Saturday, April 16, 2016

You would have to be a brilliant octopus

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food service, restaurants, waiters, autobiographies

When I was about 16 I worked as a busboy for a summer, at a resort hotel. The hotel had two restaurants, one rather upscale and one more like a "family restaurant". Prices and service differed greatly. I was assigned to the downscale one, using a "bus tub" to clear tables. On the "other side" the busboys dressed similar to the waiters, in black slacks and a starched white shirt, and used a stylish tray to unload a table. Neither place was overly busy; most days there was a pretty steady flow of customers.

I was puzzled at the end of the first week when another busboy called me over at the end of the day, saying, "Don't leave until we get our tips." Busboys get tips? I found that the waitresses on our side, and the waiters on the other, pooled a portion of their tips, which was evenly divided among the busboys. It never came to much. It was equal to an extra hour or two of my meager pay.

I found Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter on a New Books shelf at the library, but learned that while it is new to the library, it had been out for eight years. The author is "The Waiter", and while his identity is now known, I'll leave that for you to look up. He was anonymous when the book was published, and for a few years thereafter.

The book consists of reworked postings from the weblog Waiter Rant., in which the author chronicled his experiences waiting tables and later as floor manager (elsewhere called a headwaiter) at an upscale restaurant in New York. I feel lucky that my short experience in the restaurant business was in a sleepy resort hotel, rather than a Zagat-rated pressure cooker in the Big Apple!

The Waiter gathered together material on about twenty subjects, so while the book is "redacted autobiography", it is mainly topical. Two topics that run throughout and across the others: screwy customers and insane owners. The Waiter writes that perhaps 80% of restaurant customers are nice folks who enjoy their meal, cause no trouble, and leave a decent tip. Ah, but that other 20%! Some may tip very well but are otherwise evil or insane; some are very demanding, even pathologically "entitled"; some seem proud to leave a tip of 8%; and some seem to either hate the staff, or love them to the point of obtrusive obsession. Here's a tip to you as a customer: go there for the food, be nice, behave yourself like you had a mother who raised you well (whether that's true or not), and tip well.

At the resort hotel I was paid half of minimum wage. plus my share of 10% of the pooled tips. In the case of us busboys, it was because seasonal workers are exempt from minimum wage laws. But the wait staff were paid only a little more, and tips were supposed to make up the bulk of their pay. This is true in most American restaurants, whether a place is open seasonally or not. And so it is at "The Bistro" where The Waiter worked. He was paid about 60% of minimum wage, plus tips. Now, at a Zagat-rated place, in which 2-4 patrons could consume $100 worth of food and $200-$500 worth of liquor in an hour or so, a 15% or 20% tip can come to quite a lot. Unless a customer doesn't like something and so leaves little or no tip…or is just a poor tipper or even a non-tipper. In an old Reader's Digest joke, someone says, "Oh, at restaurants I never tip." Asked whether he gets bad service on later visits, he says, "I never go to the same place twice." In a small city like mine I'd run out of places to eat before the year was out.

Let's work the math backward. A tiny apartment in NYC is likely to cost $1,200 monthly. A frugal waiter can eat all his meals at the restaurant, or eat enough at the one or two meals he is there so he doesn't need to eat outside. But a fellow still needs another few hundred bucks a month besides rent. So, let's figure you gotta pull in about $2,000 for twenty days' work, or $100/day. Base pay is $4.25/hr, or $42,50 for a ten-hour day (not uncommon). But only half of those are "busy" hours, so you need to get at least $57.50 in tips in about five hours. If everyone were to tip 15% (they don't), that means moving nearly $400 in food and drinks in those five hours. Realistically, while some customers might tip 20% or even 25%, the average is below 15%, with so many poor tippers and non-tippers. So to break even, a waiter has to move more than $500 worth of food every single day, and double that to have some spending money of his own. That isn't easy, even if the owner or headwaiter assigns you to the more lucrative section of the floor plan.

Restaurant owners want to make money. Most of them want to make a lot of money. This generally means they understaff, and at the place where The Waiter worked before The Bistro, the owner, or a floor manager, demanded bribes from waiters to work "good" sections, and a variety of other kinds of petty graft. At best, waiters work hard. All too frequently they work so hard they finish a day exhausted, dripping sweat, and might have a rash in their butt crack from rushing back and forth in sweat-soaked underpants. Thus this post's title. To do what their boss expects, a waiter at The Bistro and any similar place would have to be a brilliant octopus.

Waiters live in a different world. They work while we play. They do their shopping and other "outside stuff" while we either work or sleep. If they go to a movie, there is never a line or a full theater. And they don't love holidays. They tend to hate Mother's Day and other "holidays", which for them are days filled with more-obnoxious-than-usual customers in larger numbers. It is amazing how many folks either fear or hate their mother, and it seems to all come out at the restaurant to which they take her. In fact, it is almost universal that people let their guard down when they eat, so if they are capable of pathological behavior, a restaurant is where they are most likely to show it.

I have often wondered how the American way of tipping arose. Is it because of our historical devotion to meritocracy? Almost everywhere else in the world, tips are usually not "expected", and where they are, 5%-10% is plenty. Before I was 25, the usual tip in America was 10%, then somehow that shifted to 15%. In 1967 I ate a restaurant meal, and the bill came to about $5. I put a Kennedy half dollar next to my plate as I got up to pay the bill. The waiter was nearby and said, "Excuse me, sir? The customary gratuity is 15%." I said, "I give God 10%. Are you better than He is?" and continued to the register to pay. But I gradually got used to 15%. Now many places have a note, either on the menu or on the bill, suggesting 18% or 20%. I seldom leave more than 15%, plus maybe a little to make the total a round number. But much more frequently I eat at a buffet, where 10% is still OK because the wait staff do much less work per table, or at a fast food place where tipping is not expected.

Even The Waiter says tipping over 20% is usually gauche, unless you got a "divine" level of service. And while tipping comes up again and again in the book, it is about much more than that. A "fine" restaurant is a pressure cooker for extracting bad behavior from customers. Also from the employees. The hyper-stress of working at places like The Bistro drives a majority of the staff to various kinds of substance abuse, and heavy drinking, mainly (but not totally) after work, is almost universal. It becomes a vicious cycle. The Waiter admits to a nearly nightly need to tank up with several cocktails, and that can cost a lot, though sympathetic barkeeps that knew him well would often comp a drink or two. So he has to work harder and force himself to smile more to get more tips to support his drinking habit. No wonder he got out of the business once he started earning money from his book deal!

This story had a moral. At a restaurant, be nice and tip well. The server almost certainly has a much tougher life than you do. He or she is not "a loser". You or I would crumple within the first hour of doing their work.

I looked up a few things. The Waiter has written another book. He's an excellent writer. I wish him well.

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