I knew it was wrong. But as I pocketed the coins, I reminded myself that I had been waitressing at the local restaurant for over three months and had yet to receive a single tip. I did not qualify, apparently, because I was still “in training”. My hard-won tips were divvied out between staff – with longstanding waitresses getting a bigger cut.
I only pocketed four pound coins out of my £14 tip, but my manager caught me. At the end of my shift, we had a fight that ended with me hanging up my apron for the last time.
I'm not alone in having a bad story to tell about the hospitality industry. It seems that for too long, stories of poor work practice have dogged high street restaurants, with tipping often the focus. But now we can add another line to the charge sheet: Wahaca have faced a public outcry over claims that it routinely punishes staff for so-called "dine and dash" customers.
A waiter in a North London branch was told that his wages would be docked because his customers had disappeared without paying. The incident was witnessed by Sarah Hayward, a former council leader, who told of her disgust on Twitter.
Wahaca owner Thomasina Miers has complained that she has been "hung out" in the ensuing online furore: she says the practice of docking waiters’ pay is “absolutely not standard policy". However, former staff claim their wages were also docked. Some even argue this is common practice in the food industry.
So, what is it like to work for a high street restaurant chain? We talked to people with experience of the industry to find out.
Most restaurants work on a zero-hour contract basis and have a high turn over of staff, which can lead to a sense of job insecurity. “If you speak out, if you rock the boat, if you don’t do the manager a favour, you can literally have your hours taken away,” says Lauren Townsend, a former waitress who left her job a year and a half ago because the restaurant she worked for cut waiters' tips from card payments by 40pc.
Employees often have to go “above and beyond”, she says – including working when they are unwell. “People would often go in sick because they either couldn’t afford to not work or because they were made to feel bad.”
This instability particularly affects the industry’s young workforce. “There are a lot of young single parents who work in hospitality because the hours are good for it, and there are a lot of students who don’t come from wealthy families who work to pay their way through university. So you don’t really have a choice,” Townsend adds.
Hefty demands from managers
The expression “being rushed off your feet” ought to be used solely to describe waiters and waitresses (and retail staff at Christmas, of course).
The relay sprint from customer to kitchen often leaves staff feeling exhausted. “Generally, it was manic 95 per cent of the time,” former waitress Kanika Banwait reflects on her experience. “I lost so much weight working at the restaurant because I wouldn’t stop moving for hours on end,” she adds.
The workload has increased over the years, according to Townsend. When she started her job in 2010, she was in charge of six tables in her section; eight years later, she was in charge of 12 tables. “Sometimes it was a 12 hour shift and you physically don’t have time to leave the floor to go for a wee,” she says.
Strange requests from customers
Ask any veteran of the hospitality circuit and they’ll have a story to tell about the unreasonable or downright strange demands they have received from customers.
During my own short-lived waitressing career, a customer told me she wanted “just asparagus” for her lunch. When I asked if she was sure (because who eats just asparagus?), she snapped, “Why is that so difficult for you to understand?” When I brought her the dish, she exploded, “Obviously I wanted it on toast!”
Journalist Stevie Martin had a similar experience when she was a waitress in her early twenties, which she described in an article for Grazia. “One time a 17-year old on a date called me a ‘stupid b****’ after telling me he wanted creme brûlée, confirming that yes, it was creme brûlée, then saying ‘I asked for chocolate gateaux’ when I brought it out, while smirking.”
Dealing with high customer expectations is demanding and sometimes unpleasant work, as Banwait discovered. A man once asked her to grab some tissues because his baby had thrown up. When she returned with the tissues, the man pushed his chair back and waited for her to mop up the mess. “I just stood there registering that he actually wanted me to clean up his baby’s puke. And then I had to clean it up.”
One of the best things about being a waiter is that you are forced to develop a thick skin. Unsympathetic and rude customers are commonplace in restaurants, says Banwait. “They could see I was rushed off my feet, the restaurant was heaving, and they’d still shout at me,” she says. “I just bring the food, I don’t make it, so don’t shout at me for it not being ready yet.”
Townsend adds that sexual harassment, directed at women, is rife. “Third-party sexual harassment is a big issue in hospitality. We had waitresses who had their bums smacked by stag dos. And if you complain, you’re told to just smile and you’ll get a big tip.” Incidentally, this was the same advice I received from my manager when a pair of older male customers called out that I had the “rear of the year”.
Townsend says that in her former place of work, this dynamic was “almost encouraged”. Waitresses were told to sing an explicit song for stag dos which ended with them winking at the groom-to-be. “You go along with it because it’s what everybody else does, it’s what all the older girls are doing
“I look back and I think, my god, if my little sister was doing that for tables of leery old men and she was being told to smile and told to sing those songs, I’d be angry. But it’s just made the norm.”