Gastro-Cantina 2010

I was looking for something the other day, and stumbled on this — a promotional menu for the opening of El Take It Easy, in 2010.

It gave me two simultaneous thoughts:

1) I love this menu. I would eat the hell out of this restaurant. I can recall the taste of every dish listed, they were really delicious too. Max was cooking some seriously great food, and this menu was just beautiful.

2) What the actual fuck were we thinking? I doubt that this weird-ass menu would sell in the most progressive food markets in the country, let alone in a city known for a conservative palate and cultural insularity. Seriously, Porter.

So, anyway, to all the folks who came to this restaurant, and the hundred or so loyal regulars we had, I can’t express our gratitude enough. You were truly exceptional.

Live and learn, I reckon.

On The New No-Tipping Wave

Since we moved to the Bay Area about three years ago, my answer to the question “if we could eat one meal at any restaurant in San Francisco, which would it be?” has been answered more often than not with Heirloom Cafe. I like to say it’s SF’s best restaurant that doesn’t get much attention; it’s not impossible that it may just be the City’s best restaurant. Every time I go there, the food, wine, hospitality and vibe are immensely enjoyable. Notably, it’s small (50 seats), and owner/chef/sommelier Matt Straus is deeply involved in all aspects of the restaurant, from the back door to the front.

Matt recently posted an essay “In Defense of Tipping”, which is worth a thoughtful read. I’d encourage you take a few minutes to check it out.

I tend to agree with almost everything Matt wrote in his piece. The only difference I have is that, based on my experiences replacing tipping with a service charge, I suspect he’d find it easier to achieve his goals for his restaurant and service team if they operated in an industry where tipping wasn’t the principal method of compensation. That said, 1) I could be wrong, and 2) he knows more about the dynamics of his particular restaurant than I ever can.

More importantly, Matt is correctly, I think, sussing out what the new wave of no-tipping models means for the industry, and, like most sea change in the contemporary world, the results will not tend to favor people on the ground.

When Union Square Hospitality Group or Joe’s Crab Shack adopts a no-tipping model, their prime motivation is not to create a more humane industry; their motivation is to create a business model that will scale to a quite large level.

Large businesses depend for their success on the fundamental unimportance of each employee. It’s just the math of the thing. If you’ve ever worked in a large business you don’t need an explanation of it.

By eliminating tipping, the large business can exert fine-grained control over the take-home pay of front-of-house employees. Yes, partially that allows the businesses to accommodate raises in the minimum wage and redistribute money to the back of the house; more importantly to larger companies, this model allows them to have many more “entry-level” (low paid) employees per higher-compensated (managerial) employee.

The giveaway here is that these bigger companies are not eliminating tipping in favor of a line-item service charge which will be distributed to their team on top of the minimum wage; instead they are choosing a “service compris” (service included) model where they raise prices by 15-20% and request that the diner not tip. The principal change here is to eliminate all transparency, so that neither the diner nor the server has any insight into how the money is being distributed.

Note that it is the transparency of the tipping (or service charge) system that is the real problem for capital here. The minimum wage increase, and wage inequities between cooks and servers, are providing cover for big players in the industry to assert control over a revenue stream they’ve coveted for a long time; their first order of business is to remove this revenue stream from public view. I think it’s clear that the endgame here will have most restaurant jobs be comparable to working at Wal-Mart. That’s just how profit is maximized; and companies beyond a certain scale don’t really know how to do anything but attempt to maximize profit.

I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that service compris is itself bad; it’s just that larger companies are using it as a tool to change the industry in ways that will prove to be negative. For that reason, I hope that, as tipping recedes, more restaurants choose the service-line item model that Comal and The Advocate use, instead.

Mexican Wine Country, 2015

It’s been a while now since I was living part-time in Ensenada, and for most of the last couple years I’ve barely had a chance to visit.  Fortunately I’ve recently had occasion to visit a couple times, and things are as great as ever.


Boules has moved into town, into the space behind La Contra wine store where Parque reataurant used to be.  Javi has re-worked the patio into a crazy-fun outdoor restaurant in the middle of the heart of downtown.

 

Ryan Stein has opened a restaurant at Adobe Guadalupe, called El Jardin.

 

Ryan’s roasted quail at El Jardin

Tiradito “Bufadora” at El Jardin

 

Lamb at El Jardin

 

 


Octopus at El Jardin

 

 

The Jurel (yellowtail) tiradito at Muelle 3 still is the freshest kind of awesome.

 


Drew Deckman’s octopus dish at Deckman’s en El Mogor

 

 

Yellowtail (if I remember correctly) collar at Deckman’s en El Mogor

 

 

 


The patio at Laja

 

 

Our great friend Andres Blanco, formerly of Laja, has moved on to managing the Cuatros Cuatros property, where you’ll find this bar overlooking Salsipuedes Bay.

 

The bar at Troika, a casual outdoor gastropub at Vena Cava winery (on the La Villa del Valle property)

Vena Cava winery at La Villa del Valle.

Of course, as usual I have no photos of  Manzanilla because of the late hour and my blood alcohol content.  So, you know, as great as always.

A Simple Glassware System for Beer

In an earlier post I alluded to how, as an enjoyer of beer, I’d like to see more places in the Bay Area serve beer in better glasses. It’s a bit off to me that, in a culture that values food and flavor as much as the Bay does, so many otherwise thoughtful places still serve beer in the American shaker pint — a glass that does nothing to enhance the character or enjoyment of craft beer. 

On the other hand, of course, nearly every beer style has its own “appropriate” glassware, which means that a bar or restaurant with even a small rotating tap list would have to stock dozens and dozens of different types of glasses to stay “correct”, and very few places could justify that on an operational basis.

The cost and space requirements of having a gazillion types of glasses was a concern for us while opening The Half Orange last year. This led us to develop the following, simple and not very expensive glassware system. I think that this glassware protocol — combined with keeping draft lines clean, using a glass rinser, and training all beer servers on a proper pour with head — makes for a phenomenal beer drinking experience at only the slightest additional cost compared to using American shaker pints. I’m sharing it here as a template that any restaurant or bar can use to improve the beer drinking experience for their customers without having to make many operational changes.

GLASS STYLES AND BEER STYLES

Historically, most beer styles developed slowly in specific towns or regions. Presumably the glass styles in those areas developed along with the beers, and the end result is that, in the broadest sense, the “proper” glassware for a given beer is the glass used by the people in the area that beer style comes from, when they drink that style if beer.

Fortunately, because the glass and the beer style evolved together, this historic pairing of beer and glass usually makes for an ideal drinking experience. For instance, the long narrow glass of the Pilsner beer functions like a Champagne flute — the minimal surface area helps retain carbonation and a cold serving temperature, which in turn highlights both the dry crispness of the beer and its subtle aromatics. Meanwhile the tulip shape of the Belgian style allows the drinker to more fully experience its aromatic complexity while also allowing the beer to “open up” in the same way a wine does when released from its bottle.

Now, in the current craft beer world, there are many beers being brewed that don’t easily map to a historic style — either the beer is so changed from the base style as to be effectively different (i.e., West Coast IPA), it’s a hybrid style (IPA brewed with Belgian yeast), or it’s something so far out of left field that it’s hard to place (Ale Industries’ delicious “Spring Fling” iced mocha beer).

Even in this case, however, the basic way a beer server would usually select a glass is to map the beer as best as possible to a known style, and then serve the beer in the glass associated with that style. And this method works really well! In my experience, using this method almost always gets you to a glass that is either the best for serving that beer, or very good for serving that beer. (I will confess that Spring Fling stumped me to the point that I had to do a taste test on different glasses before serving the beer; the Belgian tulip won out purely on the basis of taste experience.)

GLASSWARE TYPES

At your friendly big-city beer palace, it’s not unusual for them to maintain dozens and dozens of styles of glasses. Sometimes they’ll even buy the glasses from the brewery, including the logo of the beer on the glass so you know you’re getting the brewery’s choice. I think that’s fun, it’s a treat to drink a Hopf hefeweizen from a Hopf glass. (That said, American craft breweries in my experience don’t tend to pair their branded glassware with their beer styles, they usually just have one style they like.)

But having a raft of different glassware types isn’t really practical for most of us, so I’m just going to focus on a few important ones.

THE AMERICAN SHAKER PINT

  

First of all, here is the bane of my beer-drinking existence — the ubiquitous American shaker pint.

This glass is beloved by bars for the following reasons: it’s hella cheap, it’s strong and resistant to breaking, it stacks very high and requires little footprint, and it’s essential for making mixed drinks (that’s why it’s called a “shaker” pint, it’s designed to be part of a shaker in cocktail making). Note that none of these reasons include “it makes a great beer drinking experience.” It doesn’t, it’s just the worst.

The shaker pint maximizes oxygen exposure, causing delicate beers to lose their carbonation and cold beers to warm up quickly; it minimizes head retention, killing the aromatics of bigger or more complex beers; and the thick glass also reduces the flavor of the beer (I don’t understand this on a scientific level, but I notice it with thick wine glasses too, I think it’s something about how much of your palate can come in contact with the liquid when you’re mostly sucking on a windshield).

If you’re going to make one change to your glassware program, simply replacing American shaker pints with any thin rimmed glass will make the biggest positive difference.

Anecdote: before local craft beer was ubiquitous in Mexican wine country, many of my favorite restaurants would serve their beer — all domestic macrobrews such as Victoria or Modelo — in large wine glasses. Even this simple substitution made for a superior drinking experience to the American shaker pint, and depending on the likelihood of customer resistance I’d recommend that wine-centric places just serve beer in wine glasses, if the alternative due to space reasons is the shaker pint.

PUB GLASS, PILSNER AND TULIP

What we settled on for our simple glassware program is to use three archetypical glasses: 1) the English pub glass, 2) the Pilsner glass, and 3) the tulip. Each glass represents one of the three major classes of beers, respectively: 1) English style ales and their West Coast style descendants; 2) German styles and by extension all lagers; and 3) Belgian styles.

Additionally, these three classes of beer correspond to the three major categories of brewing yeast: ale yeast of the non-Belgian type, lager yeast, and Belgian yeast. Unsurprisingly, the glassware from each region tends to highlight the best parts of the characteristic beer brewed from that region’s yeast. So, lagers’ delicate flavors are protected by the Pilsner glass, while the bigger bowl of the tulip highlights the complex aromatics produced by Belgian yeasts.

 

 Left to right: pub glass, Pilsner, tulip

Because these glasses map indirectly to different yeast, we have re-named the pub glass and tulip in-house as “ale glass” and “Belgian glass”. Probably I should just go ahead re-name the Pilsner glass as a “lager glass” to complete the process. This nomenclature makes it easier for the team to remember which beer goes in which glass — if the beer is an ale, it goes in the ale glass. If it’s brewed with lager yeast — even if it’s a black beer like Death & Taxes — it goes in a pilsner glass. If it’s a Belgian style, including sours and fruit beers, it goes in the Belgian glass.

Certain mapping gets a little more complex. Hefeweizen style wheat-beers, being a German style beer typically served in tall skinny glasses, gets a Pilsner. Kölsch is an ale brewed in the style of a light German lager, and we give it a Pilsner glass; while California Common is a lager brewed at ale temperatures, and we also give it a Pilsner glass. In both of these latter cases, the delicate nature of the beer trumps the question of whether it’s at base an ale or lager.

Other one-off style choices I’ve made: Scottish styles, traditionally served in a Thistle glass, gets a tulip on the basis that it’s the closest shape. Belgian-style witbier get a tulip, too, in my world, even though a Pilsner might be just as appropriate. I like the way that the tulip glass emphasizes the spice notes of the witbier (and also of Saisons).

We chose tulips that are a little smaller than our other glasses — they are about 13.2 ounces rather than the 16 ounces of our ale and Pilsner glasses. Once the head is calculated out, our tulip pour is about 11 ounces (we advertise it as 10) and our ale and pilsner pour is about 15 ounces (we advertise it at 14). I like having smaller tulips because many Belgian-style beers tend to be a little more intense — and a little more expensive — than other styles, so a slightly smaller portion size is more enjoyable both for the drinking and the wallet.

For similar reasons, we’ll put almost any beer over 8% ABV in a tulip, even if it’s an IPA type or a lager (typically that would be a double or triple IPL). I just think when you’re drinking a 10% beer, 11 ounces per serving is plenty, it’s almost as much alcohol as two glasses of European white wine. Plus beers this strong tend to have strong, complex aromatics and show best at warmer temperatures, both of which play to the strengths of the tulip glass.

DOING IT YOURSELF

The specific glassware we use are the following: 

English Pub (Ale) Glass: Libbey 14806HT Nonic 16 oz pub glass

Pilsner Glass: Cardinal 4900 Arcoroc 16 oz Martigues

Tulip: Bormioli Executive 13.2 oz tulip

You can typically buy these glasses via special order from any restaurant supply or tableware store.

Additionally, I recommend always using a glass rinser before serving. You can get these through Micromatic or your draft system installer can get it (and install it) for you.

Also, of course, no matter how good your glassware is, you’ll still have quality problems if your lines are dirty or your team isn’t pouring beers well. So it’s important to stay on top of those issues as well. But if you get all three of these elements in place, I guarantee that your customers will notice how much better their beers are!

Eleven Beer Pairings

1. Salad / Saison
2. Cheeseburger / Marzen
3. Chocolate dessert / Stout
4. Street tacos / Pilsner
5. Stinky cheese / Dark Belgian Strong
6. Korean fried chicken / West Coast IPA
7. Pepperoni pizza / Alt-bier
8. Wurst / Kolsch
9. Steak / ESB
10. Sashimi / Witbier
11. Donuts / Porter

A Few Thoughts On Bay Area Beer

One of the most fun things for me, in moving to the Bay Area from San Diego in 2013, has been learning the ins and outs of a new beer region. We had cut our teeth with craft beer at the Linkery in 2005, and in many ways I think we came of age along with the San Diego beer scene, which is now generally considered one of the best in the country.

Leaving San Diego for the Bay, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, on the average, I prefer the beer the being brewed in the Bay Area to the beers of my hometown. That’s not to say that I think the beers here are better than San Diego’s, just that they suit my taste more. It seems that in the Bay Area there’s more of an emphasis on food-friendliness and in beers that work as part of larger context — which makes sense given that the food scene here is one of the best in the world. The fact that we enjoy the beer here so much was one of the big reasons we had so much enthusiasm for opening The Half Orange, which aims to be a craft beer destination celebrating food and beer (and also wine and cider) as a complete experience. (I would be remiss in not adding that the support of several Bay Area beer luminaries, including Sayre Piotrkowski and Dave McLean, was also an important factor.)

That said, there are some challenges. Until recently, I’ve felt like there were pretty big gaps in availability of styles here, with some important types of beer either not being brewed in the region or only being brewed by breweries that struggle with quality control. Additionally, some of the better, more established breweries are totally maxed out and not taking new accounts. But for the most part we’ve been able to keep a pretty broad list without having to bring in many beers from out of town.

Recently, though, a few breweries have come into our universe that have really, in my opinion, fleshed out the offerings here. Cleophus Quealy in San Leandro, Fieldwork Brewing in Berkeley, Social Kitchen and Brewery in San Francisco, along with the expanded production of Magnolia in San Francisco have brought a wide array of styles and flavor profiles into our reach, all at world-class quality. Now, with these breweries added to the dozen or so top-notch breweries we were already buying from, it’s easy for us to put together a phenomenal, balanced draft list all from local producers who self-distribute (an important ant detail for product freshness and condition). This really is a great time to be local beer drinker in the Bay Area, particularly in the East Bay.

That said, there are three developments I hope to see soon in the Bay Area, from the perspective of both a publican and a beer drinker.

1) I wish more places would clean their draft system lines more often. I often order a good beer at local establishments and find it undrinkable due to the condition of the lines. Surely this greatly slows the market growth of good beer — this is why too many people think local beer is just “hipster hype.” They haven’t tasted what makes local beer great. I’m not alone in thinking this is a major issue, in the last couple months two local breweries have hired line cleaning services to clean the lines on the systems where they are on tap, for places that don’t otherwise do it. I think this is a great (and essential) move. Eventually, though, the market of beer drinkers will start forcing drinkery owners to keep their taps in good condition — if one pub won’t serve great-tasting beer, the people will move to one that will.

2) I’d like to see more establishments move away from serving beer in American shaker pint glasses, and into thinner-walled glassware whose shape accentuates the flavors of the beer. As a beer drinker, I think the improvement in the quality of the beer-drinking experience with great glassware, is a big deal. That’s why I often choose to drink beer at places like Hog’s Apothecary, Commonwealth Micropub, and Magnolia Smokestack — places that serve beer in thoughtfully selected glassware.

3) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to see more non-beer-centric places — such as neighborhood joints, dive bars and casual restaurants — move beyond just the Sierra Nevada/Anchor Steam and Lagunitas IPA/Racer 5 two-local-drafts combo, and open up a few more taps of local beer that represent a wider arrange of styles and breweries. This, I think, is when we’ll know that the beer culture here has really taken off: when you can walk into any bistro or corner bar and expect a rotating selection of expertly made, delicious local beers in multiple styles, served in great glassware and in excellent condition.

I don’t know, maybe it seems far-fetched that this all could happen anytime soon. My guess, though, is that it will, and it will be fun to enjoy the changes.

San Diego Exit Interview, Part 2

In December I sat down with Jed Sundwall to do the 3rd in our series of interviews that goes back to 2008. It’s funny, for whatever reason I’ve felt like my move from San Diego wasn’t complete until the last part of the interview was published. Well, now it has been, on Jed’s blog.

This interview digs pretty far into the subject that Jed and I initially bonded over all those years ago — the question of what it means for a brick-and-mortar business to use the social media and internet marketing techniques popularized by the “Web 2.0” movement in the mid-aughts.

In one part of the interview, I talk about how our adoption of those techniques propelled us into spaces that San Diego restaurants hadn’t been — and how the same techniques may also have ultimately undermined us:

I think that, as with a lot of these kinds of projects, we also discovered the limits of this approach. Which was, it became too easy to consume the Linkery without actually experiencing the Linkery…Our online presence became its own, free, content that we were delivering to people who then added their own content around it, and then they sold it one way or another, without anybody ever just fucking eating a hot dog.

I hope you find our discussion interesting and/or useful. As always, I’m grateful to Jed for taking the time and effort to tease out whatever I may have learned from my work. With this interview, I particularly enjoy that we talk a lot about the things that Jed is passionate about, and I appreciate examining the ways in which our experiences and beliefs don’t exactly match up. That’s where the real good stuff is.

San Diego Exit Interview, Part 1

In December I sat down with Jed Sundwall on the patio at Fathom Bistro, Bait and Tackle, for what we jokingly called my San Diego exit interview. You can read the first part here.

Jed and I now have a little history of these long-form interviews; this is the third one I’ve done with him in the last six years. A nice thing about this format is that Jed, being a blogger and not a professional journalist, can go as deep as he wants with the questioning, and can let the answers stand at their own length. So you can really get a feel for multiple layers of thought and emotion, that can’t be communicated within the typical format constraints of commercial food writing. Plus it helps that Jed is a talented interviewer. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this, and the forthcoming second part.

Maybe You Need To Make More Mistakes

If I had to point to the most significant thing I’ve learned in the last dozen or so years I’ve spent working as a manager, it would be acquiring a better understanding of mistakes and what they mean.

As a young software engineer managing technical groups, I buried myself in the latest thinking and writing about high-performance teams, and I was pretty confident that my approach to errors by my group was a sophisticated one. We were measuring the dimensions of our performance that mattered most to us, including error rate, and that alone helped improve our performance in those areas. If we saw an uptick of important mistakes, we talked to the people involved and investigated possible fixes to our systems. Generally speaking, we always called a mistake to the attention of the person who made it, and asked him to fix it. But we went out of our way to keep things neutral and not be accusatory. We grokked that mistakes were part of doing business and we didn’t sweat them.

Unless, of course, our company ended up shipping something with a major bug that cost a lot of money to fix. In that case, directors lost their shit, and people sometimes got fired. But whatever, we didn’t ship too many major mistakes. And we could usually fix them quickly and cheaply if we did.

When I carried this culture into the restaurant world, I learned its limitations. In the restaurant, you “ship” your work not once a month, but hundreds of times per night. And a significant error can cost not just a customer, but everyone the customer tells about her experience. With that in mind, in the cauldron of managing a busy restaurant, I reacted to errors the same way those company directors used to, when we shipped a faulty product.

I freaked out.

I should have known better. Back in the cube farms of the tech world, with my team of engineers, I was closer to the right idea. Identify, fix, tabulate, move on. But even then, I was still blind to the key question to ask about mistakes.

The money question to ask about mistakes is: how many mistakes do we want to make?

Most people in any organization, if you ask them this question, will tell you, of course we want zero mistakes.

Those people, sadly, are totally, completely, tragically wrong.

Indulge me in a quick thought experiment: suppose your organization ships a product with a significant mistake once per week.

Well, if your organization is in the business of launching billion-dollar rockets into space, that’s probably way too many mistakes. You will have to completely re-engineer your organization, and load up on people and processes to make sure you stop releasing faulty products. Or else you will not be in business.

On the other hand, if you’re running a bustling, casual neighborhood restaurant, making one significant mistake per week is also going to put you out of business — because it’s way too few mistakes. Making only one error in, say, five thousand dishes — an error rate of .0002 — is incredibly expensive and time-consuming. It means you’re staffed up several times more than you need to be, and spending a ton of money on labor, training, and quality control. You can’t do this and make your financials, at prices that anyone is going to be willing to spend.

Fortunately, in a restaurant, you don’t have to have an error rate of one in five thousand. Think about the math this way: if you patronize a casual restaurant fifty times, and order a hundred dishes, and 99 of the dishes are super delicious and one dish is incorrectly prepared, you’re going to think this is an awesome restaurant — as long as the restaurant handles its one error gracefully and fixes the situation. An error rate of one in a hundred, combined with great hospitality, is probably much closer to the ideal target for a restaurant like this.

Similarly, if you’re in the business of releasing online games that generate revenue, in which errors can be fixed in a matter of minutes or hours, one error per hundred releases might be too low. Because all those testing and QA processes are keeping revenue-generating features from hitting the market, and every day those new features wait for release costs you a lot more money than a bug fix does.

With that in mind, let’s return to the question: how many mistakes do we want to make?

To which we can add its underlying question: What is the cost of us making and fixing a mistake, versus the cost of us preventing mistakes?

Once you answer those two questions, everything else is easy. Just measure your mistakes, and change your systems if you are making too many — or if you are making too few.

Paying Rent on a Seat

When the Linkery got a little bit of national attention for our service-charge/no-tipping business model, it started a chain of events that led, among other things, to my becoming friends with Bruce McAdams and Mike von Massow of the University of Guelph.  Over lunch with them on a beautiful Toronto day, Mike, in passing, said something like (to the best of my recollection):

I’ve talked at length about this with consulting clients when I work with them on pricing. We’re not charging for the food and drink. We’re charging rent on the seat. Everything else we do, the pricing, the upselling, it’s all just a way to extract rent for the time a guest is occupying a chair in our restaurant.

The genius of this observation, in my opinion, is hard to overstate. It cuts to the quick of restaurant pricing, restaurant value, and the weird reaction restaurant operators have on hearing the words, “it’s expensive for what you get.”

To really understand the math, we need to lay out a typical restaurant operating budget. A simple model that is often used in textbooks is approximately this:

Cost of food & drink (COGS): 35% (of sales)
Labor: 35%
Rent: 5%
Operating Costs (utilities, insurance, bank fees, etc): 15%
Profit/Return on Capital: 10%

A more typical model, that we independent restaurant operators would discuss over bars in San Diego, is:

COGS 27%
Labor & Management: 33%
Rent: 10%
Operating Costs: 30%
Profit/Return on Capital: 0%

Two asides:

1) At a certain type of larger restaurant, they can get their COGS below 20%, which is a good way to make profits although not good for food quality.

2) In any circumstance, when you do a really high volume of sales — perhaps through a lot of to-go orders, or just being full from open to close — the percentage that goes to labor costs and variable costs starts to come down quite a bit and profits quickly improve. “Volume,” a friend used to say, “cures all ills.”

Back to pricing. It turns out that, once a restaurant pays for its cost of goods, labor and rent are by far its largest remaining costs. Furthermore, its other operating costs are largely fixed — specifically, they are a function of maintaining a brick-and-mortar location.

So, on the cost side, after paying for the raw product, costs are driven principally by the size of the establishment. Every hour you’re open, you need a minimum amount of people working the facility, determined by the number of seats available. Because, if you suddenly get a wave of guests, you have to take care of them.

All this means that, whether occupied or not, every seat costs money every minute.

On the revenue side, for table-service restaurants, the limiting factor is the number of seats in the restaurant. Or specifically, the amount of sales that can be generated by any seat. Sometimes guests complain that certain American restaurants are too focused on getting them out of their seat after dinner; I suppose the truth is the restaurant doesn’t care whether they stay or leave as long as they order a certain amount of food and drink per hour.

The fundamental strength of the business model of a table-service restaurant is measured by the equation:

number of seats * (seat revenue after COGS – seat cost)

The last part of that equation, seat revenue minus seat cost, has to be positive for the restaurant to work financially. The name of the game, then, is to generate as much revenue per hour per seat as you can while making it seem like your prices actually reflect the value of the goods that you’re selling. This a weird situation, right? Economically, the seller is selling the opportunity to sit in a restaurant and enjoy some food and drink; and the buyer is buying the food and drink itself!

No wonder this leads to a lot of situations where the guest feels as though she’s gotten bad value; that guest looks at what’s on her plate, or compares the retail cost of the wine or beer she ordered, or judges how satisfied she is with the culinary preparations — and meanwhile, the cost of providing those things is largely dictated by unobvious, orthoganal forces like the commercial rent market, loan rates, labor costs in the community, investor expectations, and so on.

As I pondered what Mike had said for a few weeks, it became obvious to me that there is a solution. A pricing model for restaurants that actually reflects their cost structure — and it’s totally do-able.

Food would be sold more or less at cost, perhaps with a 30% markup — as opposed to the usual ~300% markup you’d currently find. In other words, a steak that now sells for $32 in a restaurant would now sell for $11 on the menu. However, there would be a seat surcharge — a cover charge, if you will — for every second you were in the restaurant. Because, eating or not, your presence in that seat generated labor and operating costs, and you also have to pay the base rent for that square footage. When you walk in and sit at the table, the clock would start running, and when you went to pay, the seat surcharge would be added to your check.

Of course, the seat surcharge would cover labor, operating costs, and have a little added for profit.

The end result would be that you would get a hell of a deal on the food, and pay for all the other costs of the restaurant in a way that reflected your use of them.

Am I going to institute this pricing model at my next restaurant? Nope. But I do think it’s interesting to keep it mind as a possibile alternate universe, and, when I go to a restaurant, I often mentally break down my bill as though it had been itemized this way.

Because, I now understand, I wasn’t paying much for the food. I was mostly paying rent on a seat.

Meditation on a Baja Fish Taco

I endured a couple more variations of not-good fish tacos this weekend, as Katie and I continued our foolish quest to find a satisfactory scratch for our itch in the Bay Area. It’s our own damn fault, we’ve got no business eating them here, a place where the food item itself makes no sense at all.

Usually I don’t find it difficult to eat in harmony with the place that I’m at. In Southern California, we basically never ate salmon, except on the rare occasion in Ensenada when a salmon or two turned up in the downtown bay. Now that we’re in parts northern, I savor the access to wild salmon at home and in restaurants, and I only long for yellowtail on rare occasion.

But the fish taco is harder. I’ve been eating them, from Baja street stands, my whole adult life. And on a warm morning when I don’t have any pressing obligations, I jones for one. Or three.

The thing is, though, the fish taco is a genius food where it’s from. In a fishing town like Ensenada, after the high-value fish are sold to market, there is plenty of bycatch and low-value fish which stays in town, at low prices. The cheap and plentiful whitefish and angelito shark is local and tastes as fresh as it is, but it’s a bit on the boring side. So it gets beer battered and tempura’d in beautiful lard, put in a recently made corn tortilla along with cabbage and pico de gallo, and topped with crema-based white sauce and muy picante salsa. It’s an incredibly delicious street food that usually costs about a dollar, even in the higher-priced burghs of North Baja.

As soon as the dish gets transplanted to another location, it starts to fall apart, conceptually. The biggest issue is the availability, or lack thereof, of fresh, cheap, delicious fish that fries well. In the coastal cities of the western US, commercial fishing — to the extent it has not been displaced altogether — doesn’t dump a lot of cheap bycatch into the local economy. So a cook in US California who wants to serve a fish taco is faced with either 1) purchasing cheap, poor-tasting, usually farmed fish, like tilapia or 2) paying a premium for quality fish. Paying a premium is the right answer for me, of course, but when it leads to a seven dollar street taco, you start to hear complaints. A friend of mine once described this kind of fancy dish as a bourgeois insult to the idea of a taco. We’re pretty sure writing that in a review of a major advertiser is what got him fired from the local paper, but he has a point. The core purpose of a taco surely centers on making something delicious out of a tortilla and whatever else is at hand.

In San Diego, many restaurants address the lack of cheap delicious fish by making a grilled fish taco from premium fish such as yellowtail, the end result of which is clearly a high-value item but is something totally different than the Baja, batter-fried, fish taco. As for actual Baja-style fish tacos, the fish conundrum derails most US California fish tacos, from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond, before they even get started.

On top of that, we can pile on the other reasons it’s hard to get a good fish taco outside of Baja:

* Few options for good corn tortillas. In the Bay Area, for instance, the only great ones I’ve had so far are at restaurants that make and grind their own nixtamal. [UPDATE, Summer 2014: I’ve since been introduced to La Finca Tortilleria in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, who produce excellent corn tortillas.] In San Diego, the independent tortillerias are a bit better but they still are forced to trade off some quality for commercial viability.

* A general lack of commitment to high-quality frying in lard. Instead, the US industry standard frying oil is canola oil because it is cheap and industrially produced — despite the distinctive and unpleasant taste it imparts on foods fried in it.

* The fact that not many people, including professional cooks and restauranteurs, have actually tasted a fish taco in Baja they could use as a reference. As someone who has lived most of my life in the San Diego/Tijuana/Ensenada region, it’s easy for me to forget that north Baja is physically and/or mentally remote to most people, whether they be Mexican, American or from countries even further away.

With all that, it really is insane to think that there would be a good Baja style fish taco anywhere outside of Baja. And that’s great; it’s how food should be — about place, the physical and cultural landscape that produces it.

But I confess: it’s just a matter of time before I’ll be in my home kitchen, grinding nixtamal and dunking fancy white fish filets in a kettle of hot lard. Old cravings die hard.

How About a Nice Game of Chess? (A Post About Yelp)

Yelp and similar review sites are a lightning rod in the world of community-based small business owners — a world which includes almost all independent restaurants. Restaurants which, at least to the untrained eye, appear to be the bread-and-butter providers of review fodder for Yelp.

I don’t think you can find many small business owners that really like Yelp. From the perspective of most small businesses, the underlying business does all the real work, while Yelp runs a kind of high-tech “protection” racket.

Personally, my thoughts about Yelp and similar sites have evolved a little over the years. At first, I didn’t think these site would even catch on. Obviously, at least to a certain extent, I was mistaken about that. That said, I’m still convinced that Yelp reviews are far less important to any business than good word-of-mouth within a target market.

As these review sites become popular in my market, I experienced what I think every small business owner does — concern about the online reviewers who didn’t get what we were trying to do, fear that they might scare away people who would otherwise appreciate our work. This, I think, is where a lot of business owners stress out. It’s from this emotional place that we often make the mistake of engaging with the haters, in order to try to control the public discourse about our efforts.

I made that same mistake — engaging trolls and haters — not with Yelp, but in the comments section of our own blog in the first few years of the Linkery. Fortunately, however, that meant I didn’t really ever have the time to engage people on Yelp. I guess I figured that those conversations were stressful enough that I didn’t want to also help someone else make money off of them.

By 2008 I had pulled back a lot, and I had a much better understanding the ways in which Yelp and similar sites hurt both businesses and consumers. I saw that, whether an individual review is positive or negative, the real damage it does is in turning a community business into mere reviewable content. A product or service that could make a difference to the community becomes instead just grist for the review mill.

In a post on the Linkery blog, I wrote:

Some businesses are frustrated by what they read on Yelp, others are elated…. But in every case, the people are robbed of opportunities to build something better, as the mentality takes hold that it the business’ job to guess and deliver what the consumer wants, and the consumer’s job to evaluate the experience after the fact.

Over time, ignoring Yelp in particular became quite easy for me, as I saw that the vast majority of Yelpers in San Diego (where our businesses were located) weren’t interested in the kind of food we were interested in serving. Yelp San Diego came to establish itself as a platform for 1) sharing opinions about dirt cheap, late-night-style eats, 2) practicing clever/snarky writing, and 3) venting emotional/family/personal/whatever issues that have nothing to do with the business or its aims. For the last few years, Yelp has been a thing that I know exists, but doesn’t have any effect on my life.

Now that I’ve moved to San Francisco, however, I am periodically shaken alert to the presence of Yelp. I regularly meet normal, thoughtful, tasteful, persons who actually use the site to make decisions about where to eat, or who at least treat the site as relevant. It seems that Yelp has an actual presence here. Or maybe it’s just that a lot more business owners in the Bay believe it’s important to have good Yelp reviews. I’m not sure.

For years I’ve felt that the only important metric on Yelp for a business is the amount of reviews it has. The number of reviews is a marker of how many people are coming to your place; having a lot of guests is better than not having a lot of guests. But it’s really easy to find successful places with 3 starts and places that fold despite their 5 star rating. It’s also easy to find brilliant places with a bad rating, and horrible places with a great rating (particularly if they serve really cheap food). Any thoughtful person will see quickly that there’s a pretty weak correlation between reviews and quality or value.

Which means that, whatever Yelp is offering, it isn’t a consumer guide. I think to some extent Yelp is offering its users the sense of being in a community. Even more importantly, Yelp and other review sites offer their users the feeling of power over the businesses they patronize. The users think they are influencing the businesses, punishing them for their mistakes, and rewarding their quality — even though the businesses know that the reviews they get don’t correlate to service quality. In fact, the business owners see that reviews are more dependent on the reviewer than on any objective factor.

Sound like a familiar dynamic?

Billions of dollars of venture capital are spent in the tech industry, with the goal of turning community businesses into content that can be bookmarked, checked-in at, “liked”, and reviewed. This is a willful perversion of the basic principle of a business creating something of value, and selling it to a consumer. Instead there is now a parasitic third business that has stepped in, with the intent selling something else to the consumer — a powerful feeling of control over their real-life service providers. In this model, the parasitic tech business is totally agnostic about the “subject” (underlying) enterprise — restaurants and stores will come and go, but the rush of writing a one-star review after a bad experience can be repeated over and over again, forever.

The loser here, unknowingly, is the “user” — the guest or the customer. By engaging primarily with the online enterprise instead of with the in-person business, the “Yelper” perpetuates the social detachment of the very kind of enterprises — small, independent, flexible — that could easily partner with him to become an important part of his life. That local independent business, perhaps started by a neighbor with a passion for doing going work and making a difference in her community, instead is encouraged to pursue an unsustainable race to the bottom: ever-lower prices, ever-smaller margins, ever-decreasing quality. Eventually that business is no longer capable of responding to the needs of its patrons, and can only dish out the worst products at the bottomest prices.

So here’s the paradox: while good online reviews probably do help drive traffic to independent businesses, for these businesses to mature, over the years, into truly compelling entities, they have do more than just not read their reviews. They have to ignore the very framework of the review system itself.

Call it the WarGames truism: The only winning move is not to play.

Closing Thoughts on The Tipless Restaurant Series

This morning I declined an opportunity to appear on NBC’s The Today Show. It was probably the twentieth offer I’ve had in the last week to go on the air with a significant media program. I’ve declined them all, but it was particularly hard to turn down Today. Even I know that it’s a pretty big deal.

A few weeks ago, I would have thought it improbable that I would be fielding offers to appear on national television. But we’re seeing now that there’s just a lot of interest in the subject of tipping; and I’d say it’s clear that there’s a need for more discourse about it. An overwhelming number of people have been reading this blog and my pieces in Slate and Quartz about my experiences at the Linkery. I’m exceptionally grateful to all of you for the opportunity to share what I’ve learned on the subject.

I’m also humbled and touched by the many people who have emailed me about their personal experiences, as guests, as servers, as cooks and dishwashers, and as restauranteurs. And I’m quite excited for the restauranteurs who’ve told me they’re going to go down the same path we did — I trust and hope it will be as positive for you as it was for us. (Relatedly, Vinland sure looks like my cup of tea, I can’t wait to check it out when it opens.)

All that said, while I support reforming tipping culture, the point of this blog is not about tipping. Reforming tipping wasn’t the point of my time in restaurants, either. Yes, we did our best to develop an alternate system, one that preserved as much respect as possible for everyone in the building, from the guest to the server to the cook to the dishwasher. I’m proud of what we accomplished with that; as far as I know we were the first to prove the viability of such a system.

But the reason we implemented the new system wasn’t because we wanted to reform tipping. The reason for our system was to put everyone in the best position to contribute their gifts to an exceptional project. We hoped to bring some special food to our community, and to help build a special community around that food. To whatever extent we succeeded, that success had to be built on a foundation of non-exploitation, between us and our guests, between our front-of-house and back-of-house, between us and our farmers, between our farmers and their animals. In moving to a more straightforward system, we were doing our best to create a context in which good things could happen on every level.

And it’s true that nothing about what we did, or how we did it, was perfect. That would have been impossible — everything we did was the result of intentions and efforts by human beings, and humans don’t do perfect very well. But we learned over time to keep our eyes on the prize. The prize was not to change how people thought about tipping, instead it was to do our best to create an environment where all of us could best experience food, community and love.

That’s in the end what inspires me, and as tempting as it is to be on national TV, I can’t see becoming the media’s go-to “Tipping Guy” being a step in the right direction. But I do have a few things I’m itching to share, things I’ve learned or dreamed up, that some of you might find fun, or even occasionally helpful. That’s what this blog is for, and I hope you’ll keep checking in, if it suits you.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Postscipt 4: On Tipshaming

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

“Tipshaming” occurs when a service worker (usually a restaurant server) takes to social media to call out a public figure for tipping inadequately. Recently, Brendan O’Connor, a food truck employee in New York, was fired for calling out a Wall Street firm on Twitter, for not tipping on a to-go order.

I thought this was particularly interesting since tipping on to-go orders is not, as far as I can tell, a firmly established social norm. I infer from media stories about Mr. O’Connor, however, that tips make up an essential part of the income of this food truck crew. If that’s true, my question is, what else do we expect these people to do when they don’t get tipped?

In a normal workplace, if you work and don’t get paid your agreed-upon wages, you take your employer to the Labor Board or to court. But because tips are agreed-upon only in the sense of being a social norm, if someone violates the norm there’s really no recourse for the employee. Yes, the guest might get deliberately poorer service on a subsequent visit. But that still doesn’t help the employee who’s worked and not gotten paid.

By making the employer not responsible for paying the full wages of the worker, we introduce a lot of randomness into the compensation system. And the people who get randomly screwed over are left with no way to fix their plight. All they can do for satisfaction is retaliate against the person who seems to have caused the problem, by hassling them on the Internet. Nobody wins except the Daily News.

Click here to read some final thoughts on this series.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Postscript 3: Tips Mean That No One Is Listening

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

For a lot of folks, when they get bad service in a restaurant, they feel obliged to do something about it.

Now, if you get bad service from a sporting goods store clerk or the appliance service technician, and you want to take action, you’ll probably contact a manager. Maybe by email, maybe in person, maybe right then, maybe after the fact. You’ll let the manager know that there is a problem.

In a restaurant, however, the way we are taught to send that message, is by tipping less or not at all.

When you send a message via a low or nonexistent tip, one of three things happen:

1) The server thinks that you are cheap, and that’s the extent of it.

2) If the server knows that you were expressing particular dissatisfaction, and the issue was clearly someone else’s fault, they most likely will let that person know there was a problem. However, the server likely won’t tell a manager, because no one likes a tattletale. An exception to this is if one person is repeatedly making mistakes.

3) If the server knows that you were expressing particular dissatisfaction, and the issue was the server’s fault or if fault is unclear, the server won’t tell anyone about it. There no point in the server getting himself in trouble.

Basically, the end result of sending your message with a tip is that no one is listening to you.

As managers, one of the biggest benefits of our service charge policy was that because we were charging for a specific service, our guests were much more likely to let us know if there was a problem with it — just like customers do in other industries. Obviously, our goal was to not have problems at all, but given that mistakes do happen, we could fix them more quickly because we would hear about them more quickly.

Similarly, in a tipped restaurant if there’s a problem, and you say something to the server about it, their response is likely to be to worry about their tip. So the server will often give you something for free (which, depending on the restaurant’s system, might basically entail stealing it from the restaurant). In my observation this is much more about trying to create the obligation for payment in kind (with a tip) than it is about trying to solve the problem.

Sometimes comping an item is what will make a guest feel better about a bad situation. But it’s often ineffective. From my experience as a guest, what I want when there’s a problem is for a person (usually a manager) to listen to the issue, sympathize with my point of view, and take action to correct the problem. Free stuff isn’t really relevant.

In a no-tipping environment, when you the guest bring up a problem, the server is free to listen and address your problem.

At the Linkery, our policy was to remove the service charge if there was a significant problem with a guest’s experience. This happened rarely, and over the course of a pay period the financial effect wouldn’t be big, so the server didn’t really have to worry about the money. Instead, we asked the server to always bring a manager in to address any problem. The system wasn’t perfect, sometimes a server would be too slow to bring a manager in, but at least we didn’t have tip concerns getting in the way of a successful resolution. And we would know what we had to improve.

I’ve also noticed that people in general turn their ears off once the subject of tipping comes up.

My Rule #1 in life is “never read the comments”, but as this blog series has become popular I’ve read through a couple forum discussions about it. One thing that really strikes me is how many people are compelled to share their personal tipping policy. A key point of this blog series is that most people have their own policy, and the difference in tipping practices among individuals is so big that any given tip contains no information. But I think that the people who can’t wait to tell you how they tip, are missing that point. They’re not listening; and from what I can see, they’re also not being listened to.

That’s the thing about tipping: it embodies a lot of messages — and no one is listening to them.

Click here to proceed to Postscript 4.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Postscript 2: Auto-Grat

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

I have a couple, more involved, postscripts still to write, but it’s Friday afternoon so here’s an easy little nugget. Our former Director of Operations, who had read a couple online discussions about this series, messaged me to ask:

I’m curious why it seems that nobody has a problem with “parties of 5 or more will be subjected to a 20% service charge”, but, in the minds of some people, “parties of 1 or more will be subjected to an 18% service charge” is heresy?

In other words, it doesn’t seem like this can be a matter of principle, if the principle only kicks in with parties of four or fewer people.

I’d add that this is a particularly pointed question since the “auto-grat” for large parties is often not noticed by the guests — specifically, the server often doesn’t alert the guests — who may then tip another 20% on top of the automatic “gratuity”. On the other hand, the 18% service charge we charged all parties precluded any further tipping (there was no tip line on the credit card bill, and if you left extra cash it was donated to charity).

Also: catering. At least in these parts, it pretty much always comes with an 18-20% service fee, presumably to cover the waiters and bartenders.

Both the “auto-grat” and the service charge for catering and hotels are so standard that they’re specifically addressed in California sales tax law. Why would some people feel such an approach should be off-limits, applied to all guests in restaurants?

Click here to proceed to Postscript 3.

A Palate Cleanser

These days it’s all tipping, all the time up in here. It’s a subject I’m grateful to have the chance to write about, and I’m even more grateful there’s so much interest in it. But I reckon it’s good to remember food, and each other, too.

I thought I should link to something from The Linkery blog archives to break the gratuitous gratuity spell. Here’s a post from 2008 that I try to re-read every now and then, to remind me why I chose to work in local food. The core thought:

Beyond mere excellence lies meaning. By consistently engaging a single foodshed or small group of foodsheds — presumably one(s) near where we live — over time, we can start to understand the land we live on and the people we live with, and develop meaningful connections with both. It’s the idea of understanding, sharing and belonging…the idea of home.

You can read the whole post here. It’s long, like most of what I write for fun.

As a postscript to the piece, we ended up buying and serving some Wooly Pigs pork from Mr. Putnam, and it was amazing.

We’ll return to the tipping programming shortly.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurants, Postscript 1: Crime & Punishment

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

It was August of 2008 and we had a crisis.

Actually we had a lot of crises. Three months earlier, we had moved into a new location three times bigger than our previous location, and the expansion had been a rocky one. I had been totally unprepared for how much busier we would really be, and we hadn’t raised enough capital to properly hire and train a large staff. Our management team and I were working past our capacity, trying to make up for our lack of resources with effort.

In the kitchen, our experienced team was cooking great food despite the challenges, which was important as that was the core promise of our restaurant. But in the dining room we were bringing servers in on the fly, and throwing them onto the floor hoping they already knew what they needed. Some days were fine, some days were rough. Our best hope was that our guests would have realistic expectations of what we were capable of doing, and have a good attitude about it.

And one August day the local alt-weekly food writer published her review of the new Linkery. She had come anonymously, and the review that ran went mostly how I expected: medium star rating, food was good, unpolished service, and there had been some confusion about corkage, because we hadn’t trained the servers to waive corkage if the patrons bought ample subsequent bottles.

But there was thing about it, one thing I’d never seen in any other restaurant review.

In the middle of the piece, she addressed an admonishing paragraph directly to her server, belittling him for making a mistake with their table. The mistake had been subsequently caught by a manager, who comped them desserts, but that apparently had not satisfied the writer. She wrote to the server, in the review:

(…Right now, approximately a quarter of a million San Diegans are reading that you blew it. For about the last 300 years, we in the Western world — except for those individuals raised by wolves — have been eating our meals in courses, except when we go out to Korean restaurants. You can tell which course is which by the headings on the menu: The category called “Market Starters” means dishes to start with. “Mains” means main courses, to follow. Got it now?)

What blew my mind was that she called him out using his real name (which I’ve redacted here), even though she was writing from behind a shield of anonymity. It was, in my opinion, bad enough for the worker to have made a mistake at his job; even worse that he has to find out his mistake was to a reviewer; but now he’s been ridiculed by name in the paper, in an attempt to have his parents, siblings and friends all shame him, as well.

Of course, the server was a really great guy, a college student with minimal serving background, who we were trying to train on the job. He was doing his best, and whatever errors he made were my fault, for putting him a difficult position without giving him the tools for success. I knew that, and I expected that a professional reviewer would have, too.

I emailed the writer.

I wrote something along the lines of, hey, I get that you had a bad experience, but that was out of line to call the server out by his real name. You could have easily made the same point while using a different name for him.

She wrote back along the lines of, I write my experiences; just because you have good intentions I’m not going to hold back my criticism. It’s your fault for not having trained him properly.

I responded, I agree that the bad service is my fault. I’m saying you should have ripped on me and not him. I’ve apologized to him for putting him in that position, but it is still not right of you, writing under a pseudonym, to publicly embarrass him using his actual name.

And she came back with the clincher: Well, with your fixed service charge you didn’t give my any choice. I couldn’t give him a lower tip. How else could I punish him for his mistakes?

That made it all clear. She, like some other patrons, felt the burden of having to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Obviously, some people like that role, and some people don’t, but at the very least our culture has trained diners that it is their job. When you go to restaurants, you are responsible for rewarding and punishing your server.

This explained another bizarre phenomenon we had seen with our service charge — a small number of guests who got angry when we removed the charge from their bill.

We had a policy that if a guest brought a notable service problem to a manager’s attention, we removed the service charge from the bill. Our position was that we were professionals charging for service, and if we failed to meet our service goals, then we refused to take payment.

It would happen that a guest would bring a problem to our attention, often as a way to show that the lack of tipping had somehow “caused” the service mistake. Our floor manager would apologize, thank the guest for bringing the problem to our attention, and remove the service charge from the bill. And that, sometimes, would make the guest furious.

I suppose the idea was that the guest evaluated the server’s transgression as worth a small amount of the tip, but not the whole service charge. And now we were making the guest look bad because his bringing the gaffe up had led to a punishment which was overharsh for the crime, and that made him appear unreasonable.

This is where I really started to lose patience with the whole thing.

It had been demonstrated by research and our experience that this punishment message doesn’t get through to the offender — servers correctly don’t view their tips as reflecting the quality of their work. So the right to punish the server is solely for the benefit of the punisher, and no larger benefit is created.

We were trying to run a good restaurant. If a guest pointed out a mistake we made, the guest was doing us a favor. Our first reaction wasn’t going to be to punish the workers who made the mistake; it was going to be to make sure the server had the tools they needed to do the job right. No business in any industry builds a great team by looking for mistakes to punish. It just doesn’t work that way.

These people who were fighting to keep their punishment rights, were keeping us from getting better.

We came to the conclusion, though, that the fixed service charge — and our removing it when a problem was noticed — would drive these negative customers away. They would go to other restaurants where they could resume their role as arbiter of consequences. One of our managers emailed me around this time: “It would seem we’re on the right track. We’ll eventually weed out all the punishers…and then we can do our jobs.”

I think this is pretty much happened, within a few months of that review. People who come to restaurants to punish other people came to our place, discovered we didn’t offer that service, and moved on. It’s an open question whether we would have made more revenue if we had not lost these customers. I tend to think not, because their absence really did let us focus on doing our jobs better. But maybe there are just so many people like this, that they make up a huge market for restaurants, that we lost out on. I can’t say I know. I know we didn’t miss them.

We liked our jobs a lot better with the punishers gone, and having a job you like is a great joy in life. Our service charge policy, even though we adopted it for technical financial reasons, proved to be a gift in many suprising ways.

I think we were making guests’s lives better, too. Sitting in judgement of your neighbor, and punishing him, is the highway to unhappiness. Plus, as we’ve established, whatever message you’re sending isn’t getting through. Which means the guest who is asked to serve as a judge, is being made miserable for nothing.

Click here to proceed to Postscript 2.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.

Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 6: Why Tipping Should (And May) Be Made Illegal

This is part 6 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

In some American restaurants, the code word used to describe black customers is “Canadian”. As in:

“I don’t want that table,” my colleague said to me. “They’re Canadians. You can take them if you want.”
           – Courtney Swain, FUSION magazine

People say that tips motivate servers to do better work. The reality is that tips motivate servers to discriminate against their customers.

As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, researchers have shown that we diners don’t vary our tips much based on service quality, even though we think we do.

However, their same research shows that we do vary our tips quite a bit based on who we are. In other words, each individual person has an amount they pretty much always tip, and that amount varies a lot from person to person.

It’s like you have an invisible sign written on you that says how much you tip. Servers can count on you to tip about that much, no matter how good or bad the service is. Maybe you’ve got a “20%” on you, and the guy next to you has a “30%” on his sign, and the next two people are “12%” and “18%”.

Servers often have some control over who they get as customers, as in the excerpt above where one server passes the “Canadians” off to another server. Plus, servers always have some control over which customers they attend most to. And since servers are paid principally by customers, not by their employer, servers are motivated to identify the better tippers so they can focus their work on those guests.

People being people, you can imagine how respectful and open-minded this process of identifying high and low tippers is. And so we have a restaurant industry where African-Americans are demeaned as “Canadians”, in reference to another group which is considered by US servers to be low tippers.

Here’s a excerpt from Michael Lynn’s paper, Tipping and Its Alternatives: Business Considerations and Directions for Research (PDF link):

…[M]any servers dislike waiting on black parties and deliver inferior service to those black customers they must serve (Lynn and Thomas- Haysbert, 2003). Other groups likely to receive reduced attention from U.S. servers under a tipping system include foreigners, women, teenagers, the elderly, and anyone bearing coupons (Caudill, 2004; Harris, 1995; Lynn, 2004b).

Based on discussions with people in the restaurant industry, I’d add to this list people who are dining with their children, people who don’t order alcoholic drinks, and people of Asian descent (who are perceived as less likely to order alcoholic drinks).

I don’t see how anyone can defend a method of compensation that has as a primary function ensuring poorer treatment for every person who isn’t a adult white male. But apparently it’s important to us as a culture, that every time a nonwhite person, or a woman, or a teenager or an old person, goes into a restaurant, they be reminded that they just don’t matter as much as white men. Perhaps it’s because we’ve outlawed overt racism in our daily life, that we love the way tipping puts its boot on the neck of the outsider and reminds her who’s still in charge.

From my perspective, it just makes me sad. We believe in treating all people with equal respect; we should be advocating the abolition of a compensation system that blatantly encourages daily discrimination by skin color, gender, age, and accent. It saddens me to think that my future elderly self, future daughters, future darker-skinned grandkids would all be denied the full joy of restaurants, because from the minute they walk in the door they will all be labeled as “low tipper — do not bother with.”

None of these issues crossed my mind when we got rid of tipping and replaced it with a service charge. I wasn’t thoughtful enough to see them; we were just trying to improve our business. And once we primarily worked in a no-tipping environment, these issues didn’t apply to our business, so I still didn’t become aware of them.

These externalities of tipping were invisible to me until we were visited by a couple Canadians — Canadians from Canada, in this case — Bruce McAdams (see his TedX talk on tipping here) and Mike von Massow, from the University of Guelph. They were researching tipping and potential alternative methods of compensation and asked us to share what we had learned with them.

In our interviews, I explained the reasons we believed the service charge was a better system — the same reasons I’ve outlined in the first four parts of this series. I also shared how I’d come to believe there was a deep anti-woman component to the tipping system, as I discussed in Part 5 of this series.

At which point they blew my mind, explaining the research that showed tipping perpetuates racial discrimination. And then they even hinted that Canada, with its strong commitment to social justice, might be open to legislation or court rulings that replaced tipping with a more standard method of compensation.

As you can imagine, my American sensibilities had a hard time finding that plausible. It was one thing for our independent restaurant to eliminate tipping from our business with the goal of improving service quality; but to actually make tipping illegal was obviously something no one would stand for.

No one, it occurred to me as I thought more about it, except for all the people who are getting screwed over.

Yes, it’s disorienting at first when you perceive something as ubiquitous as tipping to be an actual civil rights issue; but then again I imagine most civil rights issues at some point were so ubiquitous they seemed normal. If we can verify with research that compensation by tips causes non-whites and women to be systematically treated worse in places of public accommodation, do we need much more reason to declare tipping a failed experiment and move on to a more proven method of compensation such as wages or salaries?

These thoughts were just settling in when I went to Toronto to participate in a forum arranged by Bruce and Mike. At this forum, Lydia Dobson, a researcher from Carleton University in Ottawa, presented a whole new (to me) perspective on tips-as-discrimination. Tips, she pointed out, are a revenue stream which is legally not controlled by the employer. Because the employer is not considered the source of tips, the employer can use the tipping revenue stream to treat his employees in ways that would be illegal in other industries.

A couple examples I remember:

* A female server who gained weight was moved to low-revenue shifts as punishment until she became skinny again, in a jurisdiction where weight discrimination was illegal; and

* A female server who spurned the sexual advances of her manager was moved to low-revenue shifts as punishment.

This is from an industry which generates five times as many sexual harassment claims per employee as other industries.

Furthermore, discrimination and retaliation from employers is just part of the dark side of tipping. There’s also the fact that tipping lets the mass of consumers anonymously do our dirty work.

You’ll instinctively know once you picture it, without me having to cite the research, that an African-American server will get paid less than his white counterpart for providing the same quality of service, at the same restaurant. Because of course one of those servers is making less than the other, and it’s probably not going to be the white one. Here’s a research paper on the subject, albeit from only one restaurant, which found that both black and white patrons tipped white servers more.

Similarly, research shows that female servers make more when they are more attractive. But you probably knew that, too, without really needing to have it scientifically proven.

I could go on.

The point is this — we know that tipping rewards employees for being white and for being attractive females, and punishes them for being otherwise. We know that compensation by tipping lets employers speciously punish employees by assigning them to low revenue shifts, while still maintaining the legal fiction that the employee is making a full wage.

Additionally, compensation by tips ensures that customers who are non-white, who are female, or old people, or young people, or foreigners all get a lower quality of service than medium-aged white men, in establishments that claim to welcome all peoples equally.

With these features, if tipping didn’t already exist as a compensation system, it’s hard to imagine that, proposed from scratch, it would be considered a legal alternative to wages or salaries. And given that a new system like this would likely not be made legal in our current culture, it’s believable that, as an existing system, it could be made illegal.

In a legal context where compensation by tips can be shown to function primarily as a way to circumvent laws forbidding discrimination in either employment or accommodation, or to circumvent laws protecting employees from capricious retribution, it would be plausible for a court to simply declare the system in violation of these laws. Similarly, a legislature could make such a change by statute.

As for the mechanics of such a change, I picture that the abolition of tips could happen in one (or more) of three ways.

1) It could be made illegal for a business or its employees to collect more on a bill than has been charged;

2) Tips could be made the property of the employer, which would probably eliminate tipping but leaves open the possibility of unintended consequences;

3) Minimum wage could be raised to an amount high enough that it effectively had to include what is now tip money. (I think this would happen at around $15-20/hr.) This would force restaurants to incorporate the cost of table service into their prices, this would increase menu prices enough that customers, knowing the waiters were already being paid from the menu charges, would stop tipping (again subject to laws of unintended consequences).

All three methods would move to eliminate tipping as the primary compensation for servers. While personally I’d like to see the minimum wage be a living wage, as far as abolishing the tipping system goes I think the cleanest method would be option (1) — simply making it illegal.

However, it looks to me that a more likely scenario is that a court or legislature just declares tips to be the property of the employer, making it clear to the guest that any tips are not going to the server at all. Recent rulings from the Ninth Circuit are flirting with this idea – they can be read to say that a restaurant can distribute tip money among its staff in any way the employer wishes. I think perhaps these rulings are cracks in the foundation that props up the system, and the tipping system might be closer to falling than we know.

If so, then we’ll all end up winners.

Click here to read the first Postscript to the series.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.

Click here to read Part 5.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 5: Sex, Power and Tips

This is part 5 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

“This isn’t about money,” the man would say.

He’d be the one person in a thousand, or in ten thousand, who’d get angry about our fixed service charge. Angry about his lack of control over the price, angry about not being the final arbiter of our service. You could count on him being male, at least when we’re talking about public scenes. (I’ve heard of a few women who got pretty mad about it in private.)

And his go-to line was so predictable, we would wait for it, anticipate it. “I always tip way more than twenty percent!”

If that was the case, why were these guys so mad about paying only 18%, far less than they otherwise would? What was it about not choosing the amount they tipped, that infuriated them, even when they were getting a discount?

It had to be at least partially about lack of control. Or, more accurately, lack of imagined control. This guy thought that, in a tipped environment, his server would perform better in order to get more of his money. That idea is false, as shown both by repeated studies and common sense, but that was irrelevant. His anger could not be redeemed by mere facts.

Then what was this rage so primal that no exposure to reality could relieve it?

As this scenario presented itself through the years, its details started to hint at the anger’s wellspring. In the US, over 70% of restaurant servers are female, most of them under 30 — a statistic that well described our service team. And the person who was pissed he couldn’t tip them would be male, I’d guess usually between 35 and 55.

I began to notice that his hostility was not the frustration of a consumer who’d paid for a faulty product — we would occasionally encounter that kind of frustration, and this was different. No, this anger was much more evocative of a man betrayed. As we watched the scene repeat, I started to draw assocations with certain cultural archetypes — the rage of a man who finds out he’s been cuckolded, or the man whose lover tells him she’s always faked her orgasms. In time I drew the conclusion that our tipping ritual is only nominally a business arrangement. Under the surface, it is much more a convention about sex and power.

At this point I have to admit some uncomfortable truths. Before we switched to a non-tipping system, I was pretty much like these guys. Perhaps that just made me like most guys. I like to think I was generally nice to people, and I’m sure I always tipped way more than twenty percent. But I, like many males, loved the rush of having my needs attended to by young, attractive, female servers. And there was always the promise that something special might happen, and one of these icons of sexual fulfillment would succumb to my charms. It went without saying that my fat wallet and generosity would be key assets in such an conquest.

I don’t think I was unusual in harboring such thoughts. The meme of sleeping with our waitress is important to Americans. Like all our treasured myths, it’s embedded in our popular culture. Three examples come to my mind in a matter of seconds:

My point here, like Edwin Decker’s, is that we Americans — at the very least heterosexual American men — spend a fair amount of time thinking about having sex with waitresses. (I’ll leave as a bonus item The Waitresses, an 80’s band from Ohio with a pouty frontwoman who sang I Know What Boys Like.)

And in a context where we expect waitresses to both work for our tips and be objects of sexual attraction, their work and their sex appeal become two sides of the same coin. In the dining room, we assume that our server looks sexy because she wants to make more money from the men who are tipping her.

Even after I became an employer of professional servers, I attributed the sexiness of our tipped female employees to their desire to increase their income. Put simply, I blithely assumed that servers had the same basic motivations as exotic dancers. In those early days, our restaurant was perhaps primarily a place where young, smart, attractive people worked, and played. I figured the business of women looking good for money was the engine that drove the flirtatiousness in our dining room.

When we switched from taking tips to a flat service charge with no tipping allowed, I shrugged my shoulders a bit wistfully, assuming that the sex appeal for which we were known would become a thing of the past. That was OK with me — I enjoyed that part of what we did but it wasn’t the point of our restaurant, nor was it the reason I was in the industry. As long as our servers did a good job, it was fine if they decided to stop being “hot waitresses.”

Imagine my surprise when that didn’t happen.  Not only did the women who worked for us keep up their appearances, they, if anything, actually turned up the dial.

I wondered what was going on — my expectations were confounded.  However, it was clear that we were now the only restaurant in the US where, patently, if a female server chose to look sexy, it was most likely because she felt like looking sexy. If a server flirted with you, it was because she wanted to flirt with you. Not because she wanted your money; but because she was enjoying flirting with you.  It didn’t affect her night’s income at all.

This opened up a world of possibility. A place where both patron and worker, as peers and neighbors, could bring their whole selves literally to the table. Not just playing their roles as master and servant, but as real people exhibiting their sense of humor, their playfulness, and, being human, their sexuality.

I saw that, in a tipless environment our female servers had the potential to be perceived as whole persons. From that, it was easy to see that in a tipping environment, we push the job of waitressing into a realm that nestles alongside sex work; a realm where any sexuality the woman shows is assumed to be solely because she wants to get paid. The social construct is that this woman — be she a server, a dancer, or an escort — can never like sex but can only pretend to like sex for money. In this contract, any sexual expression in which she engages in is because she is, effectively, a prostitute.

But when attention-for-payment is removed, and the female server transforms from “sex worker lite” to a person whose own robust sexuality can now be acknowledged — this is now a moment of vulnerability for everyone involved. It’s a threat to the male patron who no longer has the prospect of withholding income to protect himself from rejection. It may be a scary moment for a female customer on a date, who now weirdly has a potential rival — not a marginalized servant — joining her at the table as perhaps more than a third wheel. It’s a moment ripe with opportunity for new connections, but that opportunity comes at the cost of everybody being exposed. And the feeling of being vulnerable is not necessarily what people are looking for when they dine out.

From what I saw, that scary moment lies at the heart of the fury arising in some of us, when the emotional shield of tipping is removed.

The next question, of why acknowledging female sexuality would be such a flash point for us, of course comprises a whole field of inquiry. I don’t think we need to arrive at an answer here; we can still see the relationship between that force and tipping culture. However, there is some research that I think relates to this question in an interesting way. I cite it here not to make an open-and-shut case, but instead with the idea that it might spur some interesting reflection and discussion.

We know from anthropologists that the context in which humans evolved was fairly steady for the last 200,000 years or so, up until the last four to ten thousand years, when a major change happened: the introduction of agriculture. Before agriculture, we had typically lived in roaming bands of 100-200 people, carrying only a few things with us. After agriculture, our societies became stationary, and that allowed us to own more things than we could carry — including land, animals, and, in some cases, other people. We started to value, and inherit, possessions. If you’ve read the book Ishmael, then you know this story, laid out as an elegant parable of “Takers” and “Leavers.”

Another book, Sex at Dawn, a 2010 nonfiction bestseller by researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, details how human culture may have changed as we moved from being nomadic to agricultural. The book is fascinating, well-researched and too intricate to sum up in this blog post. However, relevant to our discussion is this: the authors make a compelling scientific case that, for most of our history, humans lived in polyandrous, matrilineal groups. By this, I mean the authors show that pre-agricultural women probably usually had sex with a lot of men. And that at least sometimes, salaciously enough, women had sex with a lot of men at more or less the same time, consecutively. (The colloqualism I’m dancing around here is “gangbang”.)

In our pre-agricultural past, it wasn’t really important who your father was, since there was nothing to inherit, and child-raising was a responsibility shared by the group. The very idea of paternity was a social construct that didn’t arise until men owned farms, and passed possessions to their children.

After agriculture, our sudden interest in knowing our paternity meant that female monogamy (technically, monandry) became, out of the blue, essential. Human culture had developed around female appetites, but now we had to denigrate anything that reminded us of women’s sexuality. Thus, in contemporary culture, women with strong sex drives are “hysterical”, “wanton”, “nymphomaniacs” or “whorish”. Parents agonize over their daughters dressing “like sluts”; boyfriends worry that their girlfriends are dressing too provocatively in bars.

As a culture, faced with this fear, we go on to develop roles for women where any display of their sexuality can be negated as being just another form of prostitution. Thus, the subtle, sneering undercurrent of the phrase working for tips.

To sum up: I’m proposing that tipping allows us to assign women a role where any sexuality they display can be attributed not to their desires but instead to their greed for money. In doing so, we both dehumanize and desexualize women, in large numbers. We do this to shield ourselves from the cultural memory of a time not too long ago, when virile women called the shots and nobody was too concerned if your wife was getting around. (Because she was.) (Maybe she still is.)

Tipping, as we use it in America, allows our culture perpetuate the meme that women aren’t themselves sexual, but only pretend to like sex in order to make money — because a woman who isn’t sexual would never cuckold her man.

I’ve come to believe that propping up this meme is the more important role of tipping; and the suggestion that tips insure better service is just a ruse, misdirection.

About the time this was all sinking in, I met some folks from the University of Guelph, near Toronto, who clued me into a whole world of research about the role of tipping in the workplace. Through them, I was exposed to new insights about how tipping also serves as a “workaround” to — or more properly, how it defeats — values we demand of employers and managers. In the next post, I’ll look at tipping through the lens of civil rights and social justice, and see how it’s plausible that courts or legislatures could make tip compensation illegal in the next decade or two.

Click here to proceed to Part 6.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 4: Return to Tip Country at El Take It Easy

This is part 4 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here; and Part 3 is here.

A few years into operating the Linkery, we got the opportunity to open a second restaurant, which became our “gastro-cantina”, El Take It Easy. While the Linkery had proven successful with a menu driven by housemade sausages, local produce and craft beer, our personal interests were taking us further afield. Specifically, we were becoming involved in the exciting cuisines developing a few miles to south — on the streets of Tijuana, along the sea in Ensenada and in the valleys of Mexican wine country.

Creating a separate restaurant for our Baja-influenced food would, we thought, both make the Linkery more focused on its core cuisine and also give us the opportunity to do our best work in the contemporary Mexican idioms. More importantly, we hoped to help spread the news, well-known in North Baja but well-hidden in the US, that San Diego/Tijuana is functionally one city, albeit one with a wall running through it. We aimed to encourage San Diegans to enjoy some of the best parts of our region, specifically the chefs, artisans, winemakers and brewers that worked next door to us, who in many cases call upon the resources of both San Diego and North Baja to create their art.

It now seems our project was surprisingly successful in its cultural goals. Over the last few years, we’ve seen San Diegans embrace the culinary world of Baja as a regional treasure, and many of our friends from the Mexican side of the region have become much better known in San Diego and in the US as a whole. We don’t know how much of this we caused, but we do know that we had a lot of success with dinners featuring visiting Baja chefs, with other events featuring Mexican producers, and that we got our message out through a lot of media outlets. We think that all this helped bring the culinary region together.

In spite of those successes, though, we never did get El Take It Easy to work right as a restaurant. The were times when we couldn’t make anything in the restaurant work well. There were also brief moments, a year or two in, when we felt we were serving some of the most compelling and delicious food that you could get in the city, in a fun environment with good hospitality. Ultimately we came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter — either way there wasn’t a very big market for what we wanted to do. In the end, the small size of our (awesome and loyal) customer base made it impossible for us to achieve the level of excellence we envisioned. In fact, our quality started to go in the other direction. We closed the restaurant, accepting that we were not in the right business. I own all the mistakes and miscalculations: I thought El Take It Easy was going to be a vibrant part of the neighborhood, and I was wrong.

That said, there was a huge contrast between leading the Linkery and leading El Take It Easy, which unlike the Linkery accepted tips.

When we opened El Take It Easy, we used the Linkery “no-tipping” system, because it had proven to give us a competitive advantage on several fronts. However, a little while in, we introduced liquor and craft cocktails to El Take It Easy, and things changed. In a crowded bar, bartenders are expected to just say the price of a drink order to a guest — we wouldn’t present physical checks. And it was during the presentation of the physical checks that we could best explain the service charge/no-tipping concept. The check also had the policy explained on it, so guests had a pretty good chance of understanding what was going on.

In a loud bar, even if we had insisted on presenting checks, we observed that guests weren’t listening or reading much — they just wanted to know the price, and to pay. Given that the line item service charge seemed like a lost cause, we switched to building the service cost into our pricing. This is known as service compris, and a lot of people advocate for it, but it wasn’t a success for us.

With service compris, an $8.50 cocktail became a $10 cocktail on the menu, and that was a huge psychological leap for our market, where $8.50 craft cocktails were still a fairly recent development. Talking to people in our community, we got pushback on the idea of $10 drinks. Not many people were subtracting the now-missing tip from the price. Explaining service compris at the bar itself every night was an issue, too, because the explanation “don’t tip, it’s already included, anything extra you leave goes to charity” is frankly too damn confusing for someone who just wants their G&T, ASAP.

So this, then, is my answer to a question I’m commonly asked about the Linkery, why didn’t you dispense with the service charge altogether and just increase the prices on the menu? When we included the service charge in the menu prices at El Take It Easy, many people then thought our prices were more expensive than equally-priced competitors who accepted tips and listed lower menu prices. When people see prices on a menu, they don’t look deeper to calculate how many surcharges (including supposedly “voluntary” surcharges like tips) will be added on. People just assume the place with higher prices on their printed menu is more expensive.

If we wanted to charge a fixed amount for table service, then, we’d need to have a line item charge — but we hadn’t been able to make the line-item charge work in the bar environment.

Faced with these logistical and competitive constraints, we looked once again at the tipping model, and decided it was probably our best option. If it was good enough for every other restaurant and bar in the US, we reasoned, surely we could find a way to make it work. So we switched back to the tipping model, at El Take It Easy only.

Which created a context, in my opinion, where we could never get our service as good as we wanted it. Tipping got in the way of us helping people get better at their jobs. In many ways tipping culture made leadership of the restaurant an unpleasant chore, no matter who stepped into the breach.

At both restaurants, like most businesses, we would always have a certain spectrum of abilities in our team. Some team members were excellent at hospitality, some were well-intentioned but inexperienced, and a certain number really needed to re-think how they did things if they were going to get good at their jobs. At the Linkery, we had a lot of successes in helping people improve all the way to the top level. At El Take It Easy, it rarely happened, and when it did, it was in my observation due primarily to the talent and drive of that person, not due to the culture or leadership at the restaurant.

For starters, Michael (our company’s Director of Operations) and I found that we just didn’t like working there. We felt that even though the service quality was almost always below our goals, we had a hard time getting buy-in that improving our service quality was important. Our sense was that our weak team members looked at their tips — which of course were close to normal since most people don’t adjust their tips much for bad service — and concluded that, in spite of what we were suggesting, they were already doing sufficiently good work. If I’m good enough to make my tips, it’s obvious that I don’t need to improve.

Restaurant owners and managers are encouraged to embrace tipping because, supposedly, the customer’s tipping decision holds the server accountable for quality, relieving the restaurant of costs spent on supervising and supporting their servers. But in truth — as shown by the Michael Lynn research mentioned in the last post — customers largely abdicate that role. Instead the customers give only very weak feedback to the server with their tips, and in my observation even the worst servers take the lack of strong negative feedback as confirmation that they are providing acceptable service. So here’s yet another, profound, way that tipping promotes bad service and hurts both businesses and customers: Because tipping correlates weakly to service quality, and because individual tips are always subject to interpretation, tipping removes the incentive for poor performing servers to improve.

At El Take It Easy, our top servers were aware that some of their peers were not doing good work, and spoke openly with about it with the managers. In fact, I’d say the whole team was at least somewhat aware that, as a team, we were not consistently providing excellent service. But few of our servers, if any, felt that they themselves could improve the team’s service by improving their own work. In any business, if the working team leads (in this case, the senior servers) aren’t setting the cultural expectation of accountability for the success of the group, it’s impossible to achieve excellent work.

To contrast, at the Linkery, we continually found great leaders in our floor team. It seemed like they came out of nowhere; someone would work with us for a while and then one day we’d notice that he or she was going the extra length to make the rest of the team better. Simultaneously, we had a system of raises and promotions like most companies do, and the people we saw as doing their jobs the best tended to rise through that system. So the very traits that made our business successful, and made working fun, were rewarded.

Meanwhile, at El Take It Easy, we would encourage our better servers to take a leadership role, but when they tried to do so, they’d soon let us know that they were getting too much resistance from their co-workers to have any positive effect. And, of course, at El Take It Easy payment ultimately came from the separate contract between server and guest; there was no meaningful path through the company for our most effective performers.

Obviously, accountability doesn’t end with the service leads, it goes all the way to senior management. I clearly was the core of the problem, and I accept that. There was something I was doing — I never really figured out what it was, but I know I’m the culprit — that was allowing our service to be consistently less than excellent. But here’s the thing: tipping made my job, all of our jobs, much harder to succeed at. The difference between me being good enough to run a restaurant with generally-quite-good-though-not-perfect service at the Linkery, and me being only good enough to run a restaurant with occasionally-good-but-usually-inconsistent service at El Take It Easy, was, in my opinion, mostly tipping.

To summarize: At the restaurant that ran like a small business in any other industry, we found it easier to do our best work and we had more fun doing it. At the restaurant that ran like a restaurant, but unlike other businesses, we found it much harder to be on the same page with the whole team, and much harder for all of us to be truly excellent at our jobs. Tipping was just one higher mountain we had to get over, if we were going to do great work.

So, I hear you asking now: if tipping promotes bad service, and hurts businesses, why do we still have tipping?

I’ve wondered about that question quite a bit myself. For the first few years, I thought it was just that people are threatened by change. I still believe that that is part of what’s going on. However, over the years, as I had more experiences with “no-tipping-fury” and read more research, I’ve come to believe that tipping promotes certain very important norms within our culture. Those norms have nothing to do with quality of service. The patently false idea that tipping improves service is just a blithe assertion that keeps us from talking about what tipping really does.

The reason we don’t want to talk about what tipping really does is that it gets into some dark subjects. Tipping hides some of our deepest discomforts with sex, gender, and power in contemporary culture. It’s to these discomforts that I’ll turn in the next installment of this series.

Click here to proceed to Part 5.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 3: How Tipping Promotes Bad Service

This is part 3 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

Probably the most common reaction to our service-charge-no-tips policy, from people outside the service industry, was along the lines of, if there’s no tipping, then how will the servers be motivated to do a good job?

When you step back and think about this for a second, it’s actually kind of hilarious. The person asking this question would have a full-time job as a software developer, or lawyer, or journalist, or doctor, always working to a pay rate that was negotiated ahead of time. We would never suggest that a code jockey or surgeon would be motivated to do better work by the thought that their clients, if pleased with the service, might toss in a few extra dollars.

And yet, we restaurant-goers (and I include myself in this, in the days before I worked in restaurants) are not hesitant to suggest that, unlike all other working Americans, restaurant servers are a class of simpletons who require a drip of money every few minutes to keep them on task. By perpetuating the idea that servers, and servers alone, won’t perform without the threat of pay withheld, we dehumanize our neighbors and peers who work taking care of us. I think this helps us not feel bad when we sometimes treat them badly. It’s the Stanford Prison Experiment meets Yelp.

Meanwhile, restaurant workers know what’s up. People who worked in the restaurant industry wouldn’t ask us this question — what will motivate servers to do a good job? Because, inside the restaurant, we know that while the customers think their tips allow them to control the server, in fact the control is illusory. The story of the server being motivated by the customer’s power to tip, is instead a fiction created to make the customer feel important.

This was one of the first things I learned as a restauranteur.

When we opened the Linkery, I was 20 years removed from my most recent restaurant job, at a gourmet sandwich shop where I had worked as a prep cook and dishwasher. I had never in my life waited tables. I, like many restaurant patrons, assumed that my tip decision was the primary thing on the servers’ minds while they worked.

One night a few months into the Linkery’s existence, I asked our best server about a table of high-maintenance guests who had just left the restaurant. Specifically, I was curious, given how demanding they were, if this group had tipped high or tipped low.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I never look at the tips until the end of the night. It basically always evens out, if one table tips low, someone else tips high. You always make about the same percentage of sales.”

Another of our better servers joined the conversation to say that she did the same thing. Because, she said, “there’s too much to think about already. You have to not think about the money so you can take care of your tables.”

I wasn’t expecting this attitude from high-performing servers; I had accepted on faith that it was only the tips that motivated them to do good work. Now curious, I started an informal study of our team, watching how they handled the tipping part of the job over the weeks and months. Without exception, the best servers never talked about their tips — as far as I could tell, they never even thought about their tips — until after their shift was over. The best performers were fully engaged with simultaneously filling the needs of 25 people in a busy, crowded restaurant. It’s a complex job and they brought their full selves to it.

Meanwhile, I found that if a server did talk about tips during service, that server would invariably be among our weaker team members. Which made sense once I understood it — how can you be thinking about your guests’ needs when you’re thinking about your money? By raising the thought tips during service, these poor performers were, I think, subconsciously trying to bring their coworkers down to their level. The better servers would have none of it — they would reliably decline to take the bait of discussing money instead of hospitality.

When in time we started contemplating the elimination of tips from the Linkery, I looked for actual research on the subject, and found Michael Lynn’s then-recently-published “Tip Levels and Service”. This paper shows that in spite of what people think motivates their tipping calculations, the quality of service has only a tiny effect on how much a restaurant customer actually leaves as a tip. In fact, the percent tip left by a guest is as much influenced by whether the server (if female) draws a smiley face on the check, or predicts good weather, as by the guests’ happiness with the quality of service. As you read the study (a PDF of it is here) you see that, if you’re a server who wants to maximize your income, service quality should not be your focus.

Instead, a server who wants to maximize her tips first needs to maximize her personal sales. In a a time when the restaurant is not busy, this means using sales techniques to sell more food and drink to her guests. But when the restaurant is busy — which of course is the time when most people are in restaurants — the high-revenue server shifts her focus from maximizing sales per guest, to maximizing the number of guests she helps. In other words, she is better off financially, providing service to the highest number of guests, even if that stretches her capabilities past the ability to go a good job.

Here’s the underlying math of the whole thing. Let’s take a typical, Linkery-like restaurant (but one that accepts tips) where the guest spend average is about $25/pp, and our server can count on serving 40 guests in her five-table section on a busy weekend night.

  • At 21% average tip, her base level of tips is $210 before tipout
  • If she is able to increase her quality of service to top-tier, and things also go well with the parts of service she can’t control like the kitchen’s work, she would likely increase her average tip to 23%. Now she has increased her tips by $20, to $230 before tipout. She’s pretty dependent on the kitchen for this to work though, so she’ll probably tip out more to them in this case. I’ll estimate she ends up with a raise of $15 for the night.
  • If the server instead focuses on using the “Mega-Tips” techniques — such as calling the guests by name, touching them on the shoulder, squatting to meet the guests at eye level, and drawing smiley-faces on the check, all things which don’t require assistance from the kitchen — she’ll probably increase her tip average to 23% (or more) as well. In this case she’s less likely to increase her tipout to the kitchen, so she’s really increased her income by a full $20 for the night.
  • If she focuses on increasing sales to her section, she might get her guest spend average up from $25 to $28 — a very big increase from the business’ point of view. This, at 21% tip, would get her to $235, a raise of $22 from her original base.
  • Lastly, if she instead focuses her attention on increasing her section size — something which can be done in many ways, from coaxing/bullying the host or swooping in on tables, to emphasizing to the shift manager that it would save labor costs, or even telling a manager that the server next to them is overloaded and should cede some of his section — our server could bump her section from five, to say, eight tables, increasing the number of guests she serves in a night from 40 to 64. If she maximizes her section size, this will at some point stretch her to a point where her guests start getting poor service and are unable to purchase as much as they want. Let’s that happens here: sales per guest drops to $22 (a huge drop from the business’ point of view), tip percentage drops to 19%, and guests are less excited to return. This is a nightmare scenario for the business, and also lousy for the guests, but our server’s income before tip out has risen to $268, by far her highest yet. By pushing number of guests to the maximum possible, she’s made a raise of $58 on the night.

You can play with the numbers and scenarios to get slightly different results. But in general, in most restaurants, increasing the number of guests served is the surest way for a server to increase her income — even if the quality of service decreases markedly. This is because people don’t actually decrease their tip much for lousy service; and that total decrease is not nearly as much as the increase in total tip revenue gained by the server squeezing in some extra guests.

This is the plainest mathematical explanation I can give you to show that the tipping system, which is believed by customers to maximize quality of service, and believed by many restauranteurs to minimize the amount of supervision required of servers, actually works against the interests of both the guests and the business.

The business’s priority is for the server to create the best possible best experience (to increase future sales from return business), and also to focus on increasing average sales per guest (to increase that night’s sales).

The guest, in turn, would prefer the server focus on increasing quality of service (so the guest has a better time) without worrying too much about up-selling.

But the financially-driven server is motivated, by the math of tips, primarily to increase the number of guests she serves at once, and secondarily to engage in tip-increasing behavior which is specifically unrelated to the quality of the guests’ experience.

Which means that tipping incentivizes bad service, all while tricking us into thinking that it promotes good service.

Of course, just because servers are given monetary incentive to do a worse job, doesn’t mean that most, or even many, servers do less than their best. Most servers take pride in their work and do their best to create great experiences for their guests. It’s just that they’re often doing their best work in spite of their pure economic incentives, not because of them.

People are funny that way, they’re full of love and joy and wanting to connect with other humans and they like to go home and look in the mirror and feel good about how they touched people’s lives that day. In my experience, this was easier to achieve when tipping was removed from the equation.

Now, don’t get me wrong — nothing was perfect. In the Linkery’s existence I estimate we served nearly half a million guests. After half a million experiences, of course you can go online and hear from somebody, plenty of people, who had a bad service experience at the Linkery. We wanted to do great work for every single guest, but some percentage of the time, we failed.

When that happened, some guests concluded that the reason they got bad service was because their server didn’t have the prospect of a tip as motivation. But that is an easy conclusion that doesn’t really intersect with reality. If we, the managers of the restaurant, found that one of our team didn’t have motivation to do good work, that person would be gone in matter of days, if not hours. Just like they would in any (non-tipped) business. My whole livelihood was at stake! I had no intention of keeping team members who weren’t interested in doing a good job.

Instead, for us at the Linkery, service breakdowns were generally caused by something small. Maybe the server hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Or the previous night’s dishwasher forgot to do one of his dozens of closing tasks. Or a line cook showed up twenty minutes late for her shift that morning, or maybe even a farmer, a couple months prior, decided to grow less of a product than we would turn out to need for a summer Sunday brunch.

Restaurants, particularly restaurants that aim to serve good food, have countless moving parts, and a hiccup deep in the machine will often manifest itself at your table. It’s an enormous challenge to get everything to go right, which is why the restaurant business is so fun — when we are able to give someone a brilliant experience, it’s because dozens of people did their job to perfection, working in concert to make something beautiful. The rush of that accomplishment is why those of us who love the business, love the business.

In trying to make our service as consistently great as possible, we the managers would look at ourselves, our management choices, to see how our work might causing any problems. Was the schedule properly designed? Were we adequately training newly hired or newly promoted people? Could we put better systems in to help people succeed?

In looking at how we could better create a environment for people to do their best work, never once did we think, well, if we let the guests step in with random financial reinforcement every few minutes, that will help us work more effectively as a team! In fact, that would have been the last thing we wanted, in trying to help everyone succeed. Tipping would have made all of our jobs harder, not easier.

And that is the dynamic of tipping that, in my opinion, ultimately defeated us at our second, tipped, restaurant. I’ll tell that story in the next installment.

Click here to continue to Part 4.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.

Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 2: Money and the Law

This is part 2 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison.

In order to understand how we ended up switching to a fixed service charge and declining tips, it’s helpful to understand some financial and legal facts about the restaurant industry that are not widely communicated to the public at large.

The first is that, for the most part, the restaurant industry operates on very slim margins. There are some restaurants that are very profitable, but the vast majority are not. I’ve read that the average profit for a restaurant is 4% of its revenue, and in my experience most independent restaurants do not have any real profit at all. More typically the owner is able to pay herself for her work, and that’s about it. This fact is important because it means that, for most jobs in the restaurant industry, the wage paid by the restaurant comes from a limited pool, and there is not a lot of flexibility in the size of the pool — if one job gets a $2/hour raise, that most likely means that another job will have its wage reduced by $2/hour.

Theoretically, it seems like there would be ways to free up more money for labor, and there are some methods that help. In the end, though, restaurant-going is so prevelant that the expectations of the market — for price, quality, ambience, and so forth — are pretty well set in every dimension. And the cost of meeting those expectations is pretty well set, too. So the business model for most restaurants, and what they pay for each job, is tightly constrained.

Now, let’s say that on a typical shift, a restaurant sells $1000 in food and drink. It would be reasonable that, to make that revenue, a restaurant has 2 cooks who work 8 hours each, a dishwasher who works 8 hours, and two servers who work 6 hours each. We can extrapolate from standard industry models that, of the $1000 in sales, there will be $300 available to cover the 36 hours of labor. It just so happens that this math means that everyone in the house will make $8/hour, which is of course both minimum wage and a poverty wage. But that’s just how the pie divides.

And yet, wait! We’ve forgotten something. There are also 220 extra dollars paid by the guests as tips. (This 22% is typical for restaurants like ours in San Diego — the exact amount will change with restaurant style and location.) This tip money could add another $6/hour to everyone’s wage, getting everyone up to $14/hr.  While $14/hr isn’t enough to live well in San Diego, it starts approaching realistic money.

However, to give the tip money to every worker would be illegal.  The law is historically very clear — the $220 in tips belongs to the two servers only, and cannot be distributed to any other employees. So, the two servers make a total of about $26/hour each, while everyone else in the restaurant is stuck at $8/hour.

Now, if you’re a server, you’re probably nodding your head that this seems fine! However, if you’re an owner or manager trying to operate an excellent restaurant, you’ve got some problems. From the perspective of the business, the cook and dishwasher are just as important to the guests’ experience as the server is. In fact, they may be even more important, particularly if your restaurant’s reputation is based on its food. But, now your cooks are making less than 1/3 of what the servers are making. The cooks’ wage is so low that talented cooks won’t be able to live on it, and they will probably leave the industry. Additionally, no matter what cooks you have, there will be a lot of ill will between the producers of the food, who are well below the poverty line, and the servers, who are making white-collar wages.

In some states (big East Coast restaurant states come to mind, like New York), the government balances this situation by offering what is called a “tip credit”. The tip credit allows restaurants to pay their front-of-house employees less than minimum wage (usually about $5/hr less), if tips will make up the difference. In the example above, the servers in a “tip credit” system would most likely end up making about $21/hour and, cooks about $12/hour, and the dishwasher still about $8/hour. To someone like me who puts a lot of demands on his kitchen, this distribution still feels inequitable — but it’s a lot closer to fair. While the “tip credit” is a blunt instrument, it does address the wage inequity problem enough to keep the tipping system at least somewhat viable.

Now, in California and several other states, the “tip credit” is not allowed, and the restauranteur has fewer options. The recourse most commonly used in these states is the “tipout”. Here the servers just give a portion of their tips to the kitchen, usually as part of a cultural expectation created within the restaurant. The problems with depending on a voluntary tipout to equal out the pay on the team are:

  1. Some servers may decide to withhold a tipout, in a sense cheating the system, and the employers is precluded from redressing this; and
  2. Servers may use that option of withholding their tipout, to extract special favors from the kitchen regardless of whether those favors hurt other guests or other servers.

In other words, with the business disallowed from enforcing the tipout system, control is left to the culture of the team in the restaurant; and humans being humans, more times than not that situation leads to hurt feelings, anger, or worse.

In a tipout system, what started as one enterprise (a restaurant selling its food & hospitality to its guests), has now spawned two completely new, concurrent businesses: the business of the server selling the perception of extra attention to the guest for tips; and the business of the kitchen workers selling favors to the servers for tipout.  These additional, parasitic businesses are not focused on improving the quality of the original enterprise. Instead, these secondary businesses are focused on maximizing income using short term, and proven effective, means.  (I won’t go into those means here, but you can find many of them detailed here.)

Over the last couple years, another alternative has started to emerge — the lawful tip pool.  In this model, the business is permitted by the law of the land to distribute its tips among every member of its team, including kitchen workers.  In the Ninth District (the western US), one court decision (Cumbie v. Woody Woo) has paved the way for this, but the US Department of Labor has attempted to nullify that decision by issuing new regulations.  It’s not clear that the Labor department is actually allowed to trump the court, and the matter is not yet clearly resolved. (Update: in February 2015, a ruling by a 3-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit made it once again clearly against federal law to include cooks in a tip pool).

Back in 2006, however, it was still definitely illegal for a tip pool to include back-of-house workers.  The only legal way that tip revenue could be distributed among the whole team was for it to not be tip revenue. Instead, it had to be an amount charged by the business for its service. In other words, a service charge.

So, following the lead of places like Chez Panisse, we added a line item service charge on our bills, and that allowed us to distribute the money paid for table service in a way that seemed more equitable.  Having more equitable distribution in money, of course, led to us having better quality service and food. In turn, we saw a sharp increase in business over the first two months of the new system.  Our servers’ total pay rose to about $22/hour, most of the cooks started making about $12-14 depending on experience, and the diswashers about $10. (Those numbers declined somewhat over the years, as the recession took its toll on restaurant check averages in San Diego).

There was big difference, however, between what we did and what places like Chez Panisse had done — unlike those other places, and unlike every other sit-down restaurant in America, we refused to accept money beyond the service charge.

We had a couple reasons for not letting our guests give extra money beyond the 18% we allocated for the cost of table service.  The first reason was that we wanted to make it clear to our guests that we were not trying to take more money from them — in fact, we were taking less, by switching from a tipped system that averaged 21-22% of the check, to a fixed 18%.  We were reducing our tip income by 15% as a show of good faith to our community.

The other reason we didn’t accept tips was that removing any option for tipping was the only way to remove those two parasitic businesses — the side business between the server and guest, and the side business between the server and cooks — from our own company.  By not allowing these side businesses to exist, we created an environment where all of us were engaged in only one mission, our stated goal of creating remarkable experiences for our guests, around local food and drink.  Being in only one business made us like pretty much every other company in America, except that it also made us unlike any other restaurant in America.

And the tension in that, of course, is where the interesting stuff was.

Click here to continue to Part 3.

Click here to read Part 1 of this series.

Observations From A Tipless Restaurant, Part 1: Overview

This is the first of a multi-part series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison.

On Sunday, October 12th, 2008, I woke up early and, as was my habit in those days, checked email on my smartphone to see what our sales had been the night before, and if there were any emergencies I needed to attend to before we opened for brunch. The top email in my box was from a man whose name I didn’t recognize.

“You, sir,” read the email’s only sentence, “are a douche.”

With that, I knew that the New York Times Magazine article about us had dropped.

In 2006, you see, we had turned the Linkery into a fairly interesting experiment: a table-service restaurant, serious about the quality of its food and service, that would not accept tips and instead charged a fixed percentage of the bill to cover the cost of table service. Amazingly, while there were other restaurants (most famously, Chez Panisse) that added fixed percentage “pre-tip” service charges to their bills, we appeared to be the only place in the US that combined a service charge with refusing to accept any extra tip beyond the service charge. So when Paul Wachter, the writer of the NYT Magazine piece, went looking to explore what a restaurant might look like if the tip dynamic were completely removed, he ended up with us.

His piece (click here to read it) is great, and gives you most of the background you could want to know about us, so I won’t rehash it here. I will however give an overview of the basic Linkery no-tipping story and our experiences with it, for readers who might not be familiar with it yet.

1) Due to poorly cohering laws in many Western US states, using a service charge has typically been the only legal way for a restaurant business to balance wages between servers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers. That’s why restaurants like Chez Panisse instituted such a policy. Subsequent court decisions in the Western US have opened up the possibility that other arrangements are legal, but the service charge is still the safest model.

2) Because tips cannot legally, in most cases, be controlled by the employer, they are typically distributed (or not distributed, as the case may be) according to a social compact among the employees. To the extent that the rules of the compact are enforced, enforcement is through social means, like ostracization. In either event, the systems for both acquiring and distributing tips are easily gamed by members of the serving staff who are intent on doing so.

3) The Linkery’s most transgressive act was not in implementing a service charge. Our most transgressive act was refusing to allow our guests to pay our servers anything more beyond the service charge — this is where the angry came out. A certain small number of very vocal men (and it was always men who were vocal about it) resented that we were not letting them try to exercise additional control over our team members. This was true even though compelling research has shown that servers do not adjust quality of service as a result of tips; instead the idea that the restaurant was not offering our servers up as objects of control, was heresy. For these people, the primary service they wanted from the restaurant was the opportunity to pay for favors from the server — much like the patron at a strip club pays the club for the opportunity to dangle bills in front a dancer for individual attention. The idea that a restaurant could legitimately want to be in a different business than a strip club, was not an idea these guests could countenance. Thus, I was ever subject to witty takedowns like you are a douche, along with other well-thought-out gems.

4) Our ability to make sure team members in all parts of the house were taken care of, and to remove tip-related squabbling from our business, gave us a huge competitive advantage in the marketplace; this in turn allowed us to serve a much higher quality of food and take lower margins on it. Basically, it was because of the much-lower-friction monetary flow through the company that we were able to survive as a true, deep farm-to-table restaurant in San Diego for so many years. Other operators in town, fully aware of how tips poison restaurants, knew we were enjoying an edge. Some of our colleagues resented this, and lashed out in some ways, including that of telling local journalists and bloggers that we were lying about the food we were serving. I assume that this is because those restaurants couldn’t serve the kind of food we did and still take tips, because tips are so wasteful. And if they couldn’t do it, than they assumed/said we weren’t doing it.

5) Once established, the tipless/service charge model made us more successful in every dimension. Having a sister restaurant that used the traditional model was helpful in evaluating this — at our second restaurant, for instance, we could never achieve a consistently high quality of service. We believed the block came from the sense that, once the guest delivers a tip, the quality of service has been validated — even though studies clearly show that, across a large sample, guests tip basically the same regardless of quality of service. Meanwhile, our revenue was always higher at the tipless restaurant, I think because quality of food and service were both better due to the more consistent pay system (which at the Linkery was much closer to that of a normal, non-hospitality business than that of most restaurants, where server pay varies with a lot of randomness). With higher revenue and more consistent pay system, our retention was better. This continued to be a “virtuous circle” of benefits we saw from having a tipless/service charge model. On a personal level, it was much more fun to work with the non-tipped team; in that environment it was easier to build a focus on doing great, worthwhile work, and doing it well, when those thoughts weren’t being interrupted every couple minutes by a guest deciding how much to pay a team member for their last few minutes of services rendered.

This is a summary of the experiences I had in our no-tipping lab, and in my next few posts I’ll dig a little deeper into each of them. Then I’ll finish this series by talking about what I’ve learned this year from a couple new friends who are researchers from the University of Guelph, and who have brought me in contact with some deeper thoughts about the tipping issue, from the social justice side. After seeing what they and their colleagues have uncovered, I’ve become convinced that thoughtful cultures who value civil rights will make tipping not just optional but illegal; and that this could actually happen sooner rather than later, when courts assess the reality of the situation.

click here to continue to Part 2.

The Inverted Pyramid

Closing the Linkery last week was mostly a joyous event but it was of course also, in a profound way, sad. The sadness wasn’t a sadness of ego — no, ending a project is more exciting than beginning one, in the same way that high school graduation is more exciting than the first day of ninth grade.

Instead, this sadness was very much about saying goodbye to my closest friends, the people I had worked with for so many years. They were all very generous about it, but we all knew that, by quitting in my job as owner, I was resigning as their advocate — or, as we’ve called it for a long time — firing them as my bosses. And really firing people — a thing which is different than the kind of day-to-day firing and quitting which is part of the fabric of many hospitality companies — is a raw thing to do.

Let me give a little background.

Many years ago, I was searching for a model to explain how I saw the owner/manager’s role in a company, and I ended up settling on what I call “the inverted pyramid”.

To contrast: most conceptions of how a company is organized end up looking like a pyramid. Many of us have seen this type of “org chart” distributed in companies we’ve worked at, it looks like this:

typical org chart (click to embiggen)

It is a command-and-control structure, and I believe its primary function is to perpetuate the illusion that makes us big bosses feel so good: that the success of our companies originates in our personal superawesome noggins, and we then propagate those ideas by instructing the department managers what to do, with them in turn directing the individual workers. The end result that I the big boss, get to watch what seems to be a hive of people, all acting as my extension, helping bring my Jesus-light to my customers who need it so much. Drawing that org chart feels great because it shows how important I am!

Of course, as anyone who was ever worked in a job toward the bottom of that pyramid knows, that chart has little to do with reality. In all but the most Tayloresque organizations — and in any organization that can be competitive in the post-connection economy — the people at the bottom of the chart are the ones responsible for making the decisions which make the company beloved, and doing the work that creates value. In most companies, the front-line workers are getting the job done for their customers, and also doing their best to neutralize the potentially destructive influence coming down the chain of command from the “top”.

Now, I’ve lived on all levels of that pyramid and I’ve been guilty of all sorts of sins, including top-down thinking and, as the saying goes, “taking myself too goddamned seriously”. Because when you’re responsible for meeting payroll, in times of stress it’s really hard to focus on letting each person contribute their gifts — in fact, it’s nearly impossible to *not* get into a command-and-control mentality. Simply put, when there are rocks all around the ship, you don’t want hold a town hall meeting on the bridge. That said, I know that any time I’ve been in command-and-control mode as a manager, our company was not — could not be — anywhere close to its best.

Because I know all that, I tried to change my perception of our company to an upside-down pyramid. That is, a pyramid that looks like this:

actual organizational functions (click to embiggen)

In this model, the front line workers are individual agents who do work that has intrinsic value. If, for instance, they are cooks, they could choose to sell their services independently, as private cooks who come to your kitchen and cook you dinner, one meal at a time. If they are servers, they could sell their services as individual butlers or valets. However, instead of selling their services independently, in this case they have decided to band together to sell their services as a group — say, as a restaurant.

As cooks, servers, dishwashers, janitors, and office workers, they have all the skills they need to operate the restaurant. However, if they’re busy cooking/serving/washing dishes/running spreadsheets, none of them will have the time to actually organize the company — to make sure everyone is meeting their commitments to the group, that revenues are distributed fairly, that adequate capital is obtained, that word is getting out about their product, and so on. So, this group of workers conceptually “hires” an owner/manager to assume those responsibilities, and they each agree to pay that owner a percentage of the revenue they generate.

This decision made by the workers to hire an owner works because, as a group, this band of workers has now greatly increased their earning potential: the 20 of them can easily serve 500 people in a night (25 guests per person), whereas independently they might have struggled to serve 8 people per worker. Out of the extra difference, they pay the salary of their manager, whose job is to provide them the service of maximizing the value of their effort. In other words, they have hired the “owner” to represent them and make their work as valuable as possible.

I believe that this mental illustration of the relationship between owner/manager and front-line workers (ignoring for the moment capital, to which I’ll return shortly) is the only illustration that makes sense. However, we can’t see it because of the language we use.

When a group of workers hires an owner, we say that the owner hired a group of workers.

When a single worker decides that her owner is not doing good enough work maximizing the value of her work, and she fires that owner in order to find a better one, we say that she quit.

When an owner decides that he is not capable of maximizing the value of his team as a whole if one specific person continues to be among his responsibilities, and the owner elects to stop representing the work of that person, we say that the owner fired the worker.

In every case, our language is describing the exact opposite of what happened. But there’s a reason for this: because, in our system, the capital is controlled by the management class. In fact, capital, owner and management are so closely associated that, in practice, we use the terms interchangeably.

In our situation where capital and management are completely aligned, owners of profitable collectives are able to extract far more than the value of their services. Skilled workers in most industries (unless they have very rare talents or are unionized) have extremely limited choice in hiring their owners, and are always at a major financial disadvantage in negotiations with the very managers they are hiring. If the workers want to eat and pay rent, they end up giving their owner almost all the excess value of their services. And they’re usually better off keeping whatever job they have, since any new owner they find is likely to be as bad or worse than their current one — and the worker may go broke while they find a new owner who will work for them.

(It’s interesting to note that, while it seems to us like a given, the confluence between capital, ownership and management is not a necessary condition. We can easily imagine a society where the standard model of business formation is for businesses to be capitalized by guilds. In this model, skilled workers would band together to start a company, and obtain capital from their guild, to which they already paid dues. The capital would be in the form of a loan whose interest is calculated exactly to pay the insurance against some such loans failing. The workers’ primary form of compensation is profit sharing after making their loan payments. The workers hire a manager, whose job it is to maximize the value of their effort. If the workers evaluate that the manager is not doing an adequate job in increasing their value, they fire the manager and get another one. In this perfectly plausible scenario, the guild represents the capital, the workers are the owners, and the manager is an employee. It’s only by cultural happenstance that we now typically experience all three roles as being held by the same entity, or by two or three closely aligned entities.)

Given the power imbalance in the world we actually live in, we let our language reflect the real control that management-capital has over workers. An owner who fires a worker may just be thinking that he (the owner) can perform better representing a different worker; but the truth is that usually the worker will have a much harder time finding a new owner, than the owner will have finding a new worker.

The good/bad news is, I think, that this reality is merely an artifact of the dominant business paradigm in our current society. As community-based businesses, and businesses requiring insignificant amounts of capital, become more prevalent, then capital, management and ownership can start to be seen again as separate functions. When that happens, the true role of management, as an agent of the workers whose job is to add value to their work, can be seen more easily.

Which brings us back to closing the Linkery. I made that decision that we would do so, when it became clear to me that, given the changes in the market over the last few years, I was no longer the right person to maximize the value of the work that our people could do. In fact, it was clear just about any other manager would do a better job at it. And, while there are markets in which I know I can help make people’s work much more valuable, those markets are not in San Diego. Which means I had to fire all these wonderful people — fire my closest friends — as my clients, force them to find a new manager to work for them, and leave town.

All of us will be far better off for it, I am sure. But the act of actually doing it, sucked.

Nobody Knows Anything

Screenwriter William Goldman famously said “nobody knows anything.”

He was talking about narratives. Not the narratives within a screenplay, but the narratives moviemakers use to describe what happened to their Hollywood projects, why one movie is a blockbuster and another is a bomb.

When you’re driving, and a newsbreak comes on the car radio, there’s a couple seconds where the narrator says that the market is “up 20 points on the Georgian floods” or “down one percent due to concerns about lunar mortgage softening” or whatever. In truth, nobody knows why the market is up 20 points or down one percent, but the narrator’s job is to explain things, so whatever the market’s situation is, you are given a reason.

But — nobody knows anything. If that narrator knew the exact correlation between lunar mortgage softening and the day’s stock market, he’d get out of radio and make a fortune day trading.

Here in the restaurant business, we always have an explanation for the day’s contour. By 7:30 at night, we’ll confidently assert that the rain kept everyone home (if it’s slow) or that the rain made people crave the comfort of a restaurant (if it’s busy). I love this ritual, it feels ancient, connects us to our real essence. But it’s all pure superstition — nobody actually knows anything.

Our brains process information from our senses along two pathways. The first is the “fast” pathway, that skips all rationality and goes right to our flight/flight/etc action center. This is why we reflexively duck when we see something flying at our head. We don’t create a story to explain why a thing is flying at our head — we just duck.

The “slow” pathway runs through our narration corridor, where sequence and sense is applied to the images and sounds and sensations. Instead of seeing random shifts of color, we see a person crossing the street.

Our narration system powers our dreams. As we sleep, our senses keep firing semi-randomly into our narrative mechanisms, and our brains turn those impulses into stories. We experience these stories as vividly as we experience reality: to our internal narrators, the electrical impulses we create are just as real as those we experience from the world!

While awake, we’re pretty effective at applying useful narratives to situations with which we have a lot of experience; specifically, we excel at understanding situations that have occurred for a million years to humans and our ancestors. But, situations like market dynamics have only existed for a few generations; thus, we understand market dynamics as well as our earliest ancestors understood the stars and planets.

In unfamiliar situations like the industrial world, we create explanatory narrations that placate us in light of our lack of understanding and control; but our young narratives about markets haven’t yet risen to the sophisticated level of myth or religion (Chicago School notwithstanding).

In modernity, our main activity is to paste shoddy explanatory narratives onto our confusing circumstances. The narratives don’t stand up to scrutiny, but… they all we got.

Personally, I’m starting on a quest to eliminate explanatory narratives from my life. I want to identify the things I can’t understand and bask in the awe of that which is beyond my comprehension.

And when I hear stories, and tell stories, I want them to be real stories, that tell the truth about us, even when the stories are fictional.

Stories open doors; explanations close them.

Because nobody knows anything.

My Biased Guide To Mexican Wine Country

Explanation and disclaimer: this is written at the very beginning of 2012, and is current to that time. Be advised that things can change rapidly around these parts.

Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe compose what I think is the premier wine country destination for Southern Californians, but finding an initial handhold in the area can be a little tricky: much of the best stuff is hard to get to and requires a little upfront knowledge. The flip side of this coin is that the region is small and the people are very familial, so it’s easy to personally meet a lot of the people driving the gastronomy and culture.

The Origin Story

First, a little background. The Valle de Guadalupe and surrounding areas are one of the oldest wine growing regions in California. However, its current era is considered to have started in the late 80’s, when winemaker Hugo D’Acosta came to Santo Tomas winery with a program to develop the region via wine, food and culture. He brought chef Benito Molina from Mexico City to helm Santo Tomas’ restaurant in downtown Ensenada, and Hugo’s brother, architect Alejandro D’Acosta, designed the new Santo Tomas winery faciltiy south of town.

Hugo and his wife Gloria Ramos founded La Escuelita — a winemaking school — and in the late 90’s Hugo left Santo Tomas and started a series of wineries in the Valley, including Casa de Piedra and Paralelo. Benito left Santo Tomas and he and his wife Solange Muris opened Manzanilla Restaurant in town. in 2001, Jair Téllez opened Laja in the Guadalupe Valley, bringing wine country food to the Valley itself.

Over the years, as more people attended the school, started making wines, and developed the cuisine and culture, a vibrant winemaking region developed.

Truth be told, I see all of these people regularly, and it’s never occurred to me to ask them if all the details of this story, which I feel I’ve heard a thousand times, are accurate. Perhaps some aspects are a little simplified or incorrect; but in any case it’s kind of the accepted wisdom, and serves as a good backdrop against which to explore the dynamic happenings of the moment.

Wine and Wineries

In my opinion, what distinguishes Baja California wine country from most of its counterparts in California is how widespread the integrity of Mexican wines is: while the wines aren’t generally cheap, there’s only a little market-driven winemaking, and most of the wines reflect the character of the grapes, the location, and the winemakers.

That said, here are some things to keep in mind:

* The most visible winery in the region, L.A. Cetto (pronounced “CHET-toe”, it’s an Italian surname), makes many good wines, particularly under their Don Luis label; however, they also make some very inexpensive, not-as-good wines. You may have had one of those wines and decided you don’t like Mexican wine, or maybe toured their winery and found it (while in my opinion reasonably fun) to be similar to other large winery tours in more well-known winemaking areas. There’s a lot more going on in the region than you’d know if you only know Cetto: it’s a large winery that’s been doing its thing for a long time and it seems to operate fairly indepedent of the recent developments in the area. Enjoy Cetto for what it is, but look beyond it, too.

* Similarly, Domecq is another large, well-established winery. I’ve never tasted their wine, but from their size and visibility I imagine it has similar strengths and weaknesses as LA Cetto.

* Like any wine region, there is bad wine coming out of Mexico, both from large corporate producers and small wineries. Don’t let that discourage you from finding the good wines.

* As a nascent winemaking region without economies of scale, and also because of the tax system in Mexico, good Mexican wine isn’t cheap. At a retail store or winery, expect to pay about $15/bottle minimum for a good white and at least $25/bottle for a good red. For that price, though, you’re likely to get a handcrafted product that reflects a physical and cultural landscape unlike that of any other wine region.

* Right now, some wineries are working to make good table wines at slightly lower prices, and so far I’ve tasted a few successes (Adobe Guadalupe’s Jardin Secreto comes to mind at around $20).

The most distinctive aspect of the terroir of the Valle de Guadalupe proper is a flavor I describe as “salted plum”. In the better wines, this adds a great, subtle character; in the less-good wines, it can get unpleasantly overpowering. I’m told this flavor originates in the water table, which in some parts of the valley can have a lot of salinity from the seasonal river that flows through the Valley. In other parts of the Valley the water is very “sweet” with little or no salinity. This difference is reflected in grapes from different vineyards in the Valley, where some wines show a more distinct salinity than other wines. That said, there is also plenty of wine being made with grapes from nearby areas that show none of this salinity: these areas include Ojos Negros, Santo Tomas, Uruapan, Tecate, and others. Personally, I really enjoy the salted plum character when it expresses itself subtly.

Here are some of the wines I most often find myself drinking:

Mogor Badan. This is a very small winery that predates the “Hugo Era”, which means that one occasionally finds bottles of their red wine from as far back as the early 80’s. Mogor makes two wines, a red blend which is expensive, and a Chasselas white wine which is a less expensive wine we often drink at home. The original winemaker, Antonio Badan, passed away a few years ago, and his sister took over as winemaker. Wine from both winemakers is, in my experience, excellent.

Vena Cava. Vena Cava is made by Phil Gregory, who along with his wife Eileen Gregory owns and operates the terrific La Villa del Valle bed and breakfast, and its restaurant Corazon de Tierra. Vena Cava’s primary wines are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc (my favorite wine wih Baja oysters), Cabernet Sauvignon, and a “Big Blend” red. These are available and distributed on both sides of the border. Phil also makes reserve wines, and a glorious bubbly cava which is sometimes available at their restaurant.

Moebius. Laja’s partner/GM Andrés Blanco makes his own wines on this label, and they are reliably delicious. His pink wine, called Antithesis, is a go-to for me, but his Moebius white and red wines are great, too. Andres also makes a wine from French grapes called Vice Versa, which I quite like. I’m seeing this — Mexican winemakers importing grapes — more often. I’m told this is happening because the prices for excellent Baja grapes has risen dramatically due to increased demand for Mexican wine.

Ulloa. Ulloa (the actual name of the winery is Agrifolia, but Ulloa is what’s printed on the labels) is also made by Andrés Blanco, in partnership with Laja/Merotoro partner/chef Jair Téllez. These wines are made in Tecate. The white has a captivating tropical fruit taste, while the red is one of the most dependably good values I find in restaurants.

Adobe Guadalupe. Hugo D’Acosta is the lead winemaker for Adobe Guadalupe, which is also a very well-liked bed and breakfast outside of the town of Guadalupe (I’ve never been inside the property, but I hear great things). Their main wines are all named after archangels and are uniformly delicious; they also make a “value” red called Jardin Secreto which costs around $20 and that we often drink at home and in restaurants.

Pijoan. Pau Pijoan is a retired veterinarian who names all his wines after the women in his life. My favorites — wines, that is — are Silvana, a Chenin Blanc blend, and Paulinha, a funky clairet-style chilled red (really very dark pink). Many of Pau’s wines come from grapes grown in Uruapan, south of Ensenada.

Calixa. This is the second label of the Monte Xanic winery, and while everything I’ve had by Calixa recently has been good, we are particularly enamored of their Grenache rosé which you can often find in restaurants in Mexico for under $30/bottle, and is usually around $15 in a store.

As for visiting wineries, it’s a slightly different thing. Some wineries are open to the public only by appointment, some only on weekends, and some only during the week. Others don’t really accommodate guests at all.

As far as visiting the wineries listed above:

* Monte Xanic, which is a fairly big winery with a fun tasting room, is open daily for tastings.

* Pijoan is often open for tasting on the weekends and their web site mentions appointments.

* Vena Cava has a brand-new, intimate winery designed by Alejandro D’Acosta, which is visually stunning, they offer tours and tasting by appointment, and tasting without an appointment in the restaurant on the property, Corazon de Tierra. I’m told the winery itself will be establishing regular hours soon. The winery and restaurant are on the same property with La Villa del Valle.

* Mogor Badan is said to be open on Saturdays and by appointment, and Adobe Guadalupe by appointment.

* I don’t beleive Moebius or Ulloa are open to the public.

One of the most memorable winery tours I’ve ever had was at Paralelo, designed by Alejandro D’Acosta (see an LA Times photo essay on it here). They offer tastings by appointment only. Other wineries which can be particularly enjoyable to visit include Tres Mujeres and Hacienda La Lomita, both of which are (at least sometimes) open for tasting on weekends.

Prime hours for visiting wineries are typically 11am to 3pm. Wineries often change their tasting hours or days so don’t be afraid to call first.

Restaurants and Food

First, a surprising note: while Ensenada and the Valle compose, in my opinion, the best restaurant region south of the San Francisco Bay Area, great wine in restaurants, particularly by the glass, is less available than it should be. The reasons have to do with the relatively high cost of wine in the area, high taxes on wine, and the economic downturn that hit restaurants and tourism here starting in 2009.

As a result, the best by-the-glass wine lists tend to be at restaurants that have a connection either to a winery (such as Laja with Ulloa and Moebius wines, and Corazon de Tierra with Vena Cava wines) or to a wine store (such as Parque with La Contra). At other restaurants without such an affiliation, the by-the-glass list may be either very limited or hit-and-miss, although usually there is a good (but typically somewhat expensive) bottle selection and corkage seems to be welcome everywhere in the region.

Here are the places I eat at most often.

In the Valle de Guadalupe

* Laja is the grand-daddy of deep farm-to-table cuisine in both Southern California and Baja California. Simple presentations with exquisite flavors, produce grown on site, local meats and seafood, local handcrafted wine, olive oil, cheese. Year in and year out, Laja has been consistently world-class, and very influential throughout Mexico as well as San Diego and Los Angeles. Fixed price, either four or eight courses.

* The brand new baby of the Valley, on the other hand, is Corazon de Tierra, at the Villa del Valle/Vena Cava property. The restaurant is gorgeous; you eat on a glass enclosed deck overlooking the restaurant’s garden, with sweeping views of the Valley in the background. The cuisine draws on the Valle de Guadalupe / Ensenada tradition that’s been set out in the last decade or two, but also is staking out its own identity. And it’s delicious. Usually five or six courses, fixed price.

* In the hills above San Antonio de las Minas, Ochento’s Pizza makes tasty thick crust pizzas in a brick oven, and, I’ve been told, their own wines (which are good). Often they feature live music on weekend evenings, too. Typically about $20/per person for pizza & wine including tip.

* Just west of the town of Guadalupe (aka Francisco Zarco), on the road connecting to El Porvenir, is an open-air carnitas stand on the side of the road, across from the auto parts store. It’s open Saturday and Sunday mornings until the pig runs out. The owner’s son is the Chef de Cuisine at Laja; in different ways, I enjoy both restaurants as much.

In Town

In my opinion, the signature dish of modern Ensenada gastronomy (slightly apart from that of the Valle de Guadalupe) is a simple dish of sashimi in a garlic-chili-soy marinade. It’s listed on menus as tiradito de pescado. The three places I know that offer it — all of them have some historic relationship to chef Benito Molina — all do the dish slightly differently. They are:

* Manzanilla, Benito and Solange’s restaurant, is now located on the harbor and is great. They cook a hell of a Sonoran rib-eye too.

* Boules, on the bluffs in San Miguel, is the project of longtime Manzanilla General Manager Javi Martinez and is equally enjoyable for the food, the view, and the games of petanque which are played there, particularly on Sundays and Mondays.

* Muelle Tres, owned by Javi’s brother David, is an casual but upscale take on an Ensenada mariscos stand, also with beer, good wine and good mezcal. It’s on the harbor boardwalk, next to the open-air fish market and the old-school seafood stands. I eat here a lot and love it.

I also eat fairly often at these places:

* Ophelia in El Sauzal. I like this place because the food has a different vibe than most places in town, while still being obviously Ensenadan. Plus, they have a really enjoyable, inexpensive house wine.

* Parque (downtown). It’s attached to a La Contra wine shop, the small by-the-glass wine selection is always good, and of course you can buy any bottle in the wine shop, so that is excellent. The margherita pizza is a standby for me, but I’ve enjoyed every dish I’ve ordered here.

* Criollo (downtown). They call it a taperia (tapas + taqueria): small plates of creative takes on Mexican food. Fun, delicious, and inexpensive. It’s right next to a La Contra wine shop so you can buy a bottle of your preference to pair with dinner.

* Tacos El Fenix “Mi Ranchito” (Espinosa and 6th, downtown). This is a venerable Ensenada instution for fish tacos, and as with all such institutions you can find people say it’s not the best in town any more. That very easily could be true, though I haven’t spent much effort looking for a better one. That’s because this is the only place I’ve eaten at the last ten years where fish tacos taste like I remember them from my youth. In San Diego now, even fried fish tacos are some kind of Mrs. Paul’s inspired battering of cheap whitefish in a mayo-sour cream sauce. At Fenix, the batter is golden and fluffy, the fish has some pop, and the sauce has that sweet/tangy edge that made me fall in love with the thing in the first place. Good stuff.

Be your own restaurant

Much of the seafood served by the best restaurants in town comes through De Garo, a little shop in central Ensenada. It’s the easiest and tastiest thing around to buy some oysters from Garo, a bottle of white wine at any of the La Contra shops, and make your own feast whereever you’re at. Garo also always has excellent fish suitable for grilling if you have access to such facilities.

Just north of the harbor in Ensenada, on the main road, you’ll find a shop called La Flor de Calabaza, that is bringing much of the best produce from the Valley into town. If you’re putting together a picnic or cooking for yourself, here you can find excellent olive oil, local cheeses, preserves, the fixins for a salad, and great eggs. They also have very good coffee and tea, and often have savory treats including tamales.

Culture

And by culture, I mostly mean bars.

My favorite bar right now is Oyster Bar Ultramarino, which features immoderately sized sangria and mojitos, and live music in their back courtyard. Takon Machine, a band which plays cumbia versions of popular songs (Spanish-language and English), plays there a lot, as do plenty of other local bands. Ultramarina is a short bike ride from my abode, which I admit adds to its allure.

If you haven’t been to Hussong’s Cantina, you should go. It dates to the 1800’s and is really a great local place even though it’s also a well-known tourist destination.

In addition to the food and booze, I also appreciate the new architecture of the region, especially the work of Alejandro d’Acosta and Claudia Turrent. They’re a husband and wife who maintain separate architectural practices. Some of their most easily-viewed work includes La Escuelita in El Porvenir, and the Tierra de Corazon restaurant and Vena Cava winery, both at La Villa del Valle.

On a serious note about culture here: I’ve only been spending time regularly in Ensenada and the Valle for about six or seven years, there is a rich culture of excellence that I’ve just barely experienced. It runs deep and exists in nooks and crannies and in people’s backyards and personal passions. I think experiencing the depth of the culture is a great reward that awaits anyone who gets to know the region well. Ensenada and the wine country is a place that attracts people with a passion for craft and excellence in many things, and any place you go in the region is a place you may discover something world-class you’ve never before known.

Further Resources

The Wine Route guide from Baja California Tourism office offers great information and maps.

Bajadock’s interactive map of Ensenada and the Valley includes many of the places mentioned in this post.

This Wine Country Guide from Baja Bound Insurance company has contact, tasting, and tour information for many wineries in the area.

Laja: Making It True

When I first set foot in Laja, in the spring of 2005, the Linkery had been open a couple months to a very encouraging initial reception. Our neighborhood believed in us and our goals. We were amateurs, we were passionate, we were committed to creating a local, seasonal cuisine relevant to our place.

We also served a salad with pomegranate seeds on it, in April. We didn’t know what we were doing.

Prior to opening our restaurant, we had met with numerous distributors of meats and produce. We’d review their offerings, and then I might explain how we’d like to make sausages from pigs from different farmers, and of different breeds, so our guests could experience the difference. This to someone whose years of selling pork consisted entirely of selling maybe a couple different grades of factory pork from huge conglomerates. Of course, my experience of buying pork consisted entirely of reading about heritage breed farmers like Paul Willis and Eliza MacLean, making me the far more ignorant party. Needless to say, I was redirected to the price sheet and the currently available options.

In the entrance to the Linkery, I hung a manifesto that I had written, and had typeset and framed. We make and serve San Diego cuisine, it said, going on then to champion our commitment to local and regional produce bought in season, and heritage breed meats. A month into the project, a young woman named Tara Pelletier, who was dining with us, asked me for a job. She was an experienced sausage maker and line cook at perhaps the best restaurant in San Diego. She wanted to help make us great. She took me to the manifesto on the wall and said, the first thing I want to do is, I want to make this true.

Please, I said, I can’t wait.

I don’t know whether it was a week or a month later that I ended up at Laja, but I know those words — I want to make this true — were still ringing in my ears. The thing was, nobody, as far as I could tell, had figured out how to really make it true in Southern California. I knew of a few restaurants that would buy some produce from Crows Pass or Chino Farms, but it didn’t seem like that food was driving their menu. Region restaurant had opened as the first San Diego restaurant explicitly based on the Chez Panisse model with a dedicated forager combing the farmers markets; while I was a fan of Region, the city farmers markets didn’t seem to have a ton of interesting produce, and with my unsophistication, I couldn’t easily tease out the relationship between the local growers and the Region cuisine. I certainly didn’t understand it well enough to apply it to our situation. All of the other good restaurants in town had more or less fixed menus, and bought produce from an all-seasons growing region stretching from Southern Mexico to Washington State.

Nowhere in here was an example of what we had in mind for “San Diego cuisine.”

Then, one day, a friend and I were in Ensenada for reasons I can’t remember, and I had a business card that had been given to me by another friend a few months earlier. He had told me that a guy he knew, a fan of food and restaurants, loved this place Laja, and perhaps I would too. We decided to go home via the Tecate highway, and maybe see if Laja were open for lunch. I thought maybe there were some wineries around there, too, we could check out.

The first time you go to Laja, maybe even the first few times, the journey, from wherever you start to the front door of the restaurant, is essential to the experience. In 2005, when the road was narrow and ill-paved, with hardly any amenities, this was even more true. A single sign, an unpaved road, an unmanned gate, a dirt lot, few signs of life outside a silent but beautiful farmhouse.

We parked, got out, bumbled around, maybe we noticed the garden or maybe not, I can’t remember. I wasn’t really aware of the garden until I asked where the arugula — the best, most alive, most compelling arugula I had ever tasted in my life — came from. From the garden, Andrés said. All the produce. Everything was local to the valley or to town. The olive oil. The wine. The lamb. The seafood. The meal itself was a revelation, comparable to the best I’d had at Chez Panisse, in a setting that defied my ability to process it. Everything hand made, everything cooked beautifully.

Everything about Laja was infused with a commitment to food that comes from a real place, a real place was right here, only 90 miles from my home and our restaurant. This was real San Diego cuisine, even if we weren’t technically in San Diego.

And so, I went, and went, and went some more. I brought our chefs, our sous chefs, our managers, my friends, and my girlfriends. (Not that all those categories were always clearly separated.) There was always more to learn. I got to know about the farmers, the winemakers, the cheeses and the olive oil, and in time developed friendships with the people, friendships that I treasure more than any meal. The beauty of the Laja project is in the unity of people, place, culture and food, all of which are treated with respect, love and craft.

At the end of that year, the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, I went for dinner with the local alt-weekly’s restaurant critic, and our dates. It was his last review before retiring from the writing racket, and he wanted to go out with something special. It was also Laja’s last nite open for the year, before six weeks of being closed. We were there late, as was my wont, enjoying cheeses, grappa, and so on, when suddenly the dining room filled up with young Mexican women, their children, and extended families. It was the year-end celebration for the Laja team and their families.

Many of the women had cooked for the occasion, and they shared with us. Us, who had just eaten an 8-course meal plus cheeses and breads. There were tamales that we all agreed were the best we had ever eaten, filled with parts of pig I’m not sure I would recognize to this day. A kind of winter tequila punch was passed around. I don’t remember leaving, but I remember staying for quite a while. For the Laja crew and their families, it was the closing ceremonies of another year working. For me, it closed the first year of my understanding of what was possible, even in a place like my hometown, with little history of food worth eating.

Within a year or so, by late 2006 or early 2007, I was maybe the most visible Laja fan on the Internet. Or so I found out, when Gourmet magazine’s TV production crew asked me to be the “foodie” in their TV show Diary of a Foodie, when it featured the Valle de Guadalupe.

The TV production side of the experience was predictable; the theme of the episode was “Baja: The New Provence” and the essential task of the producers was to get all of us talking about how the Valle had everything in common with Provence. Unfortunately, I don’t know Jacques about Provence, and the many well-traveled Mexicans in the show who did know a lot about Provence weren’t particularly inclined to say the two regions were alike. The producers solved this problem by taking so much footage that, we joked, they could easily splice together a conversation in which we talked about how much we loved McDonald’s.

I’ve never seen the episode, and I can’t imagine watching it. I can only imagine how horrible we come off, after editing, and how much the producers and writers must have missed by looking for Provence when the real story is so much more interesting. What I do remember — and treasure — is sitting at Sylvestre after filming, with people who have since become inspirations and in many cases good friends: people like the Gregorys, the Pijoans, Benito and Solange, the d’Acostas. And, of course, Jair, owner and chef of Laja, who got me started on this whole damn road to begin with.

Jair had hooked me, by presenting real tangible answers to the question: What does farm-to-table, real farm-to-table, look like in this specific place where we live? I’ve watched him answer that question a hundred different ways, but when I try to describe it, one simple meal comes to mind.

In May 2009 the media’s fixation on the narco wars, along with its xenophobic coverage of the swine flu epidemic, had taken massive casualties: Americans were simply gone from northern Baja. Restaurants in Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe sat empty, waiters drumming their fingers through lunch, and then dinner, on days and nights when they literally might see not a single patron. Laja, being a thirty-minute drive from the tourist corridor, suffered more than most. Yet, they kept offering their eight-course meal of produce from their garden, local meats and fish, and brilliant preparations.

One spring day, we wandered in, said hi to our friends, and ordered the meal. Jair was there and we talked for a while, until after our second course or so, when he excused himself. As we enjoyed the third course and waited for the fourth — rabbit — we caught a glimpse of him and a couple cooks walking down the hill to their back lot. And, a little while later, walking back with a white trash bag.

After we devoured our meal, and Jair came back into the dining room, we asked him if they had just killed the rabbit before serving it to us. He smiled: with business like this we can’t keep a lamb in the walk-in, it would go bad before we had enough customers to eat it.

That was then. Now, the American tourists have been replaced by Mexicans from Monterrey and Mexico City visiting “the Napa of Mexico” — a description which in many ways flatters Napa. The restaurant has no trouble keeping meat in the walk-in anymore; every time we go it has many great, appreciative groups of guests. Laja is a success story, and one that couldn’t have been possible without the deepest of commitments to doing things the right way, no matter how unorthodox that might seem at the time.

But one thing, even as early as the summer of 2005, on my second or third or fifth visit, has been, and continues to be, crystal clear. If we want to make that thing true, here’s a way to do it.

And it needs to be done.

Looking Out From The Diorama

I’m sitting on the patio at Laja with owners Jair Téllez and Andres Blanco, talking about what makes a city respond better or worse to certain restaurants. At this time in our culture, says Jair, the restaurant has become the place where people go, to experience themselves as they want to be. In San Francisco, which sees itself as the most European of American cities….

He trails off, because the implications are obvious. Of course San Francisco would have the best restaurants and the best food, just as a byproduct, really, of its citizens’ aspirations, their self-image, their goals for themselves and their city.

The implications for San Diego, are fairly obvious, too, though more troubling. My hometown’s vision for itself, as expressed by its civic choices, is a hamlet that is small, unprovocative, non-innovative, insular: at best unobtrusive and, at worst, xenophobic. What kinds of places would be created by a citizenry like ours, to realize our aspirations? What kind of aspirations could we have? Our city is barely even a union of residents but more a patchwork of residential developments, a sprawl of Spartan dormitories for cubicle helots. What vision of ourselves could possibly tie us together?

In the past, possessed of a strong desire to engage with the culture of my city, I wanted to holler at naysayers who scorned the better ingredients that some restaurants were starting to work with, the higher quality food that started being available. Some restaurants were moving this way despite the cool reception such effort tended to get from the few people who were even paying attention. What kind of restaurants, I thought, do you want us to end up with? If we don’t support the idea of trying to do better, of cooking with better ingredients and of trying to make more delicious food, how will this ever become a great city for eating? Why trash the premise that good ingredients are better, that good food is better, than the mass-produced alternative? What’s to gain by denying even the existence of higher quality food?

But now I saw, from my seat on the Laja patio, that the restaurants that a city has already tells you everything you could know about what that city wants. Walk into the most popular restaurants in the city and you are seeing the shoebox diorama into which we have inserted our idealized selves.

Probably different people would draw different conclusions about what San Diego restaurants tell us about our vision of ourselves, but I think one thing is clear: the San Francisco ideal of cooks hand-crafting meals from high-quality, thoughtfully-grown ingredients is not an essential component.

And what did all this say about me? Here I was at my long-time favorite restaurant, steps from the garden from which my night’s meal would come, enveloped by hectares of grapevines and olive orchards, bullshitting about restaurants and clients with one of the country’s great chefs and a man who makes some of its best wines. What vision of myself was I actualizing by being here, by coming here? What fictionalized version of myself so entranced me six years earlier, when I pulled off the rural highway and ate and drank and experienced, for the first time, the flavors of my home region? How much of what I saw, what moved me so deeply, was pure theater, intentionally created by my now-friends; how much of it was theater created by me for my own consumption; how much of it was naturally “authentic” to the process of growing food and living in the Valle?

Unpacking the answers to questions like these could take a lifetime. Or, at least, the length of a restaurant career.

San Diego Beer Week

The third San Diego Beer Week is just around the corner. It seems like just yesterday that a group of friends got drunk one night and started a ball rolling that snowballed into what is now a huge annual event. I mean, Beer Week was going to happen in San Diego one way or another, but the way it actually came down seems, in retrospect, improbable. I was there, and it is fun to recall.

In spring of 2009, our friends at Magnolia Pub in the Haight had told us about the many successes of San Francisco’s second Beer Week. Philly’s 2009 Beer Week, also its second, had just concluded. There were grumblings in San Diego’s craft beer community, frustration that San Diego — which would, in that same year, be named by Men’s Journal as the nation’s best city for beer — didn’t have a Beer Week.

Eric Spieth — then CEO of Mad River Brewing — was in town visiting us, and by the end of the nite we found ourselves at a table at Blind Lady Alehouse. Eric, Michael from the Linkery, Andy Waer (who I believe was already then a Cicerone) and I were running through pitchers fast enough that I’m not sure of exactly who else was there. Lee Chase, former lead brewer at Stone and now Blind Lady co-owner, came in and out of the conversation, which turned, naturally, to what it would take to get Beer Week rolling.

Andy had been recently surprised to find that the URL “sdbeerweek.com” was still available. It showed that nothing was happening on the Beer Week front. With only a little encouragement, he bought it on his smartphone. Now you own Beer Week!

Prodded by Eric’s “why not just do it?” attitude, we discussed how we would make it happen. If we just act like it’s a done deal, everyone will participate. Everyone’s just waiting for some authority to set the date. We’ll just act as though that’s happened already.

Andy knew the national craft beer event calendar, and identified a week (I think it was in June) that had no competition. I tweeted from the Linkery account that I had just gotten word about the dates of Beer Week, and that we were stoked to participate; we all texted various friends in the industry to similar effect. Lee, who is generally down for anything that involves good beer, was down with Beer Week too.

Of course, what is a brilliant idea at midnite sometimes has unexpected repercussions the next morning.

People in the industry, many of them our friends, were confused and somewhat taken aback. I think they didn’t quite understand how this had all happened overnite with no planning, but they saw we were somehow the culprits. It seemed like they weren’t sure how seriously to take us, but since there was this air of inevitability about Beer Week happening eventually, it was conceivable that we might actually be the ones doing it.

Then a local tavern owner, known for this sort of thing, wrote in his Internet newsletter a long diatribe lambasting us for having no business organizing Beer Week. Not only were we basically nobodies in the local beer community (which was somewhat true of me, for sure), the worst part was that I (Jay) wasn’t even a committed beer drinker, I drank wine instead of beer (which was also largely true — our commitment to craft beer is carried principally by our team, not by me). The missive, replete with missing punctuation and frantic grammar, was a car crash that few could turn away from, and as a result it was cemented: the Beer Week train was rolling and we were somehow at — or near — the controls. At the center of it all was Andy, who had the URLs and who also, by a drunken vote of acclamation, owned Beer Week.

We quickly ended up in impassioned discussions with brewery owners and the Brewers’ Guild. My belief was that in other cities, Beer Week was run by the restaurants, and that it wasn’t something the Guild needed to coordinate, just support. (I lost that argument, which was for the best. The Guild does a great job coordinating the event.)

A couple of us, including me, advocated for a crowdsourced model with minimal control; the Guild pushed for a top-down structure with a crowdsourced event component. That was another case where the Guild’s vision was better than mine, their argument won the day and proved to be superior. There were conflicting opinions as to the best date: in the end, November was chosen over August. I suspect now that the date isn’t that important, it would have been successful in either month.

By November, the tussling had been forgotten, and mostly what had happened is that a bunch of restaurants and bars had organized excellent events. Andy served that week as kind of the Beer Week Czar, which had to be exhausting, there were so many happenings worth attending. And the Guild and the breweries had put together a hell of a Beer Week.

Since that time, a lot has changed. We let our membership in the Guild lapse, deciding it was better suited to craft-beer-driven bars than ingredent-driven restaurants (though we still do a full schedule of events for Beer Week). Eric left Mad River. As far as I know, Andy isn’t a Czar of Beer Week anymore. The URL that started it all is no longer used. The tavern owner now has a chain of establishments, which I’m told are mostly successful.

San Diego Beer Week was going to happen regardless of what schemes we hatched that nite at Blind Lady. I’m grateful to have spent a little time at its inception, wrangling with it. And now I’m more than contented during Beer Week, just from participating in a great craft beer happening.

And I still often choose to drink wine.

Do Something With Your Food

Yesterday I spoke to a group of culinary students about farm-to-table restaurants. Finding that they had not had any courses on the history of restaurants in general, we started with a brief, oversimplified accounting of how modern restaurants came to be, and then talked about farm-to-table cuisine in that context.

The ancestor of the modern table-service restaurant looked something like this: English aristocracy in a luxury Paris hotel or nearby chateau, their meal being cooked by a brigade of French men who had studied in culinary guilds and/or the French Army. With no refrigeration available, only slow transportation, no cultural emphasis on sanitation, and no guarantee that the food was grown nearby, the quality and condition of the food coming into the kitchen was, at the very least, undependable. Only the skill of the chefs could create alchemy — turning the unremarkable and perhaps foul ingredients into a meal fit, literally, for a king. In this context you see both the origin of the heavy classical French sauces, and of the macho chef-strutting later to become embodied in the caricature of pre-Food-Network Anthony Bourdain, among many others.

Meanwhile, in seaside towns and farming village throughout Europe (and to some extent in the New World), people worked with local ingredients and traditional local recipes to make dinner for their families and neighbors. Sometimes this cuisine would also express itself in an inn or a rustic restaurant, probably in which only one type of meal would be cooked each day — no menu from which to order. The cooks were generally women, and the cooking was an expression of the place, people, and culture that had, over time, naturally coalesced into a cuisine.

This division in restaurant styles persisted, more or less, into modern times. In the US, serious restaurants were all of the French Brigade variety, and without much of a rustic tradition to call upon, in much of the country the local foodways that would uniquely inform a community cuisine simply didn’t exist.

In the 1970’s came the inception of farm-to-table cuisine, often called in its era “California cuisine”. While several restaurants pushed the idea forward more or less concurrently, it is of course Alice Waters and Chez Panisse — a restaurant named after a character in a movie about life in seaside France — that are most iconically associated with the idea.

The promise of the farm-to-table restaurant is simple: all the skill of great chefs, applied to the best possible ingredients. With the freedom now to not hide the flavors of the ingredients but instead to explore and celebrate them.

Within the farm-to-table narrative the chef is not much of hero. And it turns out that a lot of people — including chefs, restaurant patrons, and TV audiences — prefer stories with heroes. Thus you have the bemusing situation of certain diners seeking out places with mediocre ingredients and a chef that can make them taste good, rather than places with excellent ingredients and a (almost certainly lesser-known) chef that starts with good tasting food, and the intention of making it excellent.

In the farm-to-table paradigm, the preparation of the meal starts with attention to the soil. The farmer’s work is realized at the point of a fork — by the time the ingredient reaches the kitchen, its potential has largely been determined by the work done to grow it. Oftentimes, the ingredient may be so excellent that the chef feels called to do very little to it beyond presenting it to the guest. When the instinct to not interfere with great ingredients becomes a culture and a cuisine, people who are passionate about cooking find the results highly unsatisfying. Thus David Chang’s poignant and frustrated lash: “fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food.”

Chang exaggerates, but he has a point. In a farm-to-table project, the line between cooking the food and fetishizing the food can get pretty thin. In order for the restaurant to meaningfully contribute to its community, it has to have a point of view, a sense of who it is and who it serves, and to express that through its food, and through its clientele. This is more the case than ever, now that restaurants have evolved to perform a unique role in American life, something which will be the topic of a forthcoming post.

A Dish on Authenticity

“So,” said a friend, who I hadn’t seen in a couple years, asking about El Take It Easy. “I assume it’s Mexican food, really authentic?”

Which opens a big can of gusanos.

Personally, I consider what we’re doing now at El Take It Easy to be the most authentic project I’ve ever worked on.  But, at the same time, the leading criticism I’ve received about dishes at the restaurant is that they are not authentic.  What gives?  Somewhere we differ in our understanding of what makes something “authentic”.

Consider the kinds of foods that people descibe as “authentic”, the cuisines where reviews of a restaurant note whether adequate numbers of its clientele are of the appropriate ethnic group. Mexican food, Southern barbecue, Thai, Indian, sushi but not the California kind. Chinese but not the Chow Mein kind, Basque but not modern cuisine from the Basque region, Neopolitan pizza but not woodfired California pizza. Sometimes Italian but never checkered-tablecloth Italian, even though I think checkered-tablecloth Italian cuisine is incredibly well-defined.

And cuisines for which authenticity seems never, at least around here, to be much of a consideration: American burgers and diner food, farm-to-table California Cuisine, molecular gastronomy. Escoffier-based French restaurant cuisine. English pub fare and German sausages. Pre-Colombian Native American cuisine and San Diego taco shop dishes.  Wine country cuisine.

It seems to me that where authenticity is relevant, we are reinforcing the difference between the mainstream culture consuming the product, and the marginalized yet coherent culture producing the product.  In other words, by valuing the “authenticity” of the Indian restaurant, we are asserting that Indian-ness is a specific thing, and reminding all of us, Indians and non-Indians, to maintain the distinction between the two.

When in time we allow non-authentic Indian food to be valued, then we are blurring the line between Indians and non-Indians in our culture, which represents both the “positives” of assimilation, and the “negatives” of losing a distinct culture.  I suppose London has begun this process, where “curry shops” are, as far as I know, not held to a standard of authenticity as much as being cheap and delicious.

I’ve never been to India, but I’d wager that most of its restaurants are not valued on how authentically Indian they are, and that people there rarely pay attention to whether a sufficient number of a restaurant’s clientele are Indian.  At the same time, I bet that in India, as everywhere I’ve seen, there are restaurants featuring ethnic specialties from other regions, and those restaurants are expected to hew to a certain ideal of authenticity.

In other words, in this context, “authentic” matters until the ethnic group has assimilated, at least to some degree.  That’s why there’s no talking about whether an American burger is authentic or not — there’s no ethnic group defined by it.  Similarly, in San Diego, the taco shops are such a part of mainstream culture that it’s rarely discussed whether the menu of a given taco shop is “authentic” to the San Diego taco shop ideal.  (But if someone starts putting rice in their burritos and steaming the tortillas like they do in San Francisco, I’m coming with the pitchfork).

If this is true, then when people talk about a restaurant or dish as being authentic, they’re not so much talking about how well this instance of the cuisine mimics other, previous instances of the cuisine, but instead they are talking about how well this restaurant, or this particular cooking, maintains the separation of the ethnic group from mainstream culture.

This situation makes for a very interesting constriction in developing a restaurant or menu: if your cuisine is informed by that of an ethnic group considered both clearly defined and separate from the mainstream, then suddenly there is an expectation that you be authentic, or else you’re alienating people both inside and outside the dividing line.

Which of course is what we did at Easy.

Mexican food is a particularly dicey subject because, to many patriotic Mexicans, these traditional dishes — denoted by UNESCO as an “Intangible Heritage of Humanity” — tie together the nation and culture.  To dilute or debase it is no trivial matter.  On the other hand, sometime in the early 90’s somebody around here had the idea of putting tater tots in a carne asada burrito, and that worked out pretty well.

We never had any pretention at El Take It Easy that we were going to cook Mexican food.  Instead we had the idea that we would ignore the border and cook food that made sense to our region, its history and culture.  At first, that included items like Tijuana’s Kentucky Fried Buches and a McDonald’s-on-artisan-crack plate of pastured chicken nuggets in mole made with organic Oaxacan-style chocolate.

Most common negative reaction to the chicken nuggets?  That the mole wasn’t authentic.  Looking back, I should have told people that in fact we were using the actual recipe used by the staff at the Oaxaca City Burger King. Instead, I would explain that it was prepared from a Tolucan family recipe.  That didn’t matter; the point was that pairing mole and chicken nuggets said something about culture that some people don’t really want said.

At one point I read a criticism that our tacos de gobernador — a food item that I’m pretty sure is less than 20 years old, and one that has been prepared differently in each of the dozen or so places I’ve had it — was inauthentic.   That’s when it became obvious, that the concern with authenticity at our place was not about adherence to any specific recipes, but resistance to our ignoring the boundary between Mexican and not-Mexican.

The wall that runs through our city is just a physical manifestation of the wall that runs through our head; and it turns out the wall in our head is very important to us.

By temperament, I tend to welcome the reconquista, but at the same time, we’ve got a business to run, and one can only tilt at so many windmills, or try to tear down so many walls.  This is not a battle I wanted to fight.

We scrubbed the menu of Mexican-ness.  We took every Spanish word off the menu, if there was an English word to replace it.  Our tacos de gobernador may have been unsatisfying to the experts, but nobody makes a more authentic stir-fry shrimp melt taco than we do.

At the same time, we lost interest in exploring a new bi-national regional cuisine, and started focusing, more or less by default, on the kind of cuisine we’ve been geeking out on the last few years.  Simple, thoughtful food: great local ingredients; plenty of seafood; flavors lighter on the palate; dishes with ample acid; food that goes with wine.  The kind of food our friends in northern Baja have been cooking for years, in the restaurants we love, where we go eat whenever we have the chance.  The kind of food we talk about here whenever we talk about food.

The current result is something that is very authentic to us, to our tastes, to our personal histories, to our friendships.  Food that is authentic to the farmers who deliver to us, and to the valley that grows the olives that made the oil, and to the fact that there is a lot of great shellfish just to the south of us.  When I taste the cuisine at El Take It Easy, I taste the authentic flavors of Max and David, of Chris Broomell and Alysha Stehly, of Warner Springs and Imperial Beach, of Peter Schaner and Tito Cortes, of Don Armstrong and Rafael Felix. It may not be correct to any defined cuisine, but when it’s real and close to the iron, it sure feels authentic to me.

Those are the thoughts that flowed through my head when my friend asked me if El Take It Easy served authentic Mexican food.

“No,” I said.  “It’s more of a wine country thing.”