Saturday, August 29, 2009

Restaurant Policies Punish Tipped Employees

Things have been getting busy around the office. With the downturn in the economy, it seems that many restaurant owners and managers are looking for a way to lower costs and bump up profits. Unfortunately, it seems that wait staff and other tipped employees are the first to suffer.

My first thought on this trend is for restaurant management to understand that your most important employees are the ones that have direct contact with your customers. If your front of the house (FOH) staff is unhappy, the image they transmit to the customers is the same and that hurts business.

My second thought on the trend is if you need to cut costs, do not start with staff who are making only $4.23/hr. (the new minimum wage for tipped employees in Florida). After 25 years in the restaurant business I have found that the best way to cut costs is to keep a closer eye on the kitchen. One over-cooked 16oz. NY Strip will set you back $6.50 just for the steak. Put another properly cooked steak on the plate and it cost you $13.00 just in meat to make $15.95.

Although the state of Florida does not have very strong laws to protect hospitality workers, the Federal government does. There are very strict laws as to who may participate in tip pools and the proper rate which needs to be paid for overtime.

The Law Office of Lowell J. Kuvin specializes in protecting hospitality workers rights throughout the entire state. Some of the recent cases we are working on include:

• Servers working at a restaurant were not paid any hourly wages and were required to contribute each week to the money paid to the restaurant cleaning crew.

• Servers at a country club were required to pool their tips in which the salaried management received a large portion.

• Servers at a restaurant were not allowed to clock in until they were sat their first table. They were required to be at the restaurant 1 hour prior to opening and were not paid for doing their set up side work. Additionally, two of the servers claim they were sexually harassed by the kitchen staff and management. When they complained to management they were told to toughen up. SETTLED

If you think the restaurant you work at is breaking the law, please contact our office for free to discuss the issues.

Law Office of Lowell J. Kuvin
22 NE 1st Street Suite 201
Miami Florida 33132

Tel: 305.358.6800
Fax: 305.358.6808
Toll: 888.KUVINLAW (588.4652)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Snapper on your plate may be an impostor

Genetics professor Mahmood Shivji didn't get into DNA research to strike fear in the hearts of restaurant owners and chefs.

But the Guy Harvey Research Institute, which he heads, is a virtual CSI: Seafood lab these days. The widespread -- and illegal -- practice of fish substitution at restaurants has placed Shivji's marine life genetics expertise in high demand.

In the last two years, Shivji has analyzed upward of 100 restaurant plates from across the country, more than half the time proclaiming that the dish was not the grouper or snapper specimen that diners thought they were eating. Instead, restaurants secretly served up cheaper fish such as catfish or tilapia.

``It's consumer fraud,'' said Shivji, who teaches at Nova Southeastern University. ``You're paying for item X and usually grouper and red snapper are on the higher end of the price list.''

With domestic grouper costing restaurants $11 or $12 a pound -- and imported catfish available for a mere $2.50 a pound -- unsavory chefs can profit handsomely from this unethical bait-and-switch.

Shivji has picked apart breaded fillets, fillets doused in sauce, even charred fillets left on the grill a little too long.

``We can tell with 100 percent certainty'' whether restaurants are scamming, Shivji said. The professor's initial interest in identifying fish through DNA came from his passion for conservation. The federal government was having a hard time enforcing protections for endangered shark species, for example, because rogue fishermen would chop up their illegal shark catches in ways that hid any identifying features.

But chopping up a fish can't hide the DNA, Shivji reasoned. Shivji went on to pioneer a new way of testing shark DNA that has been instrumental in cracking down on the shark fin trade.


Enter CBS4's Al Sunshine. Sunshine approached Shivji in 2007 with the idea to use the power of DNA to expose fish-swapping restaurants. Sunshine had to do a bit of arm-twisting to convince Shivji to run the first test, but Shivji's skepticism melted as the evidence of rampant seafood fraud poured in.

``It just validates the argument that this is a national, if not international, problem,'' Sunshine said.

Shivji's phone was soon deluged with calls from TV reporters in other towns. Shivji dutifully accepted and tested their frozen fish samples -- mailed in from places that included Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte, N.C.

Shivji has also fielded inquiries from an unidentified local fish wholesaler (who wanted to make sure his inventory was legit) and the Missouri attorney general's office (which was investigating restaurants in Kansas City).

Fish mislabeling persists in part because it is virtually impossible for federal and state regulators to police all of the nearly five billion pounds of seafood consumed by Americans each year -- more than 80 percent of which is imported.

Many restaurant patrons are also unfamiliar with the differences between species -- they might order grouper simply because it's a name they've heard before. ``Most consumers can't really tell the difference between a grouper and a catfish,'' said Carlos Sanguily, vice president of Doral-based fish importer JC Seafood.

Aside from not getting what you pay for, fish mislabeling is a serious obstacle to ocean conservation efforts, Shivji said.

Widely popular grouper, for example, is a ``severely overfished'' species, but by appearing (often in name only) on menus everywhere, it creates the false perception that groupers are plentiful.

Fish-swapping can also have health consequences. Some imported fish may be raised in polluted waters, and diners with specific fish allergies can end up eating a fish species they're doing their best to avoid.

Sushi lovers ordering ``White Tuna'' are routinely served escolar, a tasty-but-oily fish that so frequently causes diarrhea it earned the nickname ``Ex-Lax fish.''

In the general genetics class Shivji teaches at NSU every fall semester, seafood fraud has become a teaching tool. Shivji regularly sends an army of students out to local restaurants to collect grouper samples that will be DNA-analyzed in class.

The tests revealed sizable numbers of impostor fish.

``It's got them jazzed up,'' Shivji said of his students. ``They go and talk about it with their families, `We did this and this is what we found.' ''


Of course, keeping restaurants honest isn't solely the job of TV reporters and college researchers. Federal agencies such as the FDA have the ability to fine -- and in extreme cases prosecute -- restaurants and fish distributors that are deceiving buyers. State inspections of restaurants can also prompt fines of those who engage in fish-swapping.

Fort Lauderdale's Tokyo Sushi Express was cited by the state last month for selling customers tilapia billed as snapper. Imitation crab meat was also sold as real crab.

Manager Rob Rodalis said the restaurant had intended to print tilapia on the menu all along. ``I think it was a miscommunication between the one who printed up our menu. . . . It was a mistake,'' Rodalis said.

Rodalis said the restaurant had been unaware that imitation crab needed to be identified as such on menus.

Both federal and state governments have been criticized for not doing enough to catch seafood scammers. In some cases the restaurants can be the victim, with seafood distributors charging top dollar for what are secretly bargain-basement species of fish.

A federal Government Accountability Office report released earlier this year faulted agencies such as the FDA for ineffective, uncoordinated oversight efforts.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, an industry trade group, said U.S. fishermen ultimately suffer from fewer buyers and depressed prices when restaurants opt for selling imported, make-believe grouper. Jones, who estimates close to a quarter of all restaurants are deceiving customers, said diners should be suspicious of seafood deals that are too good to be true.

``If you pay less than $10 for a grouper dinner, your odds, in my opinion, are nil,'' Jones aid. ``You couldn't sell real grouper like that unless you were stealing the grouper.''

Information on restaurants cited by state inspectors for food misrepresentation can be found online at:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mr. Chow v. Philippe Miami

In a case of spied rice, Mr. Chow says rival restaurateur Philippe Chow's staff sneaked into the kitchen of his new Miami outpost in order to steal trade secrets.

Michael Chow, who started the Mr. Chow chain more than three decades ago, yesterday amended his recent trademark infringement lawsuit against his former employee, Philippe, to include charges of "corporate espionage."

The incident, which was captured by surveillance cameras, happened on Tuesday at the soon-to-open Miami Mr. Chow -- just across the street from Philippe Chow's restaurant.

Disguised as a chef, the 65-year-old spy tried to blend in while the kitchen staff was being briefed on the plans for the new restaurant, attorney Alan Kluger said.

When confronted by an executive chef, the spy said he was trying to appear "incognito," and so that "your boss will not notice," according to the lawsuit.

Philippe and his partner, Stratis Morfogen, discounted the allegations.

"This is beyond bizarre and at this point we have no further comment describing michael chow's delusional and paranoid state of mind," Morforgen said.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Economy takes a bite out of tips for wait staff

Struggling restaurant servers are eager for a turnaround, and more tips

Fridays are slow for Jason Jakway, a bartender at Chili's at Bayside. Jakway, who has worked at the restaurant for more than two years said his income has taken a major hit from the economic slump.

He's not alone. When business is good, servers often make more than half their income in tips. But when consumers tighten their belts and cut back on nights on the town, those dependent on tipping feel the pain instantly because so much of their pay is tied directly to consumer demand.

``I'm not paying attention to the wage. I'm paying attention to the tips,'' said Socil Belleza, a waitress at Prezzo Restaurant and Martini Bar in Aventura.

Jakway said in good times he could make up to $400 on a weekend night. Now it has become difficult to buy gas and pay tolls to commute to Florida Career College, where he is studying network engineering. Two months ago he was forced to cut back on classes.

Restaurants experiencing slowdowns usually cut back on hours for the service staff, said Allen Susser, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Miami-Dade chapter. He said this at least allows those who are working to make money.

But business is so slow now that servers are scrambling to work more just to break even, said Wilson Vazquez, a bartender and waiter at Bayside's Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

``I'm hurting,'' he said. ``I've picked up more shifts than usual, worked double shifts, just to make what you would during a regular shift.''

Vazquez said his customers tip about as much as before, but there are fewer of them.


Many South Florida restaurants charge an automatic 15 percent gratuity on meals because in a tourism-driven economy, many patrons come from countries where tipping isn't customary.

But local custom can give way in a recession. ``Even Americans have been tipping less,'' said Veronica La Rosa, a waitress at Hofbräu München Beerhall on Lincoln Road. La Rosa said when she started last August, servers were making $3,000 a month in tips alone. That was during the slow season. But after the financial meltdown last fall, she said, business dropped off noticeably. ``This year, it's been so bad that the slow season was better,'' she said.

One Friday, she only waited five tables during her shift, and only one tipped more than the automatic 15-percent gratuity. La Rosa said that surcharge is split between the servers, busers, bartenders and hosts. Hofbräu München has cut overtime and started opening later in the day, she said.

``Everybody's fighting for more hours,'' said Sascha Perisic, CEO of the restaurant.

While the minimum hourly wage is $7.25 for most workers, tipped workers such as bartenders and waiters are paid a minimum of $4.23 because of a $3.02 credit for tips.

Peter Edouard, a buser at Prezzo, said he has noticed his 3-percent take on gratuities drop. While he makes the standard minimum wage, the waiters make the lower one for tipped workers. ``A lot of them have houses and bills to pay. It's harder for them,'' he said.

Another factor that may be depressing wait-staff pay: an oversupply of restaurants, according to a noted economist. Though taxable sales at Miami-Dade restaurants have actually grown on a year-to-year basis since January, restaurants are closing. There may be more local establishments than demand can support, said economist Tony Villamil, dean of the business school at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. ``Some may go out of business and some may be consolidated,'' he said.

Reduced consumer demand has forced restaurants to cut costs and pin hopes on luring customers with a host of specials, promotions and discounts.

While these deals can help fill the seats, they also mean lower tabs -- and therefore lower tips for the servers.


Hofbräu München has cut prices on its traditional liter-sized mugs of beer from $13 to $10 and instituted a 20 percent discount on meals before 4 p.m. Perisic said the restaurant has seen more customers on Tuesdays for the new all-you-can eat buffet.

Hope Thomas, Prezzo's manager, said the restaurant is trying new events to bring in a younger crowd that will help traffic at the bar. Thomas said the economic climate has made things difficult. ``Where people used to go out and spend $15 for lunch, now they're bringing their lunch,'' she said.

Ati Eskandari, a waitress at Prezzo, said the slump has changed the staff's expectations of a good night.

``Now if you make $100 a night, you're happy,'' she said.

``People were making two or three hundred before.''

Belleza said she still enjoys her job, but hopes to see more patrons. She said she's not sure when the economy will return to normal.

``Soon, I pray,'' she said.