Kitchen booze? Photo via Seattle Food Geek.

“What’s ‘Kitchen Booze’?” my husband mused the other night, over dinner at the Blind Pig Bistro. I looked up and saw it scrawled on the chalkboard above the menu items. “Oh, that just means that for five bucks you can buy the kitchen staff beers,” explained our server. “You know, as appreciation if you liked your meal.”

Hmmm.

We’d seen a similar item last year on the menu at The Coterie Room —“A six-pack of beer for the crew, $10”—which provoked a rather vivid reaction at our table. “So now a salary and a tip aren’t enough…they need to get hammered too?” said…uh, one of us.

Coterie Room’s owner-chefs, Dana Tough and Brian McCracken, hastened to clarify—letting us know first-off that the beer was for after-hours, from a supply of Olympia they have piled in their walk-in. Then a few months later (apparently ours wasn’t the only opinionated table) they changed the wording from “crew” to “kitchen”—a constituency that isn’t always rewarded with the tips the front-house workers get.

“We didn’t do this to make the customer feel sorry for the kitchen,” Tough and McCracken told me last week by phone. “We just thought it was quirky and fun, providing a way for the customer to be able to communicate directly with the kitchen.”

Inspired by a similar menu offering at The Publican in Chicago, the Coterie gents liked the casual, just-folks tone it lends the fancy, white-on-white comfort food house. Asked how many folks order it, they answered simply, “quite a few.” At Blind Pig our server said they get between one and five orders a night.

And yes—it’s legal, confirms Justin Nordhorn, enforcement chief for the state Liquor Control Board. Provided cooks don’t imbibe on the job or after close. If you’re wondering when exactly that leaves, Nordhorn allows there’s that fuzzy period after the last guest has been served but before the joint is formally closed. (He also admits that policing this might not be the LCB’s very highest priority.)

A lot of folks aren’t bothered by this at all. Many restaurants provide staff with shift drinks—a little tipple for after they’ve clocked out; why not allow a grateful patron to subsidize that? After all, it’s not mandatory. Sure, Coterie Room charges that patron the mark-up cost to do so (as you may surmise, a sixer of Oly does not cost a restaurant $10)—but Tough and McCracken split the remainder among the kitchen staff.

Add to this the red-haired-stepchild status the back-of-the-house has traditionally experienced, compensation-wise. Though often paid a higher hourly wage, the kitchen staff hasn’t typically been offered a share of the tips the minimum-wage-paid front-of-the-house staff collects. That’s the big dough—and the norm until recently hasn’t been to share it with kitchens.

That’s changing, agree chefs, as diners get “foodier” and more interested in the folks making the magic happen. The owners at Coterie Room report that their servers voluntarily put one percent of their food sales into a pot at the end of the night to distribute among the kitchen staff.

Still: It’s one percent. And not the good kind of one percent.

I guess that’s what gets under my skin: Buy-the-kitchen-booze feels like one more way the diner’s asked to put out. If the kitchen staff’s doing a great job—shouldn’t their bosses be paying them more? Famously fair restaurateurs like Tom Douglas already do—something to think about when criticizing Douglas’ pricepoints. It’d be nice if we rewarded our city’s stunning kitchens with something better than a few cans of watery beer. Something they could really use, like, I don’t know— more money.

Snarky? Guilty as charged. It’s just that when I add up the restaurant industry trends over the last half-dozen years (communal tables, no reservations, prix-fixe set meals) I see a pattern: restaurants increasingly serving their own interests over those of their customers.
In the end, that’s the nerve the whole kitchen booze thing hits for me. Pretty soon we’ll be going to restaurants only to stand in a line, get seated with strangers, eat what they tell us to eat, pay for the privilege—then get hit up for a beer.

Oh wait—we already are.

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