The Tipping Point

Hit the Waffle House for some real food
But that waitress, she’s real rude
She got real problems but we do too so we tip her anyway
“Real Life,” Jake Owen

Fresh white polo tucked into tan pants and a black apron stocked with pens, I tried my hand at serving tables. Switching from hostess to server, my stress increased exponentially, while my rate of pay decreased reciprocally.

Back and forth from kitchen to tables, summoned by waving hands, shouts of “Miss, over here, miss,” and buzzers signaling the completion of what I hoped would be exactly what the customer ordered. Irrational questions followed by absurd demands, all fine because they are better than shouts and whines of discontent. All around negativity, working for an unpredictable check. Canadian? The tip could be nothing. She’s having a bad day or they got in a fight… well, who really could say? One always hopes for 20% but it isn’t always a reality.

For years the harangues about how much money I could make as a server had haunted me. I liked working for a steady hourly rate, reading the schedule, and being able to predict the amount of my paycheck. It is a reality that in the restaurant world there is a lot of money to be made, especially in places where the cost of a single meal is over 25 dollars. But, as such a statement realizes, server pay is precarious.

Eager to see what I had accomplished, I grabbed the black checkbook, opened it and looked directly down at the signature line. 18%. The exact amount chosen from a pre-calculated list ranging from 15 to 20. I wondered immediately what it was that I had done wrong, why I wasn’t worth the percentage that I always tried to pay. I realized suddenly that the guest had the power to decide what I was worth. A table of individuals, seated at a hostess selected table, in a restaurant owned by a man sitting in his office, and dining on food prepared by unnamed chefs hidden in the kitchen.

Rather than receive an agreed upon amount per hour or year, the waitress depends on the people she serves. She is a slave to their wishes yet bound by the rules and regulations of her chosen establishment

The tipping system functions on consumer guilt and work force exploitation. Rather than pay a living wage that allows the restaurant to function, the owners pass the burden off on the consumer, giving them the responsibility of determining how much a person makes. To not buy into the system is to choose not to pay the smiling face that serves your food. Who wants that on their shoulders? Thus we are manipulated into the system.

The tip is not an option or an amount of money given to the server based on performance, it is the way that the man or woman taking your order pays the bills or takes her own family out for dinner. Currently, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees rests at a measly $3.75 per hour and doesn’t appear to be changing. Not more than a few months ago the minimum in Portland, Maine was inadvertently raised, causing an uproar that led to the original being reinstated.

When we go out to dinner it is important to remember that we are in some way responsible for the welfare of the server scribbling down orders. Personally, serving was too laden with stress for me to continue. However, I am glad to have had the experience, to see the other side of my celebration dinners and understand why the 20% tip is more than just etiquette or generosity.



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