The San Francisco Restaurant: Endangered?

Can San Francisco restaurants survive being in San Francisco? That’s the question posed by an already controversial San Francisco Chronicle story about a shortage of experienced cooks. The issues get complicated—very complicated and fast—but the story’s central claim is that a restaurant owner’s money is tied up in paying the waitstaff. A few numbers:

Because owners must pay servers the city-mandated minimum wage of $9.14 per hour, even though the wait staff also earns tips, line cooks’ wages are effectively frozen at $10 to $15 an hour.


A cook who is paid $15 per hour at 40 hours per week earns an annual salary of $31,200, while a server earning minimum wage plus the San Francisco median rate of $30 per hour in tips brings home $81,411 per year. Cooks tend to work more than 40 hours a week, and servers tend to work less than full time, so the difference may not be quite that extreme. Still, it’s substantial.

At the restaurant Incanto, the owner even offers “line cooks the opportunity to work one or two shifts a week as runners—the wait staff who deliver food after the waiter has taken your order—so they can earn tips on those nights.”

The story has landed in a hot climate: A new health-insurance ordinance, which would require many businesses to either provide insurance or subsidize the city’s cost of doing so, is scheduled to go into effect next year, and both restaurant owners and insurance and minimum-wage advocates have gotten a choke hold on the Chronicle’s story in the comments section, which has garnered more than 200 comments in less than a day. Many readers pile on the (theoretical) culinary students (with loans) who won’t work for pennies; waiters write in to complain that they’re making nowhere near $80,000; others say that the middle class really is being driven out of the city; and a few people call the story a restaurant association–sponsored hit job on the minimum wage. And then there’s this comment, reprinted in full: “San Francisco needs a In-And-Out burger, preferably at Market and Castro/17th.”

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