Hermanos time limit reflects restaurant reality

As someone who has spent a number of years working in the restaurant industry, both in the front and back of house, I understand the need for the two-hour time limit that recently put popular downtown Winnipeg restaurant Hermanos in the news: Time limits keep restaurants running.

Restrictions keep businesses open in competitive market, former restaurant worker says

Restaurant staff rely on tips to earn a decent income, and flipping tables is part of the business plan, Katy MacKinnon writes. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

As someone who has spent a number of years working in the restaurant industry, both in the front and back of house, I understand the need for the two-hour time limit that recently put popular downtown Winnipeg restaurant Hermanos in the news: Time limits keep restaurants running.

I can only speculate about the many factors that could have played a part in the couple at Hermanos being asked to leave mid-meal.

It's possible that the food arrived slowly and the couple ate the food at an average rate before being asked to leave.

But customers sometimes eat very slowly and haven't touched their plates for a long time before they're asked to leave. This is something I have experienced as a server a number of times: diners telling me they're "still eating," then proceeding to completely ignore their half-full plates and half-full glasses of wine for the next hour. I do not exaggerate.

Winnipeggers' expectations and behaviour in restaurants commonly align with what they've become accustomed to at coffee houses — a lengthy stay with little to no cash shelled out. I have worked in a variety of restaurants, with both lighter fare and fine dining, and customer attitudes at these places have been similar across the board.

In a coffee house it is normal, if not expected, to order one drink worth $5 or less, then sit and chat with a friend for an hour or two. In a restaurant, this same behaviour tends to be exhibited, even though they are entirely different businesses.

Restaurants rely on flipping tables

Restaurants tend to be larger establishments than coffee houses that are open longer hours and have more employees, as well as liquor licences that don't come cheap. These expenses mean restaurants must follow different business practices to stay afloat. In a city saturated with locally owned restaurants, this is not the easiest feat.

I've had numerous customers eat their food, purchase a coffee and pay their bill, then sit for another two hours while they receive free refills. Is this wrong? Not if the restaurant isn't busy and the customers leave before closing hours. But when the restaurant relies on flipping tables (seating a number of groups in the same table throughout the night) to provide a basic income for all staff, lingering customers undermine the hard work all staff members are doing to allow as many customers as possible to have an enjoyable night out.

The incomes of all employees in a restaurant — bussers, hosts, servers, bartenders, dishwashers, line cooks, head chefs and management — are entirely dependent on the food and liquor sold in the restaurant. Every time a table remains seated for 30 minutes or more after paying their bill, when new customers are waiting to be seated, the restaurant and every one of its employees loses money.

More than half of the food and beverage servers in Canada work only part-time (not necessarily by choice); those part-time employees earn an average income of a little more than $13,000 a year, Service Canada says, citing Statistics Canada data. Full-time servers make only a little more than $30,000. Meanwhile, those in the back — where earnings from tips are lower — make even less, with cooks' average salary below $25,000.

Income depends on tips

Most servers are paid minimum wage plus tips, so their income depends on the generosity of customers. This is common, this is expected, and industry workers usually know what they're getting into before accepting a job offer. It's the freedom, the socializing and the hustle and bustle of the restaurant industry that allows workers to put up with low pay.

Time limits at restaurants are often put in place retroactively, not proactively, usually in response to a growing trend of customer behaviour that I have outlined above. The purpose of time limits is not to make the restaurant into a huge corporation with multiple franchises; rather, it is to stay afloat.

I would suggest a policy that is considerate to both the restaurant as a business and the patron as a customer. If customers have paid their bill, even if they are finishing liquor or coffee already served to them, allow them to remain at their table for 30 minutes. Should customers wish to keep purchasing food or drinks, or if the restaurant is not busy (according to the servers, not the customers), customers should be allowed to remain at their table for as long as they like during open hours.

It's important to respect restaurants for the businesses they are, and time limit policies exist to allow restaurants to continue delivering top-quality food and service to their customers. If we want to facilitate growth of local restaurants in Winnipeg, we must abide by the policies they have laid out.

Katy MacKinnon is a freelance writer and publisher of the food blog My Dish is Bomb.


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