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Lessons from Amy's Baking Company: Five lousy things restaurant owners do to employees

Gordon Ramsay trying to talk sense into these two.
Gordon Ramsay trying to talk sense into these two.

By now everyone who isn't hiding in a television-free cave has heard about the Kitchen Nightmares episode featuring Amy's Baking Company (an Arizona pizza place with bad food and worse owners) that was so ugly and combative that Gordon Ramsay walked away. This may have been the only episode I've seen where Ramsay was less of a surly dick than the restaurant owners. The episode reminded me of all the restaurant owner/employee burns that I've had, witnessed or heard about over the years: There's no denying that some restaurateurs handle their employees in scummy, exploitative ways, and that is bad news for workers and customers alike.

Here are five things restaurant owners do to employees that are just plain wrong. A big shout-out to Amy's Baking Company for the reminder that some people should not own restaurants.

See also:

- Ever wanted Gordon Ramsay to shriek at you? Here's your chance

- Big Game's Leo Harvey dishes on trashy cheese dip and his biggest embarrassment

- The Simpsons Preview: "The Food Wife," with (bleep) Ramsay, Bourdain, Batali

Lessons from Amy's Baking Company: Five lousy things restaurant owners do to employees

5. Taking employee tips

There was a moment in the Kitchen Nightmares/Amy's Baking Company episode where one of the owners pocketed a server's tip, and Ramsay called him out on it in front of the entire dining room full of customers.

Good. Shady restaurant owners who take tips from servers who make below-hourly minimum wage and count on those tips should be boiled into stew and served to poor people, because no matter how new or indebted or dysfunctional a restaurant is, taking money away from employees who also have bills to pay and mouths to feed is just plain wrong. As for those uneven "tip-sharing" schemes, how about splitting the business profits as well? I worked for a restaurant where the owners demanded the server tips be immediately confiscated from the tables and put into a general pot to be distributed equally on the employee checks to all staff and owners, including cooks who made above-minimum hourly wages. And because the owners saw to this process themselves, there was no way to know how much was being collected every shift, or that the money was even being allocated fairly.

The first time I saw the owner snatch a tip off one of my tables -- and explain why he was doing it -- I took off my apron, tossed it at him and walked out. That restaurant shuttered five months later, and I'm only surprised it took that long.

Lessons from Amy's Baking Company: Five lousy things restaurant owners do to employees
James Yamasaki Illustration

4. Penalizing employees for taking sick days when they don't offer health-care coverage

Employers who don't offer any kind of health-care benefits to their employees and then turn around and bitch at, dock or threaten to fire them when they get ill and need to take time off deserve to be boiled in hot ham water. It's crucial at any business -- but especially food service -- to stop the spread of illness, because the preparation and serving of food needs to be as safe, clean and sanitary as possible for customers and employees alike.

I get that there are employees who occasionally call in sick who aren't really sick (I called in once so I could get high and watch Clerks II), but a legitimate, communicable illness like the flu, a sinus infection or even a cold can spread like wildfire through restaurants -- to staff and customers. Which means more illness spread all over the damn place by employees who need their jobs too much to stay home when they are coughing up guck.

Lessons from Amy's Baking Company: Five lousy things restaurant owners do to employees

3. Taking constructive criticism badly

Some restaurant owners take criticism badly -- even the soft-pedaled, need-to-know, actually constructive kind. But if your employees aren't allowed to tell you the truth about your business, then when your eatery has serious problems, you have zero right to cry about it. I've been on the flaming end of this torch, and ordered to do things like serve badly-cooked meals, use outdated products, skip important safety and sanitation steps, cut corners on ordering, fire people for personal reasons, ask employees to work off the clock, ask workers to pay for things out of their own pockets that they should not have to, etc. -- and when I complained, told to deal with it or find another job.

I usually took the second option, because encouraging open, honest communication -- preferably with results -- is a good way to get your employees to respect you. Nobody likes to hear bad news, but would restaurant owners rather hear it from well-intentioned employees -- or hear nothing at all and end up with a failing business?

Lessons from Amy's Baking Company: Five lousy things restaurant owners do to employees

1. Telling employees how to do their jobs when they have no idea how to do them

One of the rites of passage to becoming a full-fledged adult is having a job where your boss knows less than you do, but has problem barking orders and pulling rank.

The owners of Amy's Baking Company obviously had little to no obvious skills in cooking, baking, customer service or public relations, and the fact that their business ended up on Kitchen Nightmares was no surprise -- but I will be surprised if this place is still open and doing well this time next year. From the show clips, it appeared that the employees had a handle on how to do their jobs, whereas the two combative, intolerant owners couldn't make a pizza or a plate of ravioli between the two of them if their business depended on it -- and it does.

If you can't stand the heat -- or any of the myriad other things that come part and parcel with owning a restaurant -- then please, please get the fuck out of the kitchen. Buy a quiet newspaper stand and stay out of the food-service industry, because if there's one thing the dining scene doesn't need, it's another asshole running a crappy pizza restaurant.

Papa John's is already filling that niche.