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.

Thanks,
Tim

Tim,

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.

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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: salty@thetakeout.com

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