Tipped Off: Gastro Park Whine List

Sound advice.

Another day, another news article which further confirms this blog’s long-standing belief that Australians – diners and restaurant workers alike – would be better off if we got rid of the ridiculous award wages system and moved to an American-style tipping system. Today’s Sydney Morning Herald runs with the story of one George Lipinksy, who claims he was dudded by a trendy Potts Point eatery, namely, the well-regarded but frankly horrifyingly-named Gastro Park.

”The manager [said] they were going to pay $19 or $21 at the weekend plus tips, and they share the tips,” Mr Lipinski said.

The negotiated hourly rate is less than the cost of a dish at the popular restaurant, where entrees start at $26 and mains at $39.

Well, the price of a share of the Herald’s parent company is far less than the price of a copy of the paper, but so what?

Forget the Herald’s cheap populism: with prices like that, and with the sort of clientele Gastro Park attracts, and assuming Mr Lipinsky was covering more than one table a night, he should have been bringing in that much again in tips at least.

After appealing unsuccessfully to the manager, he went to the police, who recommended he complain to the ombudsman.

The head chef and owner of the restaurant, Grant King, said the matter had been resolved. ”He has payment for the work done and that’s all I’m going to say.”

Lipinsky claims he was “not paid a cent” for a month, which seems unlikely. The restaurant says there was a dispute around timing of payment, which could very well be given that casuals such as Lipinksy are required by law to be paid out at the end of each shift, essentially forcing managers to run payroll nightly on top of all their other responsibilities.

But one suspects there were other issues at play: the article says early on that “the restaurant is the darling of Sydney diners but the blokey atmosphere common in the tough, fraught environment of a busy kitchen made Mr Lipinski uncomfortable.” Pay or no pay, it doesn’t sound like Lipinsky was cut out for the restaurant trade.

There is also the intriguing detail in the article that “Mr Lipinski hoped to write about [his experience] for his magazine, iStudent“. A cynic might suggest that this was part of a broader publicity stunt, but who can say? The only iStudent magazine one can find online seems to be a fairly pedestrian directory site, though just last month one Grezegorz Lipinksy finally withdrew his opposition to another outfit’s use of the name iStudent for a print publication of the same name.

The Prick is of the firm belief that while people should be paid, and paid in a timely fashion, for the work they do, how much that should be should remain an issue for employer and employee to negotiate. In the restaurant business, when there is a culture of tipping (as there is in America) and when tips are shared out between front-of-house and kitchen staff (again, as in the States) this is actually empowering. In such a circumstance there is a direct connection between effort and reward. Wait staff in the US at places like Gastro Park do far better than they would on some centralised government-set wage when they hustle for it, and diners can eat out more because lower wage costs for restaurants also means lower prices. A few months ago in the Spectator Australia I made a proposal to test the idea:

Very simply, the restaurant award should become optional. Under the terms of the test, restaurants could either pay their staff as directed by the government, or they could pay minimum wage and let tips make up the rest. To keep it fair, those working for restaurants still on the award would not be allowed to put so much as a tip jar next to the cash register, while establishments that had gone off the award would have to publicise that as well (including by pointing out their lower prices).

Were this to go forward, I predict three things would happen. Number one, the quality of service and price of food at non-award restaurants across Australia would improve substantially in the diner’s favour. Number two, the take-home earnings of those who were tipped — and systems would have to be in place to share out the tips beyond those working front-of-house — would increase. (When I was at university in Washington, DC, a friend worked weekends as a waiter at a local steakhouse and would come home with nearly $1,000 each night.) And finally, unions would do everything in their power to make life difficult for the non-award restaurants and their patrons and shut down the whole experiment.

It’s potentially a win-win situation that ought to be tried in Australia. The fact that it would annoy the hell out of unions and their ilk would be the icing on the cake. Or, at Gastro Park, the liquid nitrogen on the pavlova.

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