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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.

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Comments

Yankeedoodle Sept. 3, 2013 @ 9:12 a.m.

There seemed to be plenty of people there when we walked by, several nights a week, but we didn't go there because we are not into links.

Unless you see the books, you can't really tell what the bottom line is. I don't care one way or another about tipping.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Sept. 3, 2013 @ 9:21 a.m.

The no-tipping thing was always akin to facing east every morning at 5:00 and demanding that the sun not rise. I don't care what goes on in Australia, in this country restaurant service is based around tipping. There's no changing that.

Interesting that you brought up the Pope, because Porter appointed himself the high pontiff of the Farm-to-table religion. And he didn't hesitate to pass judgment on other people/places if they weren't as doctrinally pure as he believed himself to be.

And now I have to confess feeling too much pleasure at his failure.

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dasubergeek Sept. 3, 2013 @ 10:18 a.m.

I wonder if he'll still be importing $7-a-litre Baja olive oil, repackaging it, and selling it for nearly $40 a litre.

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Barbarella Fokos Sept. 3, 2013 @ 11:34 a.m.

I frequented the first location of the Linkery. Service was friendly, Jay was laid back and excited, it felt good to be there. Tips weren't included, and we were extra generous to the more attentive and responsive and knowledgeable servers. When the new one opened, I was all down to love it just as much. But the service was TERRIBLE. Like tragic terrible, and I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to service because I've had so many friends in the biz. I tried again, weeks later. Same deal, sh*t service, made even more irritating by the overwhelming sense that patrons should feel lucky to be among such "esteemed" values. I never went back. Great piece, Ian!

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Ian Pike Sept. 3, 2013 @ 11:51 a.m.

The food there was sometimes brilliant, other times stupid. Usually it was a worthwhile experiment. But the service was never right. The servers lacked the consistency and polish of properly trained staff, and there's no amount of coolness that can replace that.

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ValerieR Sept. 3, 2013 @ 2:17 p.m.

I think tipping is stupid - we should treat servers/cooks/bussers like human with a job to do - and employers should treat & pay them accordingly. Similarly, I do not agree with merit based teacher pay.....unless we extend that to doctors too (Hey! I am sick again - no tip for you!)

In my opinion 18% added to the bill IS TIPPING! A no tipping policy would look more like Small Bar where the tip is already in the listed price and not added later - you know what it will cost as you order. I think it is misleading to call it "no tipping" when there is a tip added - the customer just has no choice in the amount.

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SDClark Sept. 3, 2013 @ 2:45 p.m.

Jay Porter's contributions to San Diego's restaurant scene are unarguable, but it sure seemed like he didn't like San Diego very much. He was always singing the praises of Portland, Mexico, and SF while blaming his restaurant shortfalls on San Diego's dining culture (or the lak thereof). I guess we 'll get the chance to see if he was right.

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Founder Sept. 3, 2013 @ 3:52 p.m.

  1. Food (I never ate there) prices seem too high for me.
  2. Service someone always smiled as I went bye, knowing I was not a customer.
  3. The Linkery customers were not noisy problem for local residents, like many.
  4. The Linkery was a good neighbor and bicycle supporter.
  5. The Linkery was hip without being "just" a bar, like too many others places in NP.
  6. The Linkery sold out at a great time, as NP's nighttime Bar scene is slowing down...
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tejanoblanco Oct. 31, 2013 @ 4:54 p.m.

Ian, this is a very thoughtful article. Since discovering The Link' on a trip to SD in 2007, I've considered it culinary ground zero for each of the half-dozen times I've visited, since then; I've often eaten there 3-4 times in a single week, so, call me a fan.

As an Austinite spoiled by a serious local food scene and fellow diners who know their farmers, I met Jay, Michael, and other Linkery staff, resonated with their work, and asked for their help. They, then, introduced me to a local food/cultural intensity all over San Diego, as well as in other areas north and south of the border, that otherwise I'd have missed in the sea of corporate chow that marks much of your food scene, there. All of the places they recommended are now in an armamentarium of go-to SD businesses that friends and I support when visiting, confident we will not be embarassed. In other words, The Linkery staff served much more than food to customers: they served as ambassadors for some serious, regional goodness.

In the midst of your very direct critique, I was: a. able to get what I'd Googled, e.g. why they closed; b. that being a restauranteur in the US with idiosyncratic philosophies about the value of staff vis-a-vis gratuity for meal service, are all well-and-good so long as you don't really care about making money; and, c. (among others) that I must have been one of the few who actually "got" the place and enjoyed every, single moment and morsel I was ever served there. And, I understand that this is very much a dynamic relationship, where, an enthusiastic, repeat, out-of-town diner gets recognized and elicits similar enthusiasm from staff who want to be appreciated as much (more?) for their knowledge and art as they are compensated monetarily. Nonetheless, I agree with you without qualification that Slate is too big for advertorials (alas, they, too, are mortal).

In any business, there is always a fine line between one's percieved or stated professional integrity and meeting the customer where they are without judgment and with the grace to understand that a civilized life is about dialogue and compromise (pardon the homily). I'm only sorry that Jay and Co. didn't evolve to meet their community, maybe having been a bit less "pure", a bit more, well, "local", relaxing a bit for the sake of keeping together a team and open a business without which San Diego is poorer. No one can control or educate the customer any more than the customer desires. But, the owner can control their response to the environment and adapt to meet the mission. Or, not.

I hope that you and other Linkery alums will continue to nurture an authentic local food scene and encourage us visitors, along with your own neighbors, to explore good food and life away from the beach, convention center hotels and the Gaslamp -- up on the Mesa, down in Baja, wherever -- and I wish Jay, Michael, et al, all the best success, now and always.

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