Emma Underwood: Paying your staff the right wage is possible without drastic pricing reforms

The  Staff Canteen

Long, anti-social hours. Infrequent, short breaks. Hurried staff meals taken standing up on the back stairs or crouching down behind the pass. Inadequate, or non-existent staff rooms or changing rooms.

Poor working conditions are rife in the restaurant industry, with teams working to the extent that their hourly rate places them below the National Minimum Wage.

The excuse is all too common, you are expected to work for reasons that are apparently beyond financial incentives. You work for passion, to learn, to avoid letting the team down. The brigade mentality within many kitchen teams means that adequate pay and working hours are disregarded in favour of ‘pushing on together’. 

Whole restaurant business models are built without consideration of the teams that will be working within them. Restaurants are launched by shouting about the menu and the décor, as the industry lauds the latest superstar chef and Instagram is flooded with the fashionable dish of the moment, but what of the working conditions of the team behind it?

Are they paid fairly, and are their hours reasonable?

It is vital that restaurants start to put their teams at the centre of their business model, rather than leaving it as an afterthought. If the margins are too tight to pay staff properly, don’t proceed with the business. While wage forecasts and head counts may be an important consideration in planning a new restaurant, this doesn’t always mean proper evaluation of fair working hours and pay.

The issue of ‘wage theft’ has reached headline news overseas, most recently in Australia with high profile cases ending in large settlements and back payments reaching millions of dollars. The debate largely centres around the fact that restaurants aren’t charging enough for their food to properly pay their staff, and it will take a huge shift from everyone to correct this.

If everyone is charging too little, it is apparently impossible to make the necessary changes.

There are, however, many that are seeking and pioneering change within the restaurant industry without drastic pricing reforms. Overtime payments are no longer a myth and are now commonplace.

Many restaurants, including Darby’s, will pay their salaried staff per shift, meaning rotas demanding that extra shift are properly rewarded. When discussing this issue with Robin Gill, the chef owner at Darby’s, he explained that our menu is deliberately prep light in order to guarantee decent working hours and conditions for the kitchen team.

The bulk of our menu is composed of fresh seafood from our oyster bar, and large cuts of meat and fish from our grill. We use minimal garnish which eliminates long MEP lists, and take whole animals from our farmer, meaning that our chefs get to learn butchery and charcuterie skills. For Robin, Darby’s was created with the team at the centre. Everything else falls into place around it. 

The economic climate for restaurants is seemingly growing worse by the minute. The myriad of effects Brexit will have means that the welfare of our staff is more threatened than ever. It is vital that we take care to ensure quality of life of our workforce is firmly at the centre of our industry.

About Emma Underwood

The Staff CanteenEmma Underwood is the General Manager of Darby's Grill at the Embassy Gardens in Vauxhall. Her previous roles saw her run the front of house at Stem, Where the Light Gets In in Stockport and at Gary Usher's Burnt Truffle in Heswall.

Emma started working with Gary in 2012, when she joined the Sticky Walnut team as a waitress before becoming the general manager at sister restaurant, Burnt Truffle. 

Emma is also part of the TMRW project, alongside food writer Anna Sulan Masing.

TMRW is a platform to help people starting out in their career to grow, learn and connect with each other. It hosts the Chefs of Tomorrow Dinners, front of house initiative The Switch, and a series of talks and panel discussions.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th November 2019

Emma Underwood: Paying your staff the right wage is possible without drastic pricing reforms