Welcome to the $20 Diner's inaugural mailbag. Let's jump right in with a question from a Washington Post colleague who recently shared an anecdote on my Facebook page. (But, first, let me assure you that this occasional feature won't become a company newsletter, answering only colleagues' inquiries. This particular question, from this particular person, was just too juicy to ignore, as you'll soon see.)
Panfilo Garcia, a multiplatform editor at The Post, said he had recently visited a specialty hot dog shop about 15 minutes before closing but was told the kitchen had shut down for the night. When he pointed out that the restaurant didn't close until 9 p.m., still 15 minutes away, an employee explained that the kitchen stops taking orders around 8:30, otherwise the staff would have to stay later than the posted closing time.
"Your thoughts?" Garcia asked.
Known as Ponch among his friends, Garcia is a copy editor, the last line of defense before a reporter's words hit the Web (or, for those who still love the smell of printer's ink in the morning, the offset press). What that means is, Garcia is paid to sweat the small stuff. The best copy editors are literalists. If you write that Beyoncé's hair is longer than a surf board, a good copy editor will attempt to gauge the length of Queen B's locks from recent photos and then ask whether you mean a long board or a short board.
A copy editor can be a writer's best friend, but I'd bet a 10-piece order of McDonald's Buttermilk Crispy Tenders that they're hell on restaurant employees who refuse to serve diners close to closing time. Still, it doesn't take a copy editor to wonder, in Garcia's particular situation, whether the posted closing times are designed to serve the customer or the staff. (To be clear, I'm not naming the hot dog shop involved because this issue is bigger than any single restaurant.)
The answer would seem obvious, right? The posted hours are a service to customers: They spell out, using the English alphabet and Arabic numerals, the exact time a restaurant will close, including, presumably, its kitchen. They do not signal what time the employees will leave the building.
Yet the situation is more complicated than that.
A restaurant is a multi-headed beast, especially a sit-down establishment with servers, cooks, hosts and managers. It's a complex organism compared with single-cell protozoa like, say, a convenience store where a pair of clerks sell peach-flavored cigars and lottery tickets. On slow nights, a restaurant staff may stand around for the last hour of service, fidgeting in place once their cleanup and restocking duties have been completed. They're young. They're bored. They're ready to clock out. Just as important, the owner is ready to release them: Those hours are costing money, with none coming in.
So a last-minute diner can scuttle everyone's plans, with little reward for the restaurant and its employees. In other words, a customer may have every right to walk into a restaurant and place an order 15 minutes before closing, but he doesn't necessarily have much compassion. Or as Anthony Bourdain described it when I emailed him about the practice: It's "fair," he replied, "but cruel."
Don't misunderstand. I'm not calling Garcia cruel. His situation was different from the theoretical one above: He had entered a counter-service restaurant specializing in gourmet hot dogs, a product that doesn't require a ton of skill or time to prepare. Even if the shop makes its toppings and sauces in-house — like chili or a spicy mayo — the kitchen would have prepared them earlier that day. More to the point, no single dog would require an army of line cooks to prepare and assemble it. Nor would it require a server to bring the dog to the table and babysit the diner until the meal is over. This is a low-touch operation.
Here's the real kicker: This hot dog joint, no matter how gourmet, is swimming against the currents of modern hospitality. I spoke to several restaurateurs — representing both counter-service shops and full-service, sit-down operations — and they all said they take orders right up until closing time, even after it.
Times have changed, they say. Kitchens are more professional. Employees are no longer paid per shift, but per hour, which means overtime pay for an extended work day. Plus, the competition is fierce. Restaurateurs want to make diners happy, lest they lose customers to friendlier rivals. Managers will often structure their kitchens to cater to late-night and late-arriving diners, whether offering smaller menus with less labor-intensive dishes or scheduling cooks to work later in the day, thereby releasing employees already drained from an eight-hour shift.
Jackie Greenbaum, the proprietor behind such neighborhood spots as Bar Charley and Little Coco's, says even the staff attitude toward stragglers has changed. "I don't have to beat them over the head to welcome late-night diners," she says. "There is a consensus among them that it's a desirable thing."
My thoughts on the hot dog shop that wants to roll up the welcome mat 30 minutes early? They might have lost one customer in Garcia, but they're bound to lose many more if they don't change their ways.
The second and last question comes from Al Goldberg, the founder of Mess Hall, the culinary incubator in Edgewood. "Do I need to tip for counter service?"
Do you need to? No. Counter-service employees, unlike servers in restaurants, do not rely on tips for their wages. Depending on the city or state where they work, servers can make as little as $2.13 an hour, the so-called tipped minimum wage. Gratuities are necessary then to increase a server's pay to the full minimum wage, whatever it is in the employee's jurisdiction. (And if gratuities don't cover the difference, employers are required to do so themselves.)
With that said, many counter-service employees have come to rely on tips. At countless counters, if you pay with a credit or debit card, the point-of-sale software will automatically ask you to add a tip, sometimes as much as 25 percent. Deciding to leave a tip at a coffee shop or a sandwich counter is more an act of generosity than a reward for good service, given that you may have had little interaction with an employee.
But here's the thing to keep in mind: Counter-service workers are not all post-college kids picking up a few shifts until they find real jobs. They are professionals, like the barista who pulls your espresso and makes your pour-over. This job is part of their career path, and they are often trying to survive on minimum wage, which is difficult at best in places like Washington. Why wouldn't you want to throw them a dollar or two to encourage their development?
Have questions about cheap dining? Ask in the comments below, or email Tim Carman at email@example.com.