Living in New York City, I’ve noticed you tend to meet a lot of people working jobs in food service — restaurant servers and bussers and hostesses, caterers, bartenders, baristas. I would say roughly half of my good friends in the city work in food service, and that’s probably true for a lot of people in my situation (i.e. non-rich people in their mid-to-late twenties). Some of these friends maintain their service jobs as a day gig while they build a longer-term creative career (performing or writing, mostly), while others are career food service employees.
Yet despite the ubiquitousness of food service jobs and workers in the city — and most urban and suburban areas in the U.S. — there are still so many misconceptions out there about what it means to work in food service, and what is and isn’t fair to expect of people who do. This means that restaurant customers sometimes behave inappropriately towards staff, either because they don’t understand how the restaurant industry actually works, or they’re simply too entitled to care. Negative interactions with customers are unfortunately all too common for many food service workers. (Dylan*, a barista friend of mine, recently poured a customer’s espresso into a to-go cup after he tried taking his ceramic cup out of the store. The customer proceeded to dump the entire cup of espresso onto the floor of the cafe, leaving my friend to clean it up. This example of customer entitledness might be out of the ordinary, but rudeness towards serving staff is not.)
And beyond customers not knowing the proper way to behave in restaurant settings, there are also so many assumptions non-service workers often make of the people who do work in food service. I love going out to eat more than almost any other activity, but I think if you’re going to patronize a restaurant or bar, there are certain things you just need to know — no excuses. With the aid of a few longtime food service workers* and some research, I’m debunking six commonly believed myths about food service jobs.
*All parties’ names have been changed for privacy.
Myth#1: Waiting tables is only a job for teens and college students.
In college, you probably knew a lot of people who worked a cash register or hosted or waited tables for rent money or just extra cash. And it’s true that a lot of young people are working in restaurants generally — in fact, more than a quarter of American adults started off their working lives in a restaurant. But working in food service isn’t just an introduction to the working world. Per the same data, almost half of all adults have worked a restaurant job at some point in their lifetime. And the majority of restaurant workers aren’t in their teens or early twenties, either — more than 58 percent of employees in the food service industry are 25 or older. Plenty of adults of all ages are enrolled in higher education, but assuming anyone who works in a restaurant is just doing so on the side is misguided at best.
There’s a very solid chance that whoever is showing you to your seat, waiting on your table, cooking your food, or cleaning up after you isn’t an entitled kid who couldn’t give a shit about your meal or their job. (And even if it is a young adult or a teenager, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about doing well, and this is still their job.) These are very valid jobs that people of all ages, backgrounds, and career desires have — which brings me to my second food service myth:
Myth#2: Food service jobs aren’t “real” or “career” jobs, and there are certain people who are above waiting tables.
A lot of people assume that anyone working in the front of a restaurant is just doing so to make ends meet — not because they, heaven forbid, might actually like their jobs and want to keep them. I spoke with Veronica, a woman who has worked several different food service jobs in Northern California. Over her years in the industry, she experienced a plethora of rude responses to her job choice, coming from everyone from customers to family members:
I’ve heard everything from insults about my university producing “rejects” to people asking if I’m a single mom and only waiting tables because I need to sustain a child.
I’ve had people stare at me, mouth agape, once I told them I have a college degree, and then STILL ask me what year I was going to graduate.
I’ve also had customers be really intrusive and ask really personal questions, like what my life plan was in the next few months if I didn’t want to be “stuck.”
I’ve had family members make comments to other family members that tried to hide the fact that I went to college and worked in the industry. I’ve also heard negative comments about my degree choice, like “she should have done engineering” or “if only she knew that Film would land her here!”
The point is, it’s happened a lot! But I tried really hard to not let it get to me. I was making more money than some of my friends in their coveted entry-level white collar gigs, so that kept me confident.
The thing is, you can never 100% accurately assume why someone is working the job they’re working — nor should you. Besides, there are way too many people working in the food service industry in the U.S. to make such generalizations. In fact, 1 in 12 workers in the U.S. private sector work in the restaurant industry. And that number is only growing: “The Department of Labor projects food and beverage related jobs to grow by 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.” Disregarding these jobs as not “real” or “career” jobs only serves to invalidate the millions of Americans working in one of the largest industries we have.
Myth #3: All servers make a livable wage before tips.
Sad fact: only 7 states require tipped employees to be paid the federal minimum wage before tips. And while we may assume tips will make up for the lower wages, the minimum for tipped employees has stagnated for more than two decades. CNBC reports, “While the federal minimum wage has been inching up over the last few decades, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 since 1996.” To put that in context, the standard federal minimum wage is still low, but it has been increased several times since 1996; it was most recently raised to $7.25 in 2009.
Technically, all employers are legally required to ensure that workers receive the equivalent to minimum wage after tips, but that absolutely does not always happen. Also from CNBC, “The Department of Labor’s wage and hour division found that between 2010 and 2012, more than 80 percent of the full-service restaurants it investigated had some type of violation.” It’s no surprise, then, that while about 6 percent of employees are living in poverty, the poverty level for tipped employees is close to 13 percent, according to a 2014 joint report by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley. This is exactly what the One Fair Wage campaign is trying to change around the country.
Also, keep in mind that very many restaurant workers don’t work one full-time job — and not necessarily because they wouldn’t prefer to. “I think it’s worth noting that many restaurants do NOT hire full-time servers because they don’t want to deal with having to issue benefits,” says Veronica. “Most people are employed part-time and constantly scrambling to pick up double shifts and cover other people’s hours to get those extra dollars. This adds to that stress level and makes their wages a lot lower than people think.”
Myth #4: Tipping servers 15% is the standard in the U.S.
A lot of people debate what is an appropriate amount to tip, so here are my two cents: if you ask anyone who works in food service what the tipping standard is, they will almost always say 20%. 15% may have been the standard several years ago, but considering how the minimum wage for tipped employees has remained stagnant for over two decades, 20% is a much more reasonable expectation when you think about how service workers are paid. “I think if you were taught how to tip correctly and you couldn’t afford to, you wouldn’t go to a restaurant,” an NYC bartender once told me in an interview. “I think if you think it’s okay to go to a restaurant or a bar and order whatever, and get the service that comes with it, and then not tip for it, you were taught poorly…while tipping is technically optional, it’s not morally or socially optional. I think you need to budget it in when you’re trying to figure out where to go that night.” I’ve personally seen both of my parents leave extra tip on the table or insist on picking up the check when they knew they were out with friends or family who categorically undertipped. (Growing up, a very wealthy parent-of-a-friend went to restaurants often and always tipped no more than 10%, and my mom made sure I knew how wrong this was.)
It’s also important to consider how much more servers in casual dining establishments have to work to earn anywhere near what servers earn in more expensive restaurants. According to data from FiveThirtyEight, “Servers in casual restaurants have to work on average nine times as hard as fine-dining servers to make standard minimum wage.” Not tipping or under-tipping in a casual environment, then, feels arguably even more egregious than not tipping in a Michelin-level restaurant — every table matters so much more.
“As far as tips go, I think of it like this: your bill pays for your food. The tip reflects the cost of the server being present and waiting on you,” explains Veronica. And remember that it’s not just servers that benefit from tips. “Restaurants have a lot of employees to pay for: servers, hosts, bartenders, food runners, dishwashers, etc. And in many places, servers are required to give a portion of their tips to other staff! At my restaurant, we tipped the food runners, dishwasher, and cooks 15% of what we made every night. We didn’t have bussers or hosts, so we got to keep a little bit more money than most. But at other places, I know the standard is to tip out your busser, your host, and food runner.”
Myth #5: Knowing every single thing about every ingredient on the menu is just part of a server’s job (and servers have literally influence over what happens in the kitchen).
One thing many servers experience is customers being rude to them over the outcome of their food — something servers, bussers, and hostesses typically have no control over. I asked Jamie, a longtime bartender and server working in lower Manhattan, what is reasonable to expect waitstaff to know about the food being served:
It’s absolutely a server’s job to know any allergens in the dishes. But knowing the step-by-step prep and cook process and every single ingredient involved is asking a bit much, especially if you’re not in a very fine dining situation. I think that if your food comes out with something wrong (meat cooked over or under, eggs too runny, salad too salty), your server had nothing to do with that. Even the food taking a long time is almost never a server’s fault. So while you’re allowed to be frustrated, taking it out on a server is not cool — especially not tipping because of it. If it’s really egregious, ask for a manager — they can address larger restaurant issues.
Additionally, keep in mind that not everyone on the serving staff has the same role. Support staff and bussers don’t have any more information about your food than your server would. “Obviously people’s roles in a restaurant setting are not always clear,” says Dylan, a barista and former restaurant support staffer. “But if someone hasn’t been helping you, like specifically taken your order, it’s probably not their job to help you.”
Myth #6: It’s advantageous to be a woman in the food service industry.
I’ve noticed a lot of people assume that women must be able to make more money waiting tables — mostly because of the gross, dated idea that they can simply flirt their way to the top. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, in 2016, the average male salary for waiters was $19,721; for waitresses, it was $15,329. Power in the restaurant industry is, like many other industries, predominately granted to white men. According to a race and gender report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, “A canvass of 133 fine-dining establishments found that 81% of management and 78% of higher-level non-management positions such as captain, manager, and bartender are occupied by white workers, a disproportionate amount of these male.” Veronica shared with me her own experience of being undermined in her
During my first few months as a server at one restaurant, I learned from a coworker that some of the other wait staff thought I wasn’t very good at my job and was only receiving money and praise from customers because I was a “cute girl.” This obviously caused me to feel tremendously inadequate because I really, truly wanted to be a good employee. Also, I felt like somehow they were trying to use cute as a stand-in for dumb, which infuriated me.
I later learned from conversations with my boss that their assumptions were completely ludicrous and that the reason I received such positive feedback was because I actually talked to our customers and tried really, really hard to make a good impression.
The talking never stopped, of course. And as I gained more experience, I started landing the better shifts — AKA the moneymakers, like Saturday lunches. My coworkers then started saying my male boss favored me because of my looks…never mind that another male employee also got scheduled these ideal shifts!
Veronica has also been the unfortunate recipient of the same type of undermining from customers:
One time, a middle-aged gentleman assumed I didn’t know our menu and requested to be served by my male coworker who was working in a different server section. It was quite funny when he couldn’t list some of the allergens in our soups and I had to chime in like I was his phone-a-friend.
At the end of the day, food service workers face many of the same problems people would face in any industry — workplace discrimination, being underemployed and underpaid, and dealing with tough customers are just a few. It’s good to hope for and work towards a more equitable world in which food service workers are always paid and treated fairly, but we also have to recognize that we live in the world as it is. So please, for the love of all that is good this holiday season and beyond, be kind to servers and support staff — and be a thoughtful tipper.
Holly is the Executive Editor of TheFinancialDiet.com. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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