Not only do servers make minimum wage (and that’s minimum wage for servers, a whopping $4.85 here in Chicago), we don’t get benefits. We completely rely on gratuity.
I’ve heard people say that any idiot can wait on a table, but I’ve worked side-by-side with otherwise smart, competent people who can’t do it. They get overwhelmed. They forget who needed another Bud Light and who asked for a side of ranch. Or they crumble when an angry customer yells at them because his burger wasn’t cooked exactly right, or her vodka tonic doesn’t have an extra lime in it. And people do yell at you. People will be mean. They won’t say please or thank you. They won’t make eye contact with you. Even worse, they’ll look right through you.
As a server, I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, and treated like a complete piece of crap. I’ve had to jump out of the way of a drunken woman vomiting. I’ve been grabbed by a stranger and kissed on the mouth. (And those two incidents happened during the same shift.) I’ve been asked inappropriate questions, ogled, and hit on the ass. I’ve been warned to “be careful walking to my car” after my shift. I’ve mopped up a kid’s vomit without so much as a “thank you” from his parents.
And when many nights, you head home with your feet and back aching, and less than 100 bucks in your pocket, this is quite a lot to take. I think it would be a lot to take if I made $1,000 every night.
Yet, still, I work my ass off to keep a smile on my face, to say “thank you,” to get people’s food and drinks ordered correctly and quickly, and to bite my tongue when I’m insulted or mistreated. Don’t forget: the customer is always right.
So when I read an article like this one, a piece by David Sax in the New York Times, it makes me furious. An excerpt:
“Do you need change?”
Funny you should ask, because I just gave you a $10 bill, and my latte and raspberry scone came to $5.75. As much as I think you’re pleasing to look at, and you do magical things with frothy milk, I just don’t see your services commanding a 70-plus percent premium over the market rate for my breakfast.
And you, my dear bartender, who cracked open a $4 beer bottle, and handed me back my change entirely in a stack of one-dollar notes. Very subtle. As though the sheer bulk of that paper would deter me from putting it back in my wallet, and, defeated, I’d simply leave it there for you like a burnt offering on your sticky altar.
At least you two left me a choice, unlike the menu last night, whose fine print stated how “parties of six or more will be charged a 20 percent gratuity.” Because there’s simply no way that six adults can gauge the service of a meal (one of hundreds in their lives) with any degree of accuracy. Better to just slap us with a perfunctory tax and screw up our orders anyway. Once that tip is locked in, who cares if the fish is cold?
Yes, I know you’re all underpaid. But guess what? So am I. When I get $500 for an article that I think is worth $1,000, you won’t see me e-mail the editor, saying, “Just so you know, service isn’t included.” Do I ask you to come into my workplace and supplement my meager income? No, I don’t.
First off, the author’s sarcastic tone grates me. What’s with the attitude? Maybe the bartender handed you a stack of one-dollar notes because that’s all he had in his drawer at the moment. We’re not all out to get you.
Second, as a server, I never, ever, ask if a customer needs change—instead, I say, “I’ll be right back with your change.” I do agree with him that that question can be irritating. However, put yourself in the server’s apron. I am constantly handed black books back to me, without any acknowledgement from the customers if they want change, if they’re all set, or if they’ve tucked their credit cards inside, wanting me to split the bill three ways. Sometimes, a server asking you if you need change simply means: “Communicate with me. Tell me what you need next so we can make this transaction go as quickly as possible, and you can get out of here.” So calm down, David Sax. No server expects a $4.25 tip from your $5.75 bill.
But you know what? Were you to actually leave that, it would probably make the server’s day. You’ve already bought an overpriced coffee and scone, so I bet it’s not going to break you to spend 10 bucks instead of 7. I’m just saying.
Because there are customers who will be kind, treat you with respect, and tip you well. They’ll understand that you’re only human, and if their fish is cold, well, maybe that wasn’t necessarily your fault. I’m serving you the food, not cooking it, sir. And those people that treat servers with a little bit of kindness, or randomly leave you 10 bucks on a $5.75 bill, are the ones that make it possible to get through each shift. It makes it a little easier to smile when someone yells at you because her iced tea doesn’t have enough ice cubes in it.
As for the included gratuity with a party of six or more: No one is saying that as an adult, you can’t gauge your service accurately or figure out how much you owe when you’re with a group. Why are you complaining? Because you only wanted to leave the server 15 percent instead of 20? Wow. Have a dinner party at home then.
Now, I’ve had crappy servers before. I understand that it’s annoying. It’s also annoying when you don’t get your food as quickly as you want, or your drink doesn’t get refilled right when you need it. Waiting tables, you have to master the art of timing. And when you’re waiting on groups of six, 10, or 15 people, it gets a lot harder to do that. Especially when you’re also thinking about your other customers’ needs at the same time.
Also: Have you ever carried a tray with six full glasses on it across a room, dodging chairs, customers, and other fast-moving servers and bussers while doing so?
Try it. Now complain about the included gratuity charge.
Today I went out to brunch with three friends who also happen to be fellow servers. Our server was polite and sweet, took our orders, brought our food, and pretty much left us alone. Did she do anything over the top? No, not really. But we still left her more than 20 percent. Apparently David Sax wouldn’t though, since he always tips 15 percent.
What frustrates me most about Sax’s piece is the inklings of sympathy for the underpaid waitress or bartender, coupled with his apparent annoyance for having to pay gratuity:
Oh, sure, I’m cheap. But not as cheap as your boss, apparently, who figures he can pay you the minimum wage of $4.65 for servers, and the customer will just pick up the rest of your living expenses.
I don’t expect you to pick up the rest of my living expenses. What I do expect, though, is for you to recognize that waiting tables is not comparable to getting paid $500 for a magazine article when you think you deserve $1,000. At least you know you’ll make that 500 bucks. For me, every table is a gamble. Maybe I’ll leave with $200 tomorrow. Maybe I’ll leave with $15. I have no idea.
You say you could elect not to tip—well, some people do that. You say that you’ll keep forking over your change as long as I keep smiling. Thanks, I appreciate that. So yes, let’s both lobby for an increase in the minimum wage.
But do me a favor, customer, and remember that even though I keep smiling, not everyone keeps tipping. And I bet you didn’t have to worry about your editor pinching your ass after he gave you that $500 check.