Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.
Each month, we ask an influential Pittsburgher: What was it like for you in the beginning?
Stephanie & Ashley
Live: Allegheny West & Wilkinsburg
Work: Alloy 26 - North Side
How Long: 1 year
How did you two connect & how did the initial idea for Tipped Off come to you two?
Stephanie: I came up with the idea when looking for a serving job in New York. Obviously the amount of positions to consider there are overwhelming, and the culture is pretty cutthroat. I was finding that people weren’t being completely honest about potential earnings and I wasn’t getting a very reliable idea of what the culture of these places were like before I worked there. As a result, I switched jobs maybe every 3-6 months on average. I found myself googling things like “what’s it like to work at X?” and of course finding nothing, which was really the birth of the idea — what if I could know what it was like to work somewhere before I apply, and not waste two weeks training there? It really started to take shape when I found a place I liked to work and started to correlate that a happy and well-treated staff resulted in better service for the customers. I started to see how everyone could benefit from this idea in one way or another, and it started to grow from there.
As for how we connected, I met Ashley at while working Downtown at Bakersfield and could definitely tell that she knew her stuff; she was easily the most knowledgeable server there. I could tell she had a respect for the work. At this point, I had kind of left Tipped Off on the backburner while I was working two jobs; which was common for the Masters-level employees I worked with at UPMC because of the low pay. Ashley was expressing frustration about something industry-related one day and I said, well hey, you should be my new partner for my company! She asked about it and I gave my little elevator pitch and half way through she was finishing my sentences. And so we started pursuing the idea further.
Give us a rundown on how Tipped Off works and who you see at the beneficiaries?
Ashley: Tipped Off is a web-based community and hiring platform for the restaurant industry. That’s the simple answer, although it’s one we don’t love. While we want to build an online space for people to connect and network, we want to make sure the community is shared and expanded outside of our computer screens. Tipped Off currently gives employees the space to share information about the restaurants they work in, and the vibe of their individual cultures. Soon, it will be a fully interactive hiring platform where employees can build profiles including a copy of their resume, and reply to restaurant job postings immediately. Hiring management can contact their applicants on the site immediately, and can also browse any individual profiles who have their resumes attached.
Honestly, everyone benefits from Tipped Off. Cocky? Maybe. True? Absolutely. Tipped Off aims to streamline the hiring process for restaurant owners and management, while simultaneously empowering staff members to find the best fit for them. Overall, if you have staff members in a space where they’re happy and feel respected, more care will go into each dish made and table served, resulting in better service and therefore more consistent and higher sales.
And the model definitely is not Yelp for jaded employees. We want the dialogue and information we post to empower everyone in the service ecosystem.
What do you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to FOH service?
Ashley: That anyone can do it. We are a generally high-volume, fast paced industry, where we work very closely with other individuals at odd hours of the day, for long periods of time without a break. We do this to provide an experience to our guests, not just write down an order, or pour a beer. A lot of education goes into being a good FOH employee too – whether it’s certifications, intensive menu knowledge on food/wine or learning how to read and respond to your customers.
Stephanie: I totally agree, and along the same vein, for me it’s the misconception that restaurant workers are there because they are unable to get a job anywhere else, are desperate, or uneducated. It’s an antiquated way of looking at the industry. A lot of people, like me, do this because they love it; they love food, wine, and creating a special experience for people. They love that the flexible schedule allows them to pursue endless interests outside of work, without being limited by the 9-5 thing. Honestly, restaurant workers are some of the most diverse and passionate people I’ve met, and it’s a mistake for people to underestimate them.
Where can PGH get better on service?
Ashley: Education is super important. As dietary restrictions are “trending” and PGH’s restaurant scene is booming, there are more and more new items hitting the market daily. I didn’t know what the fuck a shishito pepper was a year ago, but now they’re EVERYWHERE. I frequently run into situations where staff can’t properly describe a cocktail or dish. If they don’t know what they’re selling, that item isn’t going to move.
How can restaurants foster this change?
Ashley: PRESHIFT. PRESHIFT. PRESHIFT. MGMT should be more than happy to put up that new plate or drink for everyone to try, and give proper tasting notes and guidance on pairings and inevitable substitutions. Nothing is worse than having two days off of work and coming back to find that there’s something new on the menu that you’ve never heard of.
Stephanie: This might be an unpopular response, but Pittsburgh restaurants need to get more comfortable letting their servers tell customers “no” if they truly want to elevate the culinary landscape of the city. I understand that people get nervous about not knowing ingredients or terms on a menu, and as such I always acknowledge that having questions is normal. I think it’s the server’s job to make the guest feel as comfortable as possible around what might be unfamiliar foods or cooking techniques to coax them into experiencing new or unusual things. Something is on a menu because the chef thinks it’s a delicious creation that they are proud to share. If someone changes the dish too much to resemble something they can cook at home, you haven’t showed that customer anything new, and you’ve done a disservice to the work of the chef. Instead, I think we need to find ways to get the customer comfortable and excited about trying something new, and part of that is making sure your staff is excited about your food and knows it well enough to know how to sell it to anyone.
Now more about you two…
What’s your favorite spot to have a cocktail or bite to eat after a shift?
Ashley: I usually sway more to the dive side of things, especially after a shift, so my go-to is definitely The Cage. Pro tip, they just got their fryer up and running again after a few months, so hot cheese balls for everyone!
Stephanie: I’ve worked downtown mostly, so for a while I would go to Meat and Potatoes regularly for some prosecco and pâté (they have the BEST). Not to mention that the lighting in there is always on point, whereas many other downtown places are way too bright! Lately though I’ve been hitting up Condado; they usually have a great beer list and a kitchen that’s decent and open late. It’s definitely becoming the go-to haunt for the Penn Avenue servers and bartenders.
Favorite place for a quick bite before work?
Ashley: Working in the Strip District has given me the gift of Salem’s. If you haven’t made it, it’s a great Middle Eastern deli on Penn & 30th. Everyone who works there is super friendly, and their curried goat is delicious!
Stephanie: I love Earth – that’s something I miss about New York; build your own salad places like that are on every corner and much cheaper. I also checked out Pittsburgh Poke recently which I thought was a great value, but if I ate a sushi burrito that’s bigger than my head right before my shift I might need a nap midway through.
Most memorable swanky dining experience? Here or elsewhere.
Ashley: Zahav in Philly was hands down, the best meal I’ve ever had. From the food to the impeccable service, and their wine list is remarkable too! I can be hypercritical when I’m out to eat, and there was nothing I would change about the experience I had there.
Stephanie: Sushi Shiro in Seattle. It’s not necessarily a “swanky” place but my brother and I sat at the sushi bar and did omakase,with the sushi chef preparing multiple courses of his choosing for us. It was so delicious and fresh (he literally showed us the live prawn moments before we ate it) and having the chef right in front of us explaining his training, the preparations, the reasoning behind the order of the dishes…it just truly enhanced an already fantastic meal.
Last meal in PGH?
Stephanie: I’ve been to brunch at Or, the Whale like three times already. First just to see my friends at their new job but then just because everything was excellent! It’s so light and airy in there, the service was lovely, and the food has been consistently wonderful! Also, they have brunch every day from 8-2, which I (and every other bartender and server in the city) have been wishing for for too long! Servers need a brunch spot on a Tuesday; we’re serving you on the weekends, so we don’t usually get to go!
Ashley: I left town last week for New England, and I think the last thing I ate before leaving work was a turkey sandwich from Dianoia’s. I am so consistently impressed by everything that comes out of Chef Dave’s kitchen, and I have an extra 10lbs to prove it!
Least favorite question from a guest?
Ashley: “I don’t like ______ , can I get this dish without it?” I’m super sensitive to allergies and other dietary restrictions, but when it comes to changing a dish out of want instead of need, it breaks my heart a bit. Chefs design dishes as works of art. Their hearts and souls go into the preparation of these meals, ingredients balance each other, and removing a piece of it means you don’t get to see (taste) their full vision. I’d much rather guide a guest to something on the menu they’d like without any substitutions.
Stephanie: I’m going to have to go with Ashley on this one. Live a little, Pittsburgh! Just try it! We’ll get you something else if you hate it, I promise.
Want to support Tipped Off? Join Stephanie & Ashley for a private dinner (in which they flex their FOH servicing skills) Sunday, October 8th. Ticket includes valet services, cocktail reception, a 5-course dinner with wine pairings, and a silent auction of which all proceeds benefit the new startup. See full details here.