Restaurant Report » Career Lessons and Horror Stories From Food Service
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The Agony and Ecstasy of Food Service Workers

Tip Your Waitress: Food Service Horror Stories and Career Lessons Learned

By Jen Hubley Luckwaldt

Waitress taking order

This Valentine's Day, when you enjoy your romantic dinner out with your beloved, spare a thought for the wait staff, culinary artists, and other assorted food service workers who made your meal possible. And then, if at all possible, leave a very big tip. Fairly or unfairly, it probably makes up the bulk of your server's salary.

Recently, in anticipation of Valentine's Day, PayScale compiled a report on tipping and the other wages that support food service staff. What we discovered was that 30 percent of food service workers across all job categories report receiving tips "frequently," and that wait staff who report the highest incomes are also the most dependent on tips. For example, waiters and waitresses in fine dining establishments have the highest typical hourly income ($17.60 per hour), but 65 percent comes from tips.

Furthermore, in 17 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, it's legal to pay tipped workers the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. Unsurprisingly, of the 58 percent of food service workers who consider themselves underemployed, 59 percent said that they were not paid what their education or training merited.

Food service workers are also very likely to work part-time, which can affect both earnings and access to health benefits, retirement plans, and paid time off. In fact, less than half of the job titles we examined worked 40 hours a week, or close to it, and only two job titles -- banquet captain and bar manager -- typically earned more than $30,000 a year.

Of course, low pay isn't the only thing that food service workers have to contend with. Only 39 percent of food service workers reported high job meaning and 32 percent reported low stress overall. A mere 59 percent of food service workers say that they find their job satisfying.

Low pay, high stress and dealing with the public is a recipe for some crazy stories. We asked bloggers who have spent time in the industry to share their insights on what makes working for tips -- and with the public -- so challenging.

Samuel Monsour
on The Evils of the Tipping System

Raquel D'Apice
on Unexpectedly Bad

Anne Holub
on Mixing Business and Pleasure

The Bitchy Waiter
on Giving Customers What They Ask For

Alida Mooreston
on Managing Your

Patrick Maguire
on Service and Empathy

Samuel Monsour,, Chef/Proprietor of Caliber & Dice / Author, on the Evils of the Tipping System

The restaurant industry in America features a broken financial structure -- known as tipping -- in which the guest and server are forced into a cash-incentivized relationship.

Studies have proven that tipping is a less-than beneficial affair for both the diner and the server, yet, the restaurant industry as a whole insists on embracing this atrocity. As a professional within the restaurant business for almost 20 years, I have come to highly object the obligatory contract of tipping. In my experience, it can complicate employer/employee relationships and create tension, divide, unfairness and uncertainty throughout the workplace; these consequences affect in-house culture in a fashion that is the very antithesis of hospitality.

I believe that workers should be competitively paid-in-full by their company based upon their job duties and personal value. The high cash flows and profit margins of expertly executed food service establishments offer no excuses as to why restaurant workers are not being paid as professional tradespeople. Competitive salaries and benefits should be offered to management, servers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers. I believe that mandating a 20 percent service charge on all guest bills and allocating these revenues to an employee wage/benefit pool is how we may be finally overcome the unfair compensation of restaurant employees. This is not new thinking. It has been done, but since it goes against the grain, it takes courage and risk to implement. Until the day comes when this matter has been modernized, I recommend tipping a standard rate of 20 percent and always rounding up; your server or bartender's quality of life depends on it.

I served and bartended for several years, and felt like I would always make cream of the crop tips. I chalked it up to my performance far exceeding guest expectations, although I knew this was not always the case. On the flip side of that coin, where or whenever I dine, I tend to receive great service, even when I observe tables around me suffering. One day, I stumbled across some psychological studies on tipping that pointed toward white males always coming out on top. That's when I realized that I was receiving an unfair advantage, which has propelled me to speak out against tipping. Hospitality is about warmth, welcoming, care, service and integrity. It should transcend race, gender and age. However, when tipping is in the picture, the unfortunate truths of our societal inequalities often block true hospitality from ever taking form.

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Raquel D'Apice, The Ugly Volvo, Former Server, on Unexpectedly Bad Tippers

I have tons [of stories]. It to this day blows my mind how often people paying with American Express black cards tip a MAXIMUM of 15 percent. Every time I'd see someone pay with one I'd go, "Ok, let's see what happens THIS time" and it was almost always 15 percent or less, even if the service was excellent. It was amazing. ...I wanted to say, "You have millions of dollars! Do you know how cheap this makes you look!"

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Anne Holub,, Writer, Editor, and Former Server, on Mixing Business and Pleasure

A shocking number of people only tip 10 percent. When I was working a brunch shift, my friends would sometimes come in, often with their parents. I loved seeing my friends, but when I'd see their tips at the end of the meal I wished they'd just stayed home. Table of six, full of my friends and their visiting parents had just left me a 10 percent tip. I'm amazed at how many people I still encounter who think 10 percent is a fine tip. They also don't get that if you get cocktails part of the tip goes to the bartender, and another part of your tip goes to the busboy, too.

The Bitchy Waiter,, on Giving Customers What They Ask For

Customers are notorious for exaggerating their situation to make it seem like it is much worse than it really is. For example, when someone says, "This coffee is ice cold, I want another cup," that is an exaggeration. We know the coffee isn't actually ice cold. Really? You're saying to me that the coffee I poured into your cup about three minutes ago has somehow managed to drop 160° from the recommended 192° all the way down to to 32°? Exaggeration! Or when someone says, "Where is our food? It's taking forever," that is an exaggeration. Really? Forever is a long time and how can we really define forever until the end of time has happened, which it hasn't so nothing can take forever. Exaggeration! I can exaggerate too: "Getting your meal to you exactly the way you requested it is the most important thing in my entire life and I care about it so very, very much." Exaggeration!

I had a woman sit in my section once who told me the coffee I had just made was not hot. It wasn't just not hot enough, but "not hot." I knew she was mistaken because it had only been about thirty seconds from the time it finished brewing until I poured into her cup and took it to her table. I told her I was surprised it wasn't hot since I had just made it but she insisted it was cold. I took the mug to the kitchen and put it in the microwave until it was boiling. I also poured hot water over the handle so even the mug itself would be piping hot. When she took her first sip, I could tell it was too hot to drink and it burned her tongue a little bit. She didn't say anything and I felt vindicated.

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Alida Mooreston, Content Strategist and Former Server, on Managing Your Managers

In my early 20s, I worked at two restaurants on our town square that were owned by the same married couple. I'd do 10-3 at a restaurant (where the dress code was a pastel short sleeved shirt under a FLORAL jumper dress with MATCHING PASTEL KEDS) and then I'd do 5-11 at their fancy evening restaurant. This couple HATED each other. The lady was nuts and made all the servers lie about the wine we were serving (saying it was high end when it was really boxes of Franzia). Plus, she had the same nightly cocktail (3 parts vodka, one part OJ, plus a splash of olive juice, a shake of tabasco, and six olives). She drank at least three of these every night and then ended up crying in the walk-in. Her husband was fun, did all the cooking, but used frozen, pre-cooked chicken from Costco. Ultimately, I was fired because business was bad and I didn't have any kids to support.

Patrick Maguire, I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant, on Service and Empathy

Customers have almost as much influence on the success of an interaction as servers do. Optimal customer service and hospitality are about mutual respect. Working in a service capacity is an extremely humbling, sometimes humiliating, and always enlightening experience. You develop a lot of empathy and appreciation for everyone who serves you the rest of your life if you’ve "been there," and it changes your approach to "customer service" forever. If everyone spent a little bit of time on the receiving end of the general public's wrath, the world would be much more gracious, patient and humble place.

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