The Pain and Pleasure of Working for Tips

My armpits were sweating into the tight white jacket I had borrowed from a pile in the basement closet. It was the first weekend of June in downtown Manhattan and summer greeted concrete and glass with piercing UV rays. The air conditioning could barely condition the air. The windows could barely hold out the 90 degree heat.

I had just finished a Saturday brunch shift waiting tables at a small bistro in the TriBeCa neighborhood, a handful of blocks away from One World Trade Center. My boss, a scruffy six-foot man with a permanent scowl, had pulled me aside for a speech and sat me down at a tucked-away table. It was my first day as a server and my first day ever working for tips.

“Guests don’t like to make choices,” he said. “They don’t like to think about things, and they don’t know what they want. You need to take control of them and guide them through the experience.”

“Okay,” I chuckled.

“Why are you laughing? It isn’t funny.”

I laughed because I was nervous, but also because I didn’t expect him to tell me that. As someone who, like many others, has eaten in restaurants before, I had always believed the opposite: If I am the one who pays, picks the food, has the food brought to me, and watches someone else clean my mess, then aren’t I in control?  

Maybe not. Usually, the house believes it has power over the guests. Part of a server’s job is to steer the wheel and squeeze as much money as you can from a guest. You upsell the wine, saying things like, “the Chardonnay is nice if you want a good deal, but people really love the Falanghina.” You stretch the truth. A chef told me to say a sandwich had “aoili” and not “mayonnaise” (it was definitely mayonnaise). With both sides of the server-guest divide convinced of its own power, a conflict of egos ensues, and the battle unfolds at the table, where every interaction, big and small, has the shadow of the “tip” looming over it.

These days, I work at a gratuity-free restaurant. My boss factors employee pay into the menu prices and gives almost everyone about $20 an hour. (To avoid conflict with my former and current employer, I will not name names or provide identifying details.)

“Gratuity-free” changed my experience of waiting tables for the better, but at a cost. There was something pleasurable in the pain of working for tips. I traded the stress of being at the mercy of guests for stability and a peace of mind, but lost the flip-side of that stress: the thrill.

It is easy to lump restaurant customers into types. When interacting with up to a hundred people in the course of a few hours, you tend to notice trends in how people behave. The stay-at-home moms who lugged their toddlers to brunch, for example, would often commandeer their experience. They would insist on extra table space to keep toys, request non-dairy scrambled eggs and “gluten-free bread,” and instruct me to remove all of the knives. The suit-and-tie guys would often ignore the order of operations, seat themselves wherever they wanted, invite friends to join, and take chairs from other tables without asking. By my second week I was already judging customers, sizing them up, steeling myself for what they might ask of me.

You are aware throughout a shift of the constant evaluation: you see a brutal review of your performance, scrawled in sloppy handwriting next to the total, the minute a guest walks out the door. Tips can be a wellspring of positive reinforcement; endorphins fire off in your brain like you are on drugs. Yes! $30 again, I am killing it! They can also bog you down and prompt you to question yourself. After three 15 percent tips in a row, I tend to wonder if I am just perennially awkward and whether I am cut out for any job, at all. Why am I waiting tables again? I think to myself. Is this why I moved to New York? Of course, there are endless reasons why someone tips well or not, and many of them have nothing to do with me. When you look down and see the receipt, it can be tough to remind yourself such things.

Of all the customers I served in TriBeCa, one type was a favorite: the guests who would send me back to the kitchen asking for their green beans to be cooked more, who would complain about waiting over 20 minutes for food during rush hour, who would trash their tables with breadcrumbs and puddles of sauce, and then leave over 25 percent gratuity on their tab. I call them “charitable jerks.” I felt a surge of adrenaline every time I looked down at their receipts. Indignation would quickly turn to gratitude. While typing the tip into the servers’ iPad, I would conclude that a little degradation is worth the extra money. The unexpectedness made the good tips all the more satisfying.

I also dealt with a share of guests who left $5 tips on $50 checks, but it was easy for me to shrug them off. This type of guest was rare, and their often boorish mannerisms — like snapping fingers to grab my attention, acting out a Julius Caesar fantasy — usually gave themselves away as too privileged or spoiled to know any better. Guests were just as likely to be generous. On a day when the bistro was nearly empty, an old man eating alone handed me $60 in cash within minutes of sitting down at a table, and left $60 more after paying his tab.

You can’t quantify the generosity of strangers at a no-tip restaurant. This sweetens and sours the experience. On the plus side, I no longer judge guests on whether or not they’ll pay me. Knowing that I won’t be docked points for making mistakes, I can feel a sense of serenity during a shift. At the same time, I miss the instant gratification and the material evidence of how much they loved my service.

“That’s too bad I can’t tip. I want to make it rain on you!” said a woman one night, sloshed from sparkling rosé, as she pretended to shower dollar bills over my head with her hands. Her tab was around $250. Yes, it’s too bad, I thought. I want you to make it rain on me, too!

Which is better, tips or no tips? I made about the same on average at both restaurants. At the bistro, I would sometimes make $130 in five hours, sometimes $60. It depended on how busy it was, which in turn depended on factors like the weather. Today I know I will always make around $100 in a single night, no matter how many people are sitting down in my section. For me, a reliable, hourly wage brings a meditative quality to table service that was absent before. Now that the shadow of the tip is gone, I can focus completely on my immediate tasks and the person sitting in front of me.

The biggest upside is how the power struggle between the guests and the house is practically nonexistent. Random strangers no longer pay my rent, my boss does. Guests can sit, eat, and leave without feeling obliged to pay extra. As a server, this puts me at a much greater advantage: I’m not beholden to anyone but my employer. It puts guests at an advantage, too: I’m not compelled to upsell or be anything other than transparent.

When people sit in my section now, I meet them as peers, not as a source of income. In a way, it is like I’m meeting someone new at a party, someone who could be a friend, and I get to help them have as wonderful a time as possible. It makes running around in circles and taking orders from people worth it.

Charlie Innis is a freelance writer and server living in Brooklyn. He’s written about culture for Stereogum and Spin.

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash.

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