Jeff Smith 6:35 p.m., June 27
Tips, lies, and the Linkery
A response to Slate's publication of an article by former Linkery owner Jay Porter
After eight years of stuffing sausages and pushing the issue of farm-to-table dining, sometimes earning short mentions in major media outlets, North Park’s Linkery called it quits. Prior to the mid-July closure, its then-owner Jay Porter published a sanguine farewell on the Linkery website. Rather than admit defeat in the cutthroat game of restauranteurship, Porter shrugged off the Linkery’s failure as a chance for growth, writing:
“...we are finding that we can’t, given our circumstances, make our restaurants the best they can be--which I believe is the least and most we can ask of ourselves and of any community enterprise. Simply put, it’s time for us to move on, and let new operators bring their unique gifts to the community.”
He also made public his intentions to move to San Francisco, or elsewhere in the Bay Area, and invest his time in another restaurant, presumably along the same lines as the Linkery.
That attitude is precisely what made Porter such a polarizing figure in the San Diego restaurant community. His righteous, often self-aggrandizing vision for the restaurants he owned earned him his fair share of critics, and even a few enemies, but it’s also what drove the Linkery to periodic moments of sheer gastronomical brilliance on par with anything else in town. It’s a matter of giving credit where credit is due that we can’t, or at least won’t, vilify Jay Porter and the Linkery that was.
In the end, there’s nothing wrong with writing whatever you want, on your blog that represents your business, especially if you happen to be an extremely outspoken small businessman like Jay Porter. There’s no obligation to chase the truth or be terribly self-critical in a private forum. It’s another thing entirely to broadcast dubious claims (some people might even say outright fabrications) to a national audience.
On August 14th, Slate.com published an essay by Porter. The Huffington Post reblogged it the next day. In the essay, Porter defends the most controversial aspect of the former Linkery: the 18% service charge added to every guest check in lieu of accepting tips. For basically the entire life of the Linkery, Porter waged a one-man war against his detractors in the press, online, and in person. The man deserves credit for sticking to his guns and defending the “no tipping” policy, to the death of the restaurant and beyond. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter whether the system was good or bad. In truth, it wasn’t even half as big a deal as its enemies and champions made it out to be, but, for whatever reason, the Linkery’s tipping policy was always the most divisive issue.
The problem with the Slate article is that Porter claims the abolition of voluntary gratuity caused significant, somehow measurable improvements to service at the restaurant. He writes:
When we switched from tipping to a service charge, our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn't feel taken for granted. In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system. The quality of our service also improved. In my observation, however, that wasn't mainly because the servers were making more money (although that helped, too). Instead, our service improved principally because eliminating tips makes it easier to provide good service.
While the Linkery was known for many things good and bad, it never had a reputation as a restaurant with excellent service. It’s not too hard to find reviews by San Diego restaurant critics that take umbrage with the Linkery’s service, regardless of the tipping and alongside praise for the sometimes-brilliant food. So, where does Porter get off making claims that his restaurant’s service was superior? It would be easy to pass the man off as a blowhard, but that’s not really in his character.
Here’s a little insight. Long before I started working at the Reader, I did an 18-month stint in the Linkery kitchen, working every station and every shift, and dealing almost daily with Porter as a businessman. The thing is, he believes everything he says about the Linkery. He always believed wholeheartedly in the farm-to-table mystique, and when he says that the service improved at his restaurant, he means it. The problem is, the service improved to meet a unique set of standards that exist almost entirely within the mind of Jay Porter. As far as he was ever concerned, the Linkery was the best thing since sliced bread and exactly the kind of restaurant he would have wanted.
San Diego did not agree, and the restaurant failed; partly because the quirky, poorly trained service staff waited tables in an off-the-cuff style that appealed to few patrons in an industry where consistency is the biggest key to success. It’s hard to stay in business with a service standard that earns the ire of local critics, and perhaps more importantly a significant plurality of customers; which it’s easy to see when the internet acts as a repository for public gripes and griefs. There is no way around the fact that the Linkery went out of business because people did not like it enough to keep eating there.
And that, is the meat of the problem with Slate publishing the essay from Porter. Rather than wag the finger at Jay Porter, who has abandoned San Diego for more northerly climes where the local hipsters may or may not agree with his culinary politics, the majority of the fault in this matter lies with Slate. What editor in his right mind thought it would be a good idea to ask the owner of a failed restaurant to write an essay glorifying that restaurant’s practices? Did nobody at Slate, or the Huffington Post before they re-blogged the piece, examine the hordes of negative criticism that the Linkery’s service earned in every corner, from the Reader to Yelp? Did they not realize that the business had failed and that the windows were being brown-papered by new owners even as Slate was publishing an article about the triumph of tipless service?
Slate, you are supposed to be smarter than this!
As an analogy, let’s say a news outlet wanted to run a story about corporate accounting, and they asked a former Enron board member to draft up a quick story on the benefits of “creative” bookkeeping and how it can help drive short-term profits.
That would be ridiculous.
You cannot ask the Pope to discuss the merits of Christianity, not if you want an unbiased answer. At least if it’s the Pope, everybody is going to be 99% sure where he stands on the matter (we can always hope for an amusing surprise on that one!). When it’s a quasi-anonymous restaurateur speaking on a national news site, the bias is an order of magnitude easier to hide.
Let’s set the record straight. The Linkery had poor service, whether in spite or because of its tipping policy. In either case, Porter’s opinions on the matter, regardless of how righteous, shouldn’t have appeared on Slate as if beyond reproach. That’s bad practice when the majority of Slate’s readers expect the publication to curate content with integrity, and at least a minimal efforts towards impartiality. Contemporary food writing is rife with puffery from the desks of PR-hacks, the loyalties of whom can be bought with a few free meals. For readers, discerning between real critical content and empty advertorials is a constant struggle. The burden is on publications, especially ones with audiences as wide as Slate’s, to provide content that makes some effort at informing readers. Publishing a misleading essay by the owner of a series of failed restaurants does exactly the opposite.