For Servers, $15/hr is DEMOTION, not Promotion

“Fifteen percent?!” “Double the tax and round up.” “You tip as bad as your mother, Barbara.” Every few years the conversation about whether or not tipping servers and bartenders pops up in social, political, and economic circles. The debate usually seems to revolve around the idea that food service professionals are not paid a living wage, keeping them in a poverty status. Debate? Oh, well that means politics. Anytime someone in the news suggests that we should do away with tipping altogether and raise minimum wages to $15 per hour (and up), I shake my head. Oregon just signed a bill to this effect, making the 33rd state of the union the first on the list of highest pay for minimum wage.

Food Servers are a special breed of animal that should not be bundled together with other minimum wage workers — to do so might earn your food order a side of “special sauce”. I don’t want to get bogged down by going into all of the roles and positions in a restaurant. For now, I’ll limit my attention and definition of a on defining the SERVER: someone who physically takes your order and delivers your food.

There are fundamental differences between the high school-age server behind the counter at McDonald’s, with a shirt tail untucked, visor on sideways, punching your order into a computer, slinging a plastic tray at you a few minutes later before calling “NEXT”; and the server that welcomes you at your table, makes thoughtful chitchat about your needs, delivers your custom-ordered food, and follows up to check to see if you need anything else. The primary differences are: the level and quality of service.

Rarely does anyone go to a franchise conglomerate and expect maitre d’ service, with a Michelin-rated menu. Fast food outlets are designed with precisely one, minimum mindset: fast. It is dining at its most utilitarian. You’re in a hurry, you need sustenance, you want something edible. On the flip side, if you have time, you’re looking to maximize the opportunity. You’re looking for a nice meal and enjoy the company of a special someone, visiting family, or even just a few friends, you don’t typically go to McDonald’s. We tend to lean more toward a staffed restaurant with eclectic dining choices. Whether you realize it or not, you are going for ambiance more than you are going for food.

Your server is your Ambiance Ambassador. Truth be told, there are even differences between the blue jean-clad brew-pubmeister, the diner-divas, and the eloquent front-waiters at ’the’ white linen tablecloth date spot. This person should also have the ability to be a chameleon between tables, ever adapting to each party providing truly unique and genuine service to all. A good server is more than just a salesperson; they are an ancient Greek or Roman orator, adept in the art of oral visualization and persuasion. They can turn masses and convince an individual. If Socrates were alive today, he’d be waiting tables with Plato tending bar.

It is your server’s strategic focus to ensure that you are well informed about the establishment’s menu and options, as well as to use any talents or tactics to ensure that your experience is enjoyable — and most importantly, worth recruiting you as a repeat-customer visit. Those efforts are hard work. This, in my opinion is how servers make their money. The high schooler is just there to fill the void between you and the microwave. They don’t really need to be experienced or knowledgeable about the persuasive messages of delivering service; they just need to know how to read and make change (in case the credit card machine is down). Yes, I am oversimplifying but not without reason.

Given the simplistic nature of the fast food job, I can understand how and even get behind- legislation for these workers to be paid $15.00 per hour. I’m sure a single mom or dad trying to support themselves and their kids while working at or even managing a fast food establishment may find it difficult to make ends meet on $9.25 per hour. In that situation I fully support an increase in their wages. However, a good server, one who takes waiting tables for a living seriously, balks at the idea of ONLY making $15.00 per hour.

Consider the following charts:

What you see here is what a typical $15.00 per hour employee would make per year both pre and post-tax. It is broken down into average per week, # of weeks per year, and figuring a take home of about 70% of their actual income (30% taxes and fees). You’ll note that I did both a 52 week year and a 50 week year but leaned more toward the 50 week year as it is more likely that there will be a few days’ vacation, restaurant closures, and sick days.

Now let’s compare that to an employee in a high-end dining establishment:

This chart represents, to be humble, my own earnings the last full year I waited tables. I broke it down to show you what that would look like per hour, post-tax at different average numbers of hours worked per week. I would venture to say that most servers work 5–6 hours per night 4–5 nights per week. Some work more, some work less. So you’re looking at an average of 25 hours per week. For me, 25 hours per week made my hourly income about $42.29/hr. A difference of more than $27.00 above the $15.00 suggested wage. Even if I had been working 40 hours per week, I still would have been making $10.00 more an hour than the minimum.

But I was (am) a professional. Let’s consider someone with less formal training and experience:

This chart displays a range of tip-based incomes from $35,000 per year pre-tax to $55,000 per year pre-tax. I have calculated for the 70% take home, then broken it down by 50 weeks per year and then by number of hours worked per week.

And if you consider the average number of hours worked per week by the typical server is about 25 hours, you get the following breakdown:

I’d like to think that from these charts, one can easily determine that an average server in an average restaurant, working average shifts, can make better than the $15.00 per hour proposed minimum. A well-trained, experienced server can make what an average server makes in a week, in one shift.

This is where I could say something snarky like, “it’s the server’s own fault if they can’t make a livable income waiting tables.” The truth is a lot more factors that go into it. We’ll explore some.

Whether or not a server can make money depends as much on their own abilities as it is the characteristics of restaurant. Individual qualities include:

  • Pleasant personality toward serving or at least a convincing ability to fake it
  • Thorough knowledge of the menu as well as the bar offerings
  • Knowledge of what the kitchen will and will not substitute
  • Knowledge of the local area and it’s history in case guests, especially those from out of town, ask questions
  • Knowledge of health and safety laws
  • Knowledge of basic dining etiquette and serving “rules”
  • The ability to be flexible and react accordingly to various crises
  • Strong observational skills, paired with the forethought to anticipate the needs or desires of their guests

In my opinion, without these qualities, a server will be average at best and better suited for fast food work at worst. A truly top-notch server will have all of these qualities in spades., Excellent restaurant management and business-savvy owners understand their responsibility is to place skilled employees on their establishment’s floor. Their number one priority is to provide their servers with clientele to serve. Without guests to serve, the server is irrelevant. Likewise, the restaurant becomes irrelevant because it serves no one! Consider the following responsibilities of the restaurant:

  • Consistency: in food quality, service quality, operating hours, stock on hand, etc. Without it, repeat customers won’t know what to expect will likely refrain from business.
  • Inviting Environment: know what sort of mood and ambiance you want to set so you can attract the kind of guests you want dining in your establishment. (Do you want a coat-and-tie crowd or are you seeking to draw hipsters with free-range children? Maybe you are aiming toward the greasy spoon set?)
  • An attractive and enjoyable menu: as equally, if not more so, important as the environment. I don’t personally believe that the food is what makes a restaurant grand but it can make a restaurant horrible. I believe that dining out is more about the social aspect than the activity of eating. The food is a medium for bringing people together; the ambiance and their own interaction is the true reason.
  • Have standards and policies set in place, then train and adhere to those standards and policies.

In short, provide consistent and inviting food and environment and you will surely guarantee consistent and repeat business.