Serving sucks, but you don’t have to.
One server’s perspective on the restaurant industry.
It’s the start of my second shift. I’m moody because I was just tipped $4 on a $217 bill, but that wasn’t my first sh*tty tip of the day. I didn’t get a break and by the end of this double, I would have worked 13 hours straight. In the back, servers are bustling around and the chef is yelling at the kitchen to pick up the pace. I’m annoyed and tired, but I have to keep moving because the dinner rush just started and the hostess just “sat me” with a table. I walk over to two middle-aged women in scrubs and a few seconds later, the hostess seats my section again with a family of five. Feeling “double-sat” and defeated, I try not to let my server angst show.
“Hi, my name’s María. I’ll be taking — ”
“Diet coke,” one of them interrupts.
“Same thing,” says the other, as the first one gestures me away without ever making eye contact.
I nod and immediately go over to greet the other table with the family of five before starting on their drink order. When I get back to their table, the first one that spoke gives me a look. “Shouldn’t you have gotten our drinks first before talking to that other table,” she passive aggressively states. “We were here first.”
Of course she doesn’t understand that I was double-sat and I don’t try to explain. After a while, you learn to pick your restaurant battles and these ladies looked like people that wouldn’t hesitate to complain to a manager for a free meal. They ignore my apology and then my presence entirely as they continue to talk about their day; as if I didn’t just ask them if they were ready to order. I walk away and plot my silent revenge. “I’m definitely charging them for refills,” I think to myself.
Serving sucks. Let me explain.
If you’ve ever been a server, you know that the job is filled with unpredictable tips, double shifts, and rude guests. Restaurant employees make up 10% of the overall U.S. workforce, so if you fall into the other 90%, allow me to explain.
Don’t get me wrong… Working for tips isn’t all bad. There’s a reason the serving lifestyle is so appealing and it definitely has a lot of perks. During my undergrad years, serving gave me more than any other part-time job ever did. After an all-nighter, it was nice to be able to sleep in until 1 p.m. because my shift didn’t start until 5. Serving worked with my full-time class schedule because it granted me the flexibility to work when I wanted and when I needed to. It gave me the freedom to pick up a shift whenever I needed the money or drop a shift because I had an assignment due or I just wanted to go to the beach that day. And of course, the most obvious perk of them all: having cash in your hand at the end of every shift (which is always better than having to wait 2 weeks for a paycheck).
Overall, when it’s great, it’s great… But when it’s bad, you sometimes end up paying. At my last restaurant, that $4 tip on a $217 bill would have cost me $6 in tip-out’s (what I tip the bartender, bussers, and food runners at the end of the night based on my percentage of sales; and in some restaurants, a percentage of your total tips). Being that I was only tipped $4 on that bill, $2 comes out of my tips. So evidently, I lost money waiting on that particular table. When that happens, the only thing you can hope is that someone surprises you with a generous tip to make up for it.
Despite my obvious cynicism, it’s true that some people do end up making entire careers out of serving — working at fine dining restaurants with check averages as high as a couple hundred dollars. But frankly, those positions are rare and unless you work at a really nice restaurant, you fall into the category of servers that don’t actually make that much. The minimum wage for restaurant servers has been the same and stagnant $2.13 an hour for over two decades. Servers don’t actually see any of that hourly pay because it goes directly towards taxes. Sometimes that hourly pay isn’t enough to cover all of the taxes, which means wages are withheld from the next paycheck for taxes owed. Restaurant servers solely depend on their tips, and the good nights aren’t always.
The restaurant industry has managed to reduce its labor costs at the expense of its underpaid employees. A low hourly wage makes obtaining health insurance more expensive. Some employers offer health benefits to their employees, though many require you to be full-time in order to qualify. Even then, most employers don’t cover premium costs, making health insurance realistically unaffordable. Because of this, many employees knowingly remain on part-time status with close to full-time hours in order to avoid it.
Serving is a lifestyle. Goodbye weekends and weeknights. Hello double shifts and fries for lunch. The #ootd is the same almost everyday because the outfit you wear the most during the week is your uniform. Your “non-slip” shoes aren’t actually non-slip because you have a bruise on your ass from last week that proves they’re not resilient to cooking oil, tomato slices, or puddles of water (you know, the stuff you find on restaurant floors). Your shirt is probably dirty because you didn’t have time to wash it after your double last night. Your manager only gave you 2 shirts when he hired you and doesn’t want to give you anymore (even though he schedules you 6 days a week), so you spray it with Febreeze as you rush to your next shift.
I worked as a server and bartender at chain restaurants, casinos and mom-and-pop’s. I’ve met a lot of servers, all with different stories and reasons as to why they ended up serving. Some were in their novice years — still in college and well-suited for the serving lifestyle. Others were veterans, working way past retirement because, you know, the economy. Many were mothers just trying to make ends meet to support their families. And some people, like me, were a year or two (or more) out of college and had not been able to secure a career in their intended field.
The conclusions I draw in my argument are derived from my years in the hospitality industry. I have a working theory that every server has a “serving threshold” and will eventually reach their “restaurant life limit.” I don’t believe that anyone really ever sets out to be a professional server. As a server, your worst days are filled with bad guests, bad tips, and even bad managers with an undying God-complex.
My last serving job sucked more than all the others. Some days I would work a full shift and end up averaging less than minimum wage. One day, I finished a 5-hour lunch shift covered in sweat and marinara with $27. After years of double-shifts, unpredictable wages, and crazy hours, I felt like I had reached my limit. At the end of that shift, I handed my apron back to my manager and resigned. Effective immediately.
The truth is that most of us don’t want to be a server forever. Those that stay on as a server probably ended up there because they had bills to pay and it’s easy to get stuck. Some servers hang on because they have to, while others more impulsive, or perhaps just hopeful, quit once they’ve reached their limit. But mainly, most of us have bigger aspirations and we’re just passing through until we find the next best thing — hoping that one day, we can throw away our aprons and “non-slip” shoes and never have to serve again.
And if you fall into that 90%, I hope you take that into consideration the next time you’re dining out and the sweaty, tired server is asking for your drink order.
Have you ever been a server? What was your worst guest experience? Comment below with your stories, experiences, and server pet peeves.