How a capitalist restaurant functions

An extract of Abolish Restaurants which outlines and explains the production process in a capitalist restaurant, which we feel is instructive of how capitalist entities function in general.

Submitted by Steven. on May 15, 2011

The customers see in a restaurant a meal--prepared food to be eaten on the premises. They also see a place to go out and socialize--a semi-public place, a place to do business, to celebrate one's birthday, to take a date. Customers buy food, but they also buy atmosphere, culture, the experience of a restaurant meal. Customers like restaurants. They are the consumers.

The restaurant owner is the seller. They are really in charge of the production process, and what they have for sale tends to shape the demand of the customers. The restaurant owner isn't in business out of a desire to feed people. They're in it to make money. Maybe the owner was a chef or a waiter who worked his way up. Maybe he was born into money and has no background in restaurant work. In any case, when they go into business for themselves, restaurant owners want one thing: to make money.

They buy ovens, refrigerators, pots, pans, glasses, napkins, knives, cutting boards, silverware, tables, chairs, wine, liquor, cleaning equipment, raw and canned foods, oils, spices, and everything else that is needed to run a modern restaurant. The value of these things is determined by the amount of work time necessary to make them. As they are used up, that value makes its way into the value of a restaurant meal.

The value of a salmon dinner, for example, is first determined by the value of the raw salmon used up in its production. That value is the amount of work time necessary to catch (or farm) a salmon and transport it to the restaurant. Also, the value of the average amount of dried oregano, salt, lemon and cooking oil used up in the process has to be added to the value of the meal. So does the value of gas and electricity for cooking, and heating or cooling the restaurant. A small amount is added to the value of the meal for the wear and tear on the machines, for the replacement of plates, glasses, light bulbs, pens and paper, for the cost of upkeep of the property.

All these represent a constant value to the restaurant owner. They do not make money for the restaurant. As spices and raw foods are used up, they transfer to the meal enough value to replace themselves. The actual costs of these items may move above or below their value, but this movement tends to cancel itself out. The boss may get lucky and get a good deal on a few cases of wine, and be able to sell them for more. But he may also get unlucky and have food go bad before it is sold, or there may be more than the average amount of broken dishes. In short, simply buying and selling is not a stable source of profit.

But restaurants do make a reliable profit.

Besides all the raw materials, foods, tools and machines needed for a restaurant, the owner needs someone to put it all into action--they need employees. To the owner, the employees are simply another part of their investment. The owner buys our ability to work, and for a set period of time, we become theirs. The value of an employee is our wage--the amount of money we need to pay for food, clothes, rent, liquor, bus fare and whatever else we need to keep showing up to work. This is more or less depending on whether we are expected to wear nice clothes and be able to talk about wine and French history with the customers or whether we're just supposed to show up and not spit in the food. It also changes depending on how much food and housing cost in the particular city or country the restaurant is located in. Wages also reflect the balance of power between workers and employers. Where we are strong, we can force wages up. Where we are weak, wages can be lowered to a bare survival level.

Wages are expensive, but they're worth it. Unlike a can of beans, a cook makes money for the restaurant owner. A can of beans comes into a restaurant with a value based on how much work time was necessary to produce it. The can of beans is used up and transfers this value to the soup it is put in. The cook, on the other hand, is not used up. A large part of the value of the soup is the work the cook puts in while making the soup. Employees are not paid based on how much work we do. Our ability to work is bought for a set period of time, and we are expected to do work for the boss during that time. Our work adds value to the meal, and creates the conditions in which that value can be turned into money. In fact, we add a lot more value to the meals that are sold during our time at work than we are paid in wages. This surplus value is how a restaurant makes money. Through rent, taxes, liquor licenses and fines, landlords and various levels of government take a cut of this surplus value.

The entrepreneur starts with money. He buys commodities (foods, spices, machines and tools, as well as employees' ability to work). These are set in motion in the production process and create a commodity--the restaurant meal--which is sold immediately to customers on site. This money is more than the original investment. It is then re-invested and the circuit starts all over again. By getting his capital to flow through the production process, that capital grows.

This movement of capital is why restaurants exist, and it gives restaurants their particular shapes and priorities. What matters is not that a restaurant produces food, but that it produces surplus value and profit. The restaurant is a production process that makes the boss money, and he wants to make as much money as possible. Time and again safety, cleanliness, and even legal considerations are thrown aside to make more profit.

The restaurant represents something very different to the workers. Those who work in a restaurant don't do it because we want to. We are forced to. We have no other way to make a living but to sell our ability to work to someone else--and it might as well be a restaurant owner. We don't make food because we like to make food or because we want to make food for this or that particular customer. When cleaning the floors or opening wine bottles, we aren't fulfilling a need for some kind of meaningful activity. We are simply trading our time for a wage. That is what the restaurant represents to us.

Our time and activity in the restaurant is not our own--it belongs to management. Although everything in the restaurant is put into motion and works only because we make it work, the restaurant is something outside and against us. The harder we work, the more money the restaurant makes. The less we are paid, the more money the restaurant makes. It is rare that the workers in a restaurant can afford to eat regularly at the restaurant they work in. It is common for restaurant workers to carry plates of exquisite food around all night, while having nothing but coffee and bread in our stomachs. A restaurant can't function without workers, but there is a constant conflict between the workers and the work. Simply standing up for ourselves makes us fight against the production process. We catch our breath during a dinner rush and slow down the production of a meal. We steal food, cut corners, or just stand and talk, and in the process cut into production. The boss, who represents the production process, is constantly enforcing it on us. We are yelled at if we're not doing anything or if we're not doing something faster than humanly possible or if we make mistakes that slow down money-making. We come to hate the work and to hate the boss. The struggle between restaurant workers and restaurant management is just as much a part of restaurants as the food, wine, tables, chairs, or check presenters.