Ask The Salty Waitress: Do restaurant employees get to eat for free?

Illustration for article titled Ask The Salty Waitress: Do restaurant employees get to eat for free?
Photo: dima_sidelnikov (iStock), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

Dear Salty: This doesn’t really affect my experience at restaurants at all, but it’s just something I’m curious about. When and what do servers and cooks eat during their work day? I assume you all eat before your shift, but do you get served anything from the menu? Or do you eat at different times? Just always wondered about this.



Depends what kind of restaurant we’re talking. What and when staff eats varies from place to place—if the staff even gets fed at all.

The luckiest employees get a “staff meal” before their shifts. One of the cooks—it changes day to day—cooks up a big communal dish that everyone eats quickly together before the busy dinner rush starts. Sometimes staff gets to sit down at a table, other times they’re just eating in the kitchen. But we’re not talking filet mignon or lobster here. At one place I used to work, we had pasta with tomato sauce and whatever vegetables needed to get used up at least twice a week. (Hey, I wasn’t complaining. It’s free food.) Some fancy restaurants, though, use staff meal as a chance to try out dishes they might put on the menu, or to let cooks stretch their legs a little by cooking some family recipes. Must be nice.

Another model is to give employees a free or discounted meal from the restaurant’s menu. This makes sense for restaurants that can’t afford to have every employee stop working at once, like a fast food restaurant or a busy breakfast place. So say you work your shift, you might get a free entree or 50% off whatever you order afterwards. Depending on how good the food is where you work and how many different options there are, this can get old fast. Imagine working at Arby’s for a long shift and sitting down every day to eat…more Arby’s. Not knocking it though, because a discount is still better than nothing, obviously. Some restaurants also give staff discounts on meals there on days they don’t work.


Then lastly, there are some restaurants that don’t really feed their staff at all. This is some grade-A bullcrap, in my opinion, but it happens all the time. I don’t think hungry employees are good employees—especially in a restaurant, for crying out loud—but plenty of restaurants are cheap like this. That means staff either has to scarf down “mistakes” in the kitchen or try to snatch a dinner roll or slice of pizza without a manager noticing. In my experience, so much of this comes down to the manager on duty and how tight-fisted the owners are. But if you ask me, well-fed employees are happy employees. You do not want to see Salty hangry.

Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us:

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Le Comte de Brûleur

So many policies for so many restaurants, I can’t remember them all.

1) A lot of my waiting career was done in fancy hotels. One of them was a premium ritzy place (hint hint) where we had a staff cafeteria for all employees, not just the restaurant workers. You’d get two or three staff meal options, your pastas and shepherd’s pie and stuff like that, with vegetables and side salads, it was kind of buffet-style, you grabbed a tray and filled a plate, had a soup bowl. We ran lots of banquets and weddings and such, and there were always leftover desserts for the staff caf, I got sick of baklava and mille-feuille after a while. What a fool I was...

We ate very well, but still complained sometimes. What I wouldn’t give to have free lunch provided every day, no need to rush out or make sandwiches every morning.

2) The ritzy hotel I worked at, we weren’t allowed to patronize the premises on our time off, unless you asked for permission beforehand from a manager, if say you wanted to have a big night out with your spouse for an anniversary. I never availed myself of that for some dumb reason I guess, but those who did raved about it, and the shift manager usually went well beyond the staff discount, lots of comps and freebies sent your way if you’d worked there a while and had a good rep.

The other hotel was more relaxed, we were allowed to go to the restaurant with friends and family and got 50% off food which was great. We had a Friday night buffet or Sunday brunch buffet that was pretty glitzy and pricey for hospitality drones like us, but with the discount, we’d make a night of it, dress up in shirts with actual collars and the girls would break out a dress for the first time in months, and for $10 a head descended like locusts on the roast beef station or the seafood. We took all the money we saved and more and invested that in drinks, got a little rowdy at times for a plush upscale restaurant, and they ramped down our discount, limit of three friends per staff member, and drinks now were full price.

We still made it work after the clampdown, but we complained that it was better when you could bring your six or eight roommates with you on a whim.

3) When I worked at Magic Pan, it was kind of a production line kitchen, we got one free meal off the menu when we worked. You chose whatever filling you want, Chicken Kiev or Beef Wellington or Crab Chowder, rolled up in a pancake or served on a bed of rice. You also got to choose a dessert pancake. This wasn’t a free-for-all, everyone got one order slip per shift from the manager, you filled it out and submitted it to the kitchen before you went on break.

We complained that we were sick of Magic Pan food. After busing plate after plate of destroyed pancakes, with wadded napkins and cigarette butts in them, it got hard to really look forward to lunch.

4) One bar I worked at, we’d get a $12 credit per shift at the kitchen, you’d order what you wanted up to that amount for free, and paid the difference if you went over. We complained that after a while we were sick of the beef dip and the bacon double-cheeseburger. The owner of the restaurant upstairs, a nice upscale Greek place that didn’t get a lot of walk-in traffic, saw an opportunity and made a deal with our owner where we’d go upstairs and eat any of the main dishes on the menu for that $12 credit. It was amazing food, we tipped their staff generously, and complained that this $5 or so was coming out of our own tips that night and really starting to add up.