many other Mexican restaurants with its long term crew of servers. Enrique Ramirez has been serving (and wisecracking with) customers at La Playita for 28 years. Lorenzo, Martin, Cookie and Fatima have also been at La Playita for a similarly long time. Photo by Kevin Cody

Modern restaurant challenges echo a century-old complaint

by Richard Foss

To a historian who has been following the ups and downs of the dining industry, the biggest controversy in that field has a familiar ring. There are shortages of people willing to work, say restaurant owners, and those who do take a job are ready to move on as soon as another establishment offers more money. Employers try to hang on to the talented people they have, but what was once a respected profession is now regarded by many as a dead end job. Some establishments try to make up for the loss of skilled people by using new technology, but this brings its own problems.

The restaurateurs’ complaints aren’t new ones. At the beginning of the 20th century the exact same complaints were circulating, not about restaurant servers, but about household servants. At that time, it was expected that any middle class household would have at least one or two minions as maids-of-all-work, cooks, child-carers, and whatever else was needed.

This system faltered in the late Victorian era due to reduced immigration and women seeking higher-paying office and factory work. It was a crisis for American families. The situation inspired a 1903 article in Good Housekeeping Magazine called “The Servant Problem.” Author Jane Addams wrote disapprovingly of domestic employees trying “to force the issue, first by staying away, and secondly by demanding shorter hours and more free time.” The author did not suggest that servants should actually be given more free time or money, but that their work should be made more bearable by adopting efficient methods, and by employers being kinder to their staff.

That publication gave a name to the phenomenon, and if the suggested solutions in that original article were less than bold, they started a conversation that continued for decades. In 1926, author Christine Frederick published a response called “Solving the Servant Problem” with bold ideas: give servants reliable hours, daily time for themselves, bonuses for overtime, and a paid vacation for those who had been there for at least a year. Frederick and others called this system “scientific household management,” and pointed to advances in technology that not only made the lives of servants easier, but actually made financial sense. Prices were falling on electric and gas stoves, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and other appliances, so human labor could be reduced. The widespread introduction of automobiles made shopping and dining out easier, and the availability of canned and packaged foods simplified cooking at home. Science had come to the rescue, and visionaries looked forward to the day when the drudgery of cooking and housework might be given over entirely to machines.

You might think about this history the next time you’re scanning a QR code in a restaurant so you can order with your phone. The person who brings your food and refills drinks can serve two or three times as many tables than would be possible without that technology, which saves on labor costs. Though front of house salaries are a small part of the bottom line at most eateries, the savings means your tab will be a little smaller than it would be otherwise. The fact that most diners continue to tip the same as they do at full-service restaurants means the staff are probably going home happier. At places where the price point is modest, and a high level of interaction is not expected, this works well.

This strategy is less popular at stylish establishments where diners expect staff to consult on food and drink with a thorough knowledge of the menu. Unfortunately, people who have the experience to do this well are hard to find even at higher wages. Many changed professions during the pandemic, and those who stayed have a lot of leverage with their current employers. In middle-priced restaurants, managers are experimenting with technology, trying to find the right balance between personal care and efficiency.

It can take time for systems to evolve and for everyone to figure out how to use them. This was true in the early decades of the 20th century just as it is now. As fewer middle-class households had servants, a whole class of jokes evolved about housewives who were incompetent cooks and homemakers. Nothing in their lives had prepared them to do these jobs rather than to manage the staff that did them, and the new gadgets that were supposed to help bear the load were often primitive and prone to breakdowns. As the decades passed and fewer and fewer homes had servants, housewives must have longed for the previously unappreciated people who had done all that work in the background.

The rapid automation of restaurants has given diners an appreciation of the value of servers in the same way, and highlighted the potentials and limitations of systems designed to supplement or replace humans. We’re still in the adoption period of those technologies, so sometimes the staff spends as much time explaining how the system works as they would taking an order. Those who are visually impaired and can’t see text on a phone screen clearly are suddenly helpless, and even those who can see well can be prone to mistakes as they try to hit tiny buttons to order their food. When servers are forced to spend extra time solving these problems, it impacts every table in their area, and with few fellow workers it’s hard for someone else to step in.

Almost nobody in the 1920s liked being without their household staff, and almost nobody now prefers automated ordering. As a food writer I hear plenty of complaints about how this has impacted the dining experience. I have mentioned the topic in my reviews, and at times restaurateurs have accused me of a lack of sympathy for their plight. I do understand that they are in a bind, with staff harder to find and costs rising. This is particularly acute at the lower price levels. In the interest of making things better for everyone, I offer these prescriptions:

  1. Menus for automated ordering have to be more descriptive than those are designed for server interaction. A good server is more than just an order taker – they’re a guide who can help people with allergies and other dietary restrictions, let them know how spicy an item is, and explain unfamiliar items. If you’re removing that conversation, you need to give the information elsewhere. Consider giving diners a full size menu with accurate descriptions of the food and all the ingredients that might be added or subtracted, even if they have to order their meal online.
  2. At all but the simplest fast food places, the online ordering system should be configured so people may order starters, then main courses, then dessert, without closing out their tab. At most places using automated ordering now, diners order their whole meal, and items come in whatever order they’re ready. People who order fried items that are best consumed hot and fresh want to enjoy them at their peak, rather than have them arrive with everything else, so that half their food is consumed lukewarm and unappetizing. In addition to making things more pleasant for diners, restaurants have an incentive – they’re less likely to sell that slice of pie or second glass of wine if a diner has to start a new tab to do it.
  3. At larger restaurants using online apps, consider having one employee who just helps customers with ordering, so that a server who is pinned down at a table answering questions doesn’t affect their whole section. This allows the servers to focus on getting those plates out, and can speed up the whole operation.
  4. The menu people see when they come to the restaurant should be the same as the one on the establishment’s website. Any differences, such as daily specials, should be clearly identified. I have seen diners argue with staff members when they couldn’t find items on the menu that they could see online. This is frustrating for everyone concerned. If the online menu does not match what they’ll see when they arrive, make them aware of that both online and in the app.

These four suggestions won’t solve every problem with online restaurant ordering, but they’ll start the process. It will take time for diners to cope with the new technology, and for restaurateurs to deal with the change in work flow in a business that has remained fairly static for over a century.

There are still households in America with maids, valets, and other staff, and far into the future there will still be restaurants where servers take time at each table to provide the benefit of their knowledge and professional training. I hope that there are always eateries at every price level where customers can experience the warm feeling of being cared for by pros, or by amateurs who make up for inexperience with their enthusiasm. If technology and those personal touches can be melded using thoughtfully designed and managed systems, the

management, customers, and the staff themselves all win. ER


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