Jackie Carson-Aponte, the General Manager at New York City’s Dirt Candy, started her career in hospitality as a busgirl. She worked her way up the ranks in her hometown of Philadelphia, training under Ellen Yin, the owner of Fork and High Street on Market, before moving to New York City when she was 19. Management roles at Rice and Dressler followed, before she joined Amanda Cohen in 2014 as she readied to launch her new and expanded Dirt Candy on Allen Street.
Andrea Strong chatted with Jackie about leading the charge against tipping, giving employees bonuses, and training servers by putting them in the kitchen.
Andrea Strong: The first thing we should probably talk about is tipping, since Dirt Candy really blazed the trail in adopting a no tipping policy when it re-opened in February 2015.
Jackie Carson-Apate: The no-tipping policy was definitely a change, and I was nervous about who we were going to get to work here, and how it was going to shake out. But we got a really great opening team. On a Monday when it’s slow you make what you make, and on Saturday when it’s busy you make what you make, so it’s that give and take.
I feel like without tipping, we are getting people who want to work in the industry and want to learn. You get a different kind of talent and motivation. People are more into coming in for extra training and a wine tasting. I don’t have to twist arms as much.
What was the rationale for making the change to no tipping?
Amanda wanted to close the gap between front- and back-of-house pay, as well as get rid of what is an antiquated system. We knew wage requirements were going up and there was not going to be any more tip credit, so we knew we were going to have to raise prices eventually. Since we were opening anew, we just went for a clean slate.
While we don’t tip, we offer quarterly bonuses based on profits. It goes to everybody from dishwasher to cooks up the line, but it’s pro-rated according to hours worked. It’s a source of motivation. It’s nice to know that every three months you will get a little something.
Since profits are in part based on costs, it also helps us keep our costs and waste in line. It makes us look at questions like: Are we throwing out too much food? Are people not liking things? It makes people take ownership of the restaurant because if you are in profit-sharing you have a role in the restaurant. You have a stake in it.
What about staff training? Anything new there?
We actually do a swap where front of house does a back of house trail so that they understand how it works and they have actively participated in making something. It’s just one day in the kitchen. Servers also come in as guests for dinner so that they can understand service from the diner’s perspective. They can learn tips from other servers and from watching someone else do what they do. It helps them see where there is room for improvement.
Has the back of house worked a front-of-house shift?
Only one person has done it. He worked as a back waiter. But no one else has done it yet.
How does technology help you out?
We use technology for the feedback. Whether it’s user comments on review sites or OpenTable, it helps us make sure that we are doing well; I review comments every day. You take it all with a grain of salt, but you are looking for the overall trends — everyone loves when we do this, or everyone hates this dish, or hates when we do this. I am looking to see if there is a thread that we need to do something about. And I am looking for bad experiences to see if there is something we need to improve upon.
What are the effects of technology—phones, apps, cameras—on the restaurant experience?
Well, you can’t stop technology. Phones don’t bother me as long as it’s not intrusive. But eating out takes longer now because people wait to eat until everyone has taken a picture of the food and of their group. And instead of getting up from your table and going out to hail a cab, we have guests waiting inside at the table for Uber to text them that they are outside.
So one of the effects of technology is that we have to give tables more time. Whereas a reservation for two would be an hour and a half a number of years ago, now it’s two hours.
What does hospitality mean in this day and age of technology saturation? Has it changed?
I feel like with all the technology and virtual connecting, there needs to be more emphasis on personal touches and human interaction. It’s hospitality and that’s what it’s about: having thoughtful things done for you. Amanda and myself and our staff really try to engage with our guests, without being overly intrusive, of course. I help people who want to reserve a table before they leave the restaurant. I always give people my card and say, just email me directly and we can try to help you with a reservation.
Really, you give everyone your card for reservations help?
Yes, I give my card to literally everyone who walks into the restaurant. I really want people to come back! With all the technology that overwhelms us, you still need that human interaction, and I go out of my way to make that happen. People do crave it. I think having that maitre d’ who is always there and is the face of the restaurant is really important. We know what you like and where you like to sit, and that’s nice. That’s our job.