Waiting tables is not a glamorous job. If you’ve ever done it, you understand how difficult it can be at times. And if you’ve never done it, you probably don’t realize how much work goes into it.
From being yelled at to receiving rude notes, servers experience more than their share of disrespect. But while all waiters and waitresses have those moments, most people who have been in the service industry say the good moments generally outweigh the bad.
We talked to servers from restaurants around the metro about their experiences — both good and bad — to get an inside look at life behind the tray.
Servers are people, too
Just because they’re serving people, waiters and waitresses do not appreciate being considered personal “servants.” And while some servers might not care about making a good impression on their customers, the majority of servers do, and they work hard to earn their money.
Unfortunately, waiting on customers with a “you’re beneath me” mentality happens more often than people might think.
“I’ve had my fair share of awful people,” said Katy Jo Kimbley, a server at Jethro’s BBQ, who has been in the serving industry for 15 years. “I had one girl who was a taunter. Her buddy elbowed me and knocked a drink into his lap as I was passing it to him. He elbowed me, and she said, ‘Oh, the poor little girl drops drinks; she doesn’t know how to serve.’ She was fun.”
Kimbley also remembers a customer who broke a yard of beer and didn’t want to pay for it.
Brandon Burgett is a server at On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina who recalls one occasion when the situation became so bad, he had to transfer his table to another server.
“A lady asked me if a fajita was big enough to split with her husband,” he said. “I figured they were trying to be cheap, and since most people don’t finish them on their own, I told her ‘Yes, it’s big enough to split.’ It comes out, and she asks me if it’s a lunch portion — to which I replied, ‘No, it’s the full.’ She then proceeds to call me a ‘fucking idiot,’ asks if it’s my first day and tells me to ‘just go away.’ She then didn’t tip the new server even though he didn’t do anything wrong either.”
But it got worse. He’s been the target of gay slurs and has also experienced an outburst of physical violence.
“When I was a host, I paged a lady on accident,” he recalled. “I noticed immediately, and before she even got up I ran over to her and told her it was a mistake and she’d be ready in about 15 minutes. Five minutes later she was seated — I bumped her up on the list because I felt bad. I had one of the hosts take her over, and she walked by and literally threw the pager at my face.”
Kimbley said she constantly serves customers who don’t pay attention to the servers, either because they’re using their phone or because they just don’t bother to make eye contact — both of which become frustrating when she’s trying to help them.
“One time this lady stopped me and said, ‘Can you get me another beer?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll tell your server.’ And she said, ‘Oh, you’re not my server?’ ”
The bad customers seem to stick out more than the good, but for every horror story, there’s a generous customer waiting to make their server’s day.
“I’ve come back to a table thinking they didn’t leave me any money, but there’s a $100 bill sitting underneath something on the table,” said Angela McDowell, a server at Spaghetti Works in downtown Des Moines who’s been working in the industry for about 20 years. “And you can’t even thank them because they’re gone.”
Kimbley has had similar situations when she’s already added the gratuity to a party’s check and they’ll give her an extra $20 because they enjoyed her service. That’s what keeps her positive about what she does for a living.
“Stuff like that, it always evens out,” she said. “Because you have somebody who doesn’t tip you, and then you have somebody who does that for you. Even if it’s not the same day, it just all evens out.”
Trevor Erdman serves at Oddfellow’s in Ames and remembers when a customer turned a bad night into a great one.
“In the end, I was sure I wasn’t going to get a tip, because literally everything went wrong with their food. But they left $30 on like a $50 check and wrote a note that said, ‘YOU did everything right.’ It brought my faith in humanity back.”
How it works
Not everyone understands how serving works. There’s a lot of handing money around and paying different people down the line. Servers often don’t get to keep everything they make. In fact, if a party has a $100 check and doesn’t tip its server, that server is essentially paying for those people to sit in their section. That $100 goes into their overall sales for the day, and most servers have to take a percentage of their overall sales and give it to fellow employees, such as the hosts and bartenders.
So what is the preferred method of tipping? It depends on the restaurant.
Some servers we talked to said to always tip at least 20 percent, and others said tipping should be based on the service.
In cases when a restaurant has low prices or specials, a bill can total $5-$10. A 20 percent tip on those tickets is only $1 or $2, so, in essence, the server gets penalized because their restaurant has a great deal.
The general consensus of the servers we spoke to was to always tip your servers, because it is the majority of their income.
“One really good tip can make up for a bunch of bad ones,” said Burgett.
Where’d the money go?
Servers who earn tips are paid what is called a “tip wage,” which is 60 percent of the minimum wage, or $4.35 an hour, according to Iowa law. However, employers must guarantee that their servers make at least the minimum wage after tips are included.
Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, says the vast majority of servers make significantly more than the guaranteed $7.25 per hour.
“We find, particularly in the Des Moines market, they’re making anywhere from $16 to $19 an hour, on average,” she said. “And in many cases, a great server will make more than someone who’s in a salaried position in management.
“There are some serving positions in restaurants in the Des Moines area where — in bartending, too, not just table service — where people are making anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 a year as a server. So it really can be a great position, particularly in a fine dining establishment.”
Since tips are part of a server’s income, a person is legally required to report everything he or she earns aside from his or her hourly wages, including cash tips. If a server doesn’t report his or her tips accurately, the IRS could come down on both the employee and the employer. The extent of the consequences would depend on the number of employees not reporting, how often it happens and how much money is in question.
With cash tips, it can be hard to know exactly how much money goes unreported, but Dunker points out that the increased use of credit cards in restaurants makes for far fewer unreported tips.
“The days of people not reporting (tips) are really days gone by, because the vast majority of people that are in restaurants that have table service are paying with credit cards,” Dunker said. “So there’s really no way around a server reporting that income when it’s on a credit card, because it’s all in the system.”
It’s every employer’s obligation to accurately report the incomes of their employees, but not all of them follow the rules. One server — who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons — explained why some servers choose not to report all of their tips.
“I don’t claim my cash tips because then I get taxed on all of it and receive no paycheck in the mail. So, even though some days might be really great and I might make $150, some days I walk out with only $20. And with all the taxes they take out, I’m pretty much paying to be at work on those days.”
Dunker explained this phenomenon of servers who sometimes receive paychecks of zero, which isn’t unusual in the industry.
“A server who’s had a really great week, ironically, might get a paycheck that has no dollars on it at all, because they’ve had their tips paid out at the end of the night, and their taxes have been withheld on the wage portion of their pay,” she said. “If you’re making $4.35 in wages and you’ve made so much money in tips, the taxes that are being withheld can exceed your wage.”
So there you have it, a few things to remember next time you’re at your favorite restaurant. Tip often, tip well and stay calm about the salsa. CV
You eat it, you buy it
I grew up in Tama, Iowa, a small town that people typically only know because of Meskwaki Casino, if they’ve heard of it at all. It neighbors an equally small town called Toledo, and the combined population of both towns is around 5,000. I began waitressing when I was 15 at a small Toledo diner called Big T, part of the Maid-Rite franchise.
Because it was such a small town, the vast majority of our customers were locals, and many were regulars. There were a half-dozen elderly men and women who would come in nearly every day at the same time, order the same meals and leave anywhere from 15 cents to $1 for a tip. This was the norm for a diner that staffed only three waitresses per shift and served loose-meat sandwiches, a number of fried appetizers and homemade soft-serve ice cream. Nothing on the menu topped $9 when I worked there.
Sometimes I would come home with less than $10 in tips from a five-hour shift. The real money was in the breakfast shift on weekends, but it was usually given to the waitresses who’d been there the longest.
I typically worked four nights a week — three nights after school and Sundays from 4-9 p.m., which was the slowest time of the week. I did have my share of memorable moments, though, because working in a small town, you see quite a few interesting people walk through those doors.
One Saturday night we were especially busy, and I couldn’t keep up with my orders as they were coming out of the kitchen. Another waitress took a plate around to each of my tables to see who’d ordered it, and one man took a piece of chicken from the plate and proceeded to eat it — but it wasn’t his. The waitress told me, and I added the 90-cent chicken wing to his bill.
When I rang him up at the register, he began yelling expletives at me and drawing the attention of the entire restaurant because we were charging him for the wing.
“I didn’t order it! I shouldn’t have to pay for it!” he yelled at me.
“But you ate it,” I replied, trying to remain calm.
This scene went on for several of the longest minutes of my life, while a dozen strangers stopped their conversations to stare. It ended with the man throwing a dime at me and vowing to never come back. All because I told him he had to pay for the food he took from another customer’s plate.
— Eleni Upah
Salsa is salsa
Before I moved to Iowa four years ago, I lived in a small suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and worked as a hostess in a sports bar and grill. As a hostess, you get many customers who demand to sit certain places, which messes up the seating and upsets the servers. I had one person get extremely angry with me because I was taking his pizza order over the phone and he had me on speaker and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t hear him.
Dealing with customers as a hostess is difficult, but I didn’t understand how hard it actually was until moving to Iowa. Two years ago, I started waiting tables again. I got my first serving job at On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina. We have a lot of regulars and people who know our menu so well that they answer my questions before I can ask them.
I’ve seen people complain about all kinds of things, such as arguing that beer tastes different in different types of glasses or telling me it’s “dumb” that we don’t serve fried ice cream. But most commonly, people argue with me about our salsa.
When a customer comes in and sits down, he or she is greeted by our “chipper” who brings the chips and salsa and informs the customer that his or her server will be right over. I once had a table with a mom and her two children, and, after they had been “chipped,” I planned on introducing myself and requesting their drink orders — standard procedure. But before I could inform the mother that my name is Ashley, she cut me off and asked me about our salsa.
She told me that she visits Mexican restaurants on a regular basis, and she knew for a fact that our salsa was made incorrectly. She demanded our mild salsa (which we don’t have — we have regular salsa and hot salsa made with jalapenos), and when I told her that we only have one regular salsa, she told me that I was lying.
I tried to calm her down by telling her that our salsa is made the same every day with the same ingredients and the same amounts, but she didn’t believe me. She asked to speak to my manager because I “refused to give her the correct salsa.” After my manager confirmed my statements about our one salsa, she put in her drink and food order.
At this point I was pretty frustrated, but I tried to stay calm and courteous toward her. When they were finished, she didn’t leave a tip and left me note that said she didn’t appreciate being lied to and she wouldn’t be returning — all because of the salsa.
— Ashley Buckowing
Common terms used by servers
Campers: A table of people who have been sitting for more than an hour.
First/Second/Third, etc. cut: Relevant to the time you are allowed to go home. First cut get to go home first. “You’re cut” means the server is done taking tables.
Tip out: The amount of money servers have to take out of their tips to give to other employees like hosts/hostesses, food runners, bussers, bartenders, etc.
Double: Working two shifts in one day.
Corner/behind: A verbal warning to other employees that a server is coming around a corner or walking behind them.
Top: Applies to the amount of people sitting at a table. If there are four people at a table, it is a four top.
On the fly: When a server forgets to put an order in right away with the kitchen. “I need a chicken alfredo, on the fly!”
Regulars: People who frequent the restaurant.
Double/triple sat: A server who receives more than one table in a row.
Comp: Giving customers their food “on the house.”
Party: Typically groups of eight or more people.
Table turn: How fast servers can get their tables in and out.
Closer: The server who has to close the restaurant that night.
Signing: In many restaurants, servers who are not closing are required to obtain a signature on their tip sheets from the closing server. Obtaining a signature means the closer checked the other servers’ sidework, and they are good to go home.
Sidework: Small jobs that servers must do in addition to waiting on tables such as rolling silver, filling sugar caddies, cutting fruit and stocking napkins.
Dying: Food that is waiting in the kitchen and getting cold because it was not placed under the heat lamp. “This fajita is dying!”
Runner: This can apply to just one food runner or to any servers on the clock who need to help take food from the kitchen to the tables.
Section: The amount of tables a server is responsible for in a given area.
Tips for customers
Don’t offer to pay for the entire 20-person table if you can’t afford a proper tip, big spender.
Don’t talk on the phone at your table and then wonder why your drinks and appetizers are taking so long.
Don’t touch your servers. Ever.
Don’t try to get your server’s attention when he or she is with another table.
If there’s a host stand, wait to be seated.
Don’t say you’re ready to order and then take 10 minutes to place it.
Don’t interrupt when your servers are introducing themselves.
Make sure to tell your server if something is wrong; they can’t read your mind.