Sometimes late on a Saturday night or after a Mother’s Day brunch, chefs will share a photo on Instagram of a common kitchen object that carries a coded message meant for restaurant insiders. It’s a picture of a receipt spike — also known as a dock spike, bill spike, stationery spindle, and chit peg or chit spike — filled to the tip with orders. Images of half-full spikes don’t exist: That would be lame. A full receipt spike is a veni, vidi, vici cry from the hot line of a kitchen.
The receipt spike, upon which the chef or kitchen expeditor impales each completed order ticket, will sit full until the night’s teardown is over. When the drone of the exhaust fan stops, the paper trophy is disassembled. Slips with flecks of herbs clinging to them, splotched with fat and dribbles of sauce, are pulled from the spike and put in the garbage (for the kitchen, there’s no need to keep a paper record of the evening’s accomplishments). If the night’s exceptional, the chef will count the numbers. The receipts are thus the fish tales of the trade, to share later at the bar or put to memory if the crew's crossed a new threshold. The $3 accessory that few kitchens are without is put back on the pass, ready for the next day’s service.
In food-service catalogs, the most common model looks like it’s made from a single line scroll of metal. Three legs — with little rubber socks to prevent it from slipping on a stainless steel counter — support two concentric circles with the spike running up from the bull’s eye at the center.
The now-ubiquitous kitchen system likely did not originate in restaurants, but in offices. “Spindling is an old filing system; a clerk would have a spindle, an upright spike, on his or her desk, and would impale each piece of paper on it as he or she finished with it,” wrote Steven Lubar in a 1992 Journal of American Culture article. “When the spindle was full, he’d run a piece of string through the holes, tie up the bundle, and ship it off to the archives.” As a result, the name of the device can signal the type of record it held: A chit is a record of a sum owed (like a tab), while a receipt is a record of a sum paid. Whatever you call it, as a cheap and ubiquitous object, it's not given much thought.
That might be why it’s near-impossible to find information about its origins. A deep dive into American and European patent sites turns up mostly revisions or improvements to the original model, whose invention date remains vague. (Some of these suggested improvements are elaborate and a bit wacky: One improvement patent filed in 1904 calls the device a “bill-file”; later, that filing would be referenced in a 1960s patent request for a “disposable shish-kebab holder.”)
Most antique models sold online are Victorian, made of cast iron to anchor it to a counter. In these early models, the base could be decoratively embossed or fashioned after Celtic patterns. Some were giveaways, bearing a small plaque with the name of a long-since defunct company. Many were cast in foundries like Sargent & Co. in New Haven, Connecticut, the largest hardware manufacturer and distributor in the United States in the late 19th century. Its 1871 Illustrated Catalogue of Hardware contains a wall-mounted Paper File Hook, but a call to the company to inquire about receipt spike production proved fruitless: No one could speak to the company’s history, or where its idea for the filing system might have come from.
Historically, there have been receipt spikes crafted from the plate of an old waffle maker or that have a coin tip tray attached (for the kind of club Mad Men executives would drink in). There’s no shortage of DIY models, either. A woman commenting on a discussion board about receipt spikes says, "My grandfather had one, in the form of a six-inch nail hammered through a small piece of wood. It's not exactly something you'd need to buy.” There are primitive and appropriately macabre models.
When a particularly difficult order is complete, some chefs will plunge the receipt down on the spike, puncturing the bill with force as if to exorcise the bad juju from it. That’s called spindling or spiking. Force will also be needed if several receipts are spiked at once. If a dish comes back to the kitchen for dispute, a chef will search the spike for the receipt to determine if the error was made by the kitchen, the server, or the “always right” customer.
Receipt spike injuries are a real thing. A patent issued in March 1949 for a Safety Spindle includes a spring loaded cap “for preventing the user’s hands from becoming engaged with the spike.” A model with a safety cap, manufactured in Korea, is still sold. An online search of chefs and kitchen injuries turns up some amusing and gory stories. Trading these tales is as satisfying as taking photos of full receipt spikes. In one, a chef reaching out to catch a falling receipt spike punctures his hand. Another features a cook impaling an arm on a receipt spike during lunch service. Did that person stumble or slam a fist down on the counter without looking? Either way, as the story goes, that line-cook champion finished service before attending to the injury.
That industry-insider storytelling helps cement the chit spike’s appeal. Toronto food writer and chef Ivy Knight recalls working for a chef who would lose his shit often. “If a waiter mispronounced ‘pancetta,’ if someone put more than six haricots verts on a plate, he'd scream ‘Fanculo!’ and throw something, usually the chit spike,” she says. “Luckily, he had bad aim, and no one was ever impaled.” Deron Engbers, executive chef of the Cambridge Club in Toronto, even has a receipt spike tattoo. “I didn’t want to get a pig or a knife,” he says. “Without chits there’s no cooking. It’s a part of the culture.” His tattoo’s likely one-of-a-kind: He’s yet to see one like it.
It could be that receipt spikes will not see another 50 years in restaurant kitchens. Many fast-food operations no longer leave a paper trail of orders, instead keeping the workflow strictly digital. At some point, the rest of the industry will surely follow. So what will replace the photos of full receipt spikes after a monumental service? Maybe images of blank or blinking terminals will be the way chefs convey their team’s prowess, digital (not tangible) proof of having slain another Saturday night.
Deborah Reid is a Canadian writer and chef based in Toronto.
Editor: Erin DeJesus