"Restaurants have spent a decade keeping food too cheap"

Corey Mintz, food reporter and author of The Next Supper, dishes on what ails Toronto's restaurant industry and how to fix it.

On the broken system of tipping

“There's no logic behind the idea that in one particular business, you divide the workers in half and say ‘this one group over here [the kitchen], there's no money to pay them, because food has to be cheap. This other group over here [the servers], I'm just going to pay them like a third of their earnings. My customers will pay the other two thirds, and they'll do it on a discretionary basis, and decide customer by customer.’ No one would set up a system like that, and yet, it's been with us for generations, so we just accept that. If you want to get rid of tips and all the problems that come with it [the abuse, being at the mercy of customers, etc.], there's no way to pay one group of people more without taking some from this other group.”

On why food is too cheap

“Restaurants have spent a decade keeping food too cheap. It started with the 2008 recession, and what people refer to as the democratization of restaurants — people with a background in high-end, fine-dining saying, ‘I can do this on a smaller scale. If I do away with tablecloths, expensive china, and a room that cost me a million dollars to renovate, I can serve this kind of food at a very reasonable price.’ But they would always leave out the part about getting cooks to work 14 hours for less than minimum wage — that’s the other secret sauce to keeping it affordable. Because of that, we got a wave of great dining for a few years at a really reduced price. But if we actually paid everybody a living wage to make a product of this quality, it would not be the kind of thing we could eat on a casual basis. And I think that's catching up with the industry.”

The Next Supper book cover

The Next Supper

Available wherever you get your books. $35 in hardcover.

On being a better diner

“The next time we hear about some restaurant that is paying people a living wage, that has dental benefits, that is participating in a mental health seminar, or using profit sharing or employee ownership or some other method where the purpose is to treat staff better and create more sustainable jobs — put that restaurant at the top of your list, make that the next place you'd go. I spoke to a restaurateur the other day who said that in the last six months, customers have asked her at least once a week how the tips are divided. So, there's a shift there. In the same way that people 10 years ago were going, ‘where's the chicken from?’ I think we're starting to see this and I encourage it. Why not put that on the menu? ‘We split our tips, 60/40,’ or whatever it is.”

On being ambassadors for the industry

“If we have a friend saying ‘can you believe the prices in this place?’ or ‘can you believe that our server hasn't been by to fill up our water in 10 minutes?’ — and if we love restaurants — we have to take it upon ourselves to advance those conversations. That's where we get in with our little tidbits, about the rising cost of labour and deep-fryer oil, about restaurants being short-staffed and not having enough people to operate at the same speed. What they need is our compassion. If we know anyone who fancies themself a Yelp user, we can entreat that person not to be a bastard. Nobody needs your one-star reviews because they didn't include chopsticks in your bag. That's not constructive, it’s only hurting small businesses.”