What your restaurant / bar server wants you to know

As some of you know, I’ve been a waitress/server before.  Yes, my pretties, like many other people out there, I spent six (too-)long years on my feet, Suggestively Selling deserts and exotic house-recipe lemonades according to corporate-chain-mandated scripts in restaurants, or convincing tables of drunkards that they needed one more pitcher of beer on Dart League Night at the neighborhood bar.

In those six years, I’d seen a lot.  I witnessed illegal gambling and prescription drug rings (not the actual exchanges, but I knew it was going on and I heard talk about it).  I saw people at their hypoglycemic or mean-drunk worst.  I groveled for tips and put up with people touching my ass.

I shouldn’t have.  But I did.  My ability to buy groceries the next day (or whenever the pain in my hips and legs wore off) depended on it.

I had my standards (I turned down repeated requests from numerous bar patrons to go home with them, kiss them, touch them in Special Places, and so on).  But I know now that those standards weren’t high enough.  And if you throw enough liquor into the equation, or factor in a brain-chemical-imbalance here and there, boundaries begin to crack and crumble and threaten to give way.

Those boundaries, however, remained extraordinarily intact, given the situation(s) I had been thrust into (a natural artifact of bar business) and my deficits of self-confidence and self-worth at the time.

Because the restaurant environment and the stereotypical bar scene differ wildly from each other, I’ll speak to two separate audiences.  But because both categories can be lumped under one “Waitressing/Serving” mental file, I’ll include them in the same post.

Dear Restaurant Patrons…

There are a few things you need to know.

First, I don’t make “a ton” of money from waitressing.  I was a server from 1997-2003 and back then, I averaged about $10 (US) per hour, which includes the paltry $2.13 per hour federal minimum wage for “tipped positions“.

Yes, you read that right.  If it is culturally customary to receive tips in your job position, the establishment for which you work only needs to pay you $2.13 per hour, not the $7.25 per hour that gets talked about and assumed to be the national minimum wage.  That $2.13/hr was established back in 1991.  If adjusted for inflation, we would need to make $3.91/hr in 2016 dollars.  As it stands?  The $2.13/hr wage set in 1991 has the buying power of $1.18/hr today.  The employing establishment does not make exceptions for servers who got sacked with cheap customers who refuse to tip to make some kind of social commentary “statement”.

Customers, I realize that’s not your problem; it’s (was) mine.  I signed up for the job, knowing what I was getting into, and nobody held me at gunpoint until I agreed to do so, either.  I work in an “at-will” state, which means there are no strings attached to a job, from either side.

I get all that.

However, I signed up for the job under the assumption that it was also customary to leave a sufficient tip, which, according to social rules in our country, consists of a tip that totals about 15-20% of the total bill.  This is not a gift from the goodness of one’s heart; it’s part of the package the patron signs up for when they enter a sit-down, full-service restaurant with the expectation of being waited on and catered to.  This is a reasonable expectation to make of all patrons, whether or not they agree with the tipping institution/system.  For those with a social aversion to tipping, please don’t stiff your innocent server by failing to leave a sufficient tip in order to make a “statement”.  By doing so, you’re not advancing your social cause; you’re simply cheating a server out of their income by stealing their services for free, and making an ass out of yourself in the process.  Don’t Be That Guy/Gal.

In fact, this is so ingrained and expected that the IRS assesses a server’s income tax bill based on the dollar amount of the food/drinks they serve.  Yes, it’s a percentage of what we sell, not what we actually make.  If you tip anything less than 10%, then we’ve actually paid out of our own pocket to wait on you.  On what planet is it acceptable to have to not only not get paid, but to pay out of your own pocket, to do your job?  Nobody would pay out of their pocket to do their jobs.  How ironic, considering that the restaurant customers doing the server-stiffing probably wouldn’t dream of doing their day jobs for free, much less paying their company’s customers for doing so.

All of this assumes, of course, that the service was decent.  There are indeed bad servers out there, who are inattentive, rude, snappy, snarky, flat-lined (in the head or the heart), and so on.  Slow service, however, might not be the server’s fault.  Here’s how to tell: when your food arrives, are the plates too hot to touch and is the food a little on the dry side?  If so, the plates sat under the heated “glo-rays” for too long; that’s the server’s fault.  However, if the food is piping hot and juicy, the slow speed is not the server’s fault–it’s either a slow kitchen or the cooking time of the food itself.  Don’t blame (or stiff) your server.

Oh, and any drink coming from the bar is likely to take longer than fountain/soda drinks.  This may also include some specialty nonalcoholic beverages.  The server likely doesn’t get to make those drinks themselves; they have to approach the server station at the end of the bar and try to get the bartender’s attention, who probably has their own customers upon whom they’re relying for tips, too.  The server might rank pretty low on the bartender’s totem pole.

Please keep child-related noise to a minimum, especially if it’s a fairly nice restaurant.  Your child certainly has the right to speak and coo and babble (which can be really cute!), but there’s a certain volume threshold that thou shalt not cross.  (This can cause other patrons to be irritated, which they will no doubt take out on their server come tipping time.)

Out of those tips, a server must pay half the non-serving restaurant staff, too.  Practically all restaurants require servers to tip out table bussers–the ones who come through and pick up all the empty plates and silverware and wipe down the tables after a party has left.

In almost all bar-equipped restaurants, the server must “tip out” the bartender, about 10% of their total tips (which might be based on what they sell, not what they make, too).  And that 10% better be rounded up; bartenders tend to cop an attitude otherwise.

In many bigger/busier places, there are “food-runners” (the people who deliver the food, after which the server comes back to check later) who usually need to be tipped out $5-10 per server, depending on the establishment, silverware-rollers (usually a server who has the night off who has agreed to come in off the clock and roll silverware for five or six hours straight, often off the clock, solely for the tips from other servers (usually $5+ each), and many other staff positions to have to give portions of tips to.  Some restaurants require servers to “tip-out” hosts/hostesses and even kitchen staff (I never worked in a restaurant that required this, so I’m not sure how much a server has to give them).

In some places, tips are pooled, so if you stiff your server, you’re actually stiffing all of the servers, but you’re not sending an individual message to that particular server, because tips (or lack thereof) are shared equally in those places.  That one server won’t feel the pinch much.  And the other servers might not even find out, unless the one you stiffed points them out to you and you’re branded a non-tipper.

The moral of that story is, you might think you’re a wonderful tipper because you left the server 20 bucks.  And indeed, you might be an awesome tipper!  (It’s not so awesome, though, if your total bill was $140 or more.)  And you might do the math in your head and think, “wow, s/he’s got 4-5 other tables; they must be making $100 an hour!”

It doesn’t quite work like that.  Not every other table will rack up a large bill; some parties’ bills only total about $25-30, which might mean $5 for a server if they’re lucky.  Some parties that you might see seated around you may linger at their tables for much longer than that hour, long after they’re done ordering anything and spending any money.  As long as they’re there, no one else can sit there, so the server loses that table for that time.  And then there are people who come in with coupons, Groupons, discount cards, or complain and get food “comped” (removed from their bill), etc.

In my experience, I might have made $100-120 on a good, busy Friday or Saturday night in a decent place.  On average, I had to fork over about a third of my tips to other restaurant employees.  So now I’m left with $65-80.  For what was about an 8-to-10-hour shift.  The math isn’t all that lucrative.

Now I get to pay taxes on the…not the $65-80…but the $100-120, to the tune of an automatic 8% (of what I sold, if everybody paid cash, which nobody does anymore), or if they paid with credit card (much more common these days), I paid taxes not on what I sold but on 100% of everything I actually made.  Yes, there were times when I paid taxes on money I didn’t actually make.  My bi-weekly checks (you know–the ones where they pay you your $2.13/hr) weren’t actually checks; they were mere statements of what I had earned, and the fact that it all went to pay taxes on both the base wage and the tips.  And $2.13/hr isn’t enough to cover taxes on tips, so come tax time, I never got a refund.  I got to pay more in.  All my friends were enjoying fat tax refunds in April, May, June, etc; I had to write yet another check to the IRS.

Dear Bar Patrons…

I hope you were listening to what I said to the Restaurant Patrons, because the same principles apply to you, except that bars vary a lot more.  Some places have computer systems for inputting orders, while others still use the good ol’ pen and paper.  It probably depends on how much food they sell; some bars sell no food at all, whereas others try to double as restaurants, complete with a dining section in the bar.  I’ve worked at all of the above.

The point of sharing the above information is to differentiate between the systems of the pen-and-paper-system bars and those that run computer ordering systems; for the computer-system-oriented bars, tipping works in much the same way as restaurants, while for the pen-and-paper-oriented bars, tipping is looser.  In a bar, there are typically way fewer people to “tip-out”, too, such as bussers and food runners and the like; servers tip the bartender (well) at the end of the night, and that’s about it.

Bar Patrons, you’re usually pretty cool.  You like to chat, you can flatter a young female server, you’re generally relaxed, you get nice and loose (which means you’re probably funny and a bit-too-honest, which is plenty fine at times and a little creepy at other times but regardless, it makes things interesting).

I’ve got to draw the line at making a physical move for me, though.  You don’t get to touch my ass.  You don’t get to ignore my wedding ring (yep, I wore mine).  You don’t get to make rude, over-the-top comments.  I’ve got a thick skin and a benefit-of-the-doubt mind, but there is a line.  Don’t cross it.

Plenty of the bars I worked at didn’t assign sections; all of the servers on the floor were responsible for all of the customers.  So yep, we might overlap and all three or four of us might ask you if you need another drink within a 30-second timeframe.  That’s an indication that we know you’re a good tipper.  If you’re not, there might be three or four of us tripping over each other in a small-but-crowded room and your voice will not be heard over the din.  That’s just the breaks.

I realize that this post focused a lot on tipping, but that’s because that topic made up the bulk of the misconceptions that flew around when I was in the industry.  Those misconceptions–and the people who oh-so-smugly-but-oh-so-incorrectly spouted them off–irked me to no end, because not only was it wrong, but it was also often used an excuse not to treat servers according to social custom.  Not to mention that financial non-success has been a chronic theme in my life (through no fault of my own; I work hard, and for long hours) and I have always struggled and lived in fear.  I only wish that the server picture was as rosy as those ignorant people claimed that it was!  But alas, it was not.

This has been my PSA for the day.

Signed,

~ Your “Retired” Hard-Working Server 🙂


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