On countless occasions during his first 20 years working in kitchens, Paul Yellin heard the phrase “compliments to the kitchen” passed along from servers.
It struck the chef, over the years, that he wouldn’t mind receiving a little more than warm words.
“The waiter is told how good the food is and the tip goes to them,” he said. “The kitchen crew rarely gets noticed. A lot of the times, they never know what they did was appreciated.”
If he ever opened his own restaurant, Yellin vowed to offer patrons a tangible way to compensate the kitchen staff for a job well done. So, that’s what he did when in 2016 he opened Cane Rhum Bar in downtown Charleston.
Following the lead of restaurants in other cities he had come across, Yellin added to Cane’s menu for patrons to buy a round of beers for the kitchen staff. It costs $10.
“A compliment is great,” he said. “So is a cold beer.”
A similar message is listed on menus at Charleston restaurants such as Sorghum and Salt, Xiao Bao Biscuit and Tu.
But, how often do customers actually put in such an order?
Pretty often. It happens at least three times per week, according to Yellin. And it happens just as much at Sorghum and Salt, where a line on the bottom of the menu reads, "Buy the staff a pair of 40's."
Owner/chef Tres Jackson says customers weekly add $12 to their bill to treat the entire staff, which totals five or seven people depending on the night, to two 40-ounce bottles of Miller High Life.
“For our staff, it’s an acknowledgment of a job well done,” Jackson said. “It’s like a high five.”
“Bartenders get tipped or get a drink bought for them all the time,” Yellin added. “This is the same thing as tipping a bartender."
Such an option would never be available at Charleston Grill, says general manager Mickey Bakst, who called the menu trend "irresponsible in today's environment."
In 2016, Bakst and Steve Palmer of Indigo Road founded Ben's Friends, a network to help those in food and beverage community coping with abuse and addiction.
"There's a radical problem with drugs and alcohol in our industry," Bakst said. "You're encouraging a lifestyle that can lead to big problems for people."
Jackson and Yellin say it's not about getting drunk.
Employees are limited to one or two drinks to enjoy after the cooking is done. When multiple patrons buy rounds for the kitchen in one evening, Yellin saves the reward for another night.
“It’s not like we’re pounding vodka shots,” Jackson said. “We don’t want to encourage anything that’s irresponsible, at all. It’s more of a camaraderie thing.”
Still, they say many customers are initially caught off guard by seeing it on the menu or have questions about how it works.
“Anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen gets it immediately," Yellin said. "And they want to do it.”
In his experience, Yellin said post-shift drinks, whether or not customers bought them, have been a ritual in many of his workplaces.
“It depends on the night, though,” he said. “Sometimes after you get through a rough night or a good night, we have a drink. Sometimes everyone just goes home.”
It leaves a better taste, he said, when a cold beer was paid for as a “thank you to the kitchen.”
“Honestly, it’s a great feeling,” Yellin said. “It may not be much, but you’re happy someone noticed.”