Money! Everything about Le Pavillon M restaurant at 1820 K St. NW bespeaks it. One of the acknowledged Big Three of Washington restaurants, Le Pavillon is a place where a lot of money is spent. It is the most extravagant and profligate kind of restaurant, a place where the customer is not expected to care about cost. The customer might find, as one diner did not long ago, a special off-the-menu caviar appetizer that cost as much as $70 for two people.
Yet the proprietors do think of costs, which is obvious, for example, in that the number of chocolate truffles presented with coffee is precise--one per person.
Now there's trouble beneath the restaurant's sleek surface. Predictably, it's mainly about money.
The catalyst for the current problems, according to some angry workers, is a recent change in the tip distribution system. Once, customer tips were divided among the waiters and busboys. In mid-December, the owners decided customer tips should be split with the manager as well. The manager of Le Pavillon is Janet Lai Cam, wife of the restaurant's chef, Yannick Cam, who once said he earned $100,000 a year. These days, when the customer tips the waiter, he is also in effect tipping Janet Cam.
Now really! There is a moral issue N here. When a customer tips a waiter, he does not expect that he is tipping the owners by helping compensate the manager. But some angry workers say that this is exactly what is happening, and they paint the new policy on tips as a threat to their livelihood.
Tips are not really a bonus for a waiter. Waiters' salaries are generally low, because tips are meant to supplement their income. But now, in hard times, the lower-level employes at Le Pavillon say they are having their money cut while the manager's money increases. So because of this situation, some of the employes are walking a picket line on their days off, along with organizers from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25.
The employes have taken their complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, which has taken no action. Meanwhile, some of the waiters are trying to organize a union, and the management is having none of it.
Le Pavillon is owned by a group of Washington-area business persons and its president, Alfred L. Case, points out that there is no real strike at the restaurant. Most workers have not joined the picket line. "It's the union out there--strangers," says Case. He disputes the employes' assertion that the new policy on tips will cost them money. It will have little impact, if any, Case said.
Running a fine restaurant is rare R enough. Running it with union regulations is that much more difficult. As a consequence, many fine restaurants are not unionized, and it is important for owners, who demand a lot from their employes, to keep them happy. In this case, the workers who are angry charge, Le Pavillon seems to be counting its waiters' pennies the same way it counts out its chocolate truffles.
So through much of the winter, picketing has continued, with some waiters trooping up and down the sidewalk in the coldest weeks of winter, passing out leaflets and letters to customers.
Meanwhile, the angry waiters say, high-ranking government officials have ignored the waiters' pleas not to enter the restaurant. According to waiters Jerry Starbuck and Michael Sheffer, their picket line has been crossed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Attorney General William French Smith, National Security Adviser William P. Clark and the president's daughter, Maureen Reagan. They also spotted Sen. Robert Dole. My efforts to get comments from these officials were not successful by press time, but these waiters and the union representatives are pretty discouraged by what they consider disregard by these movers and shakers.
Meanwhile the impasse continues. Yannick Cam says everything in his kitchen is fine. The frog legs are still flown in fresh from France, the wild mushrooms still flown in fresh from Oregon.
But outside, in the rain, sleet or snow, the workers and the union organizers walk the picket line. The workers say they are just trying to get their tips, and some respect.