Stagflation

It’s a slow Saturday night and I’m standing by the hostess stand, reviewing my tips. I’m not doing well.

“How’s it going there?” the owner asks, looking over my shoulder.

“Terrible,” I reply. “Less than fifteen percent.”

“Really?” the owner says, looking surprised. “You usually average twenty percent and up.”

“I know.”

“What did the girl on Table Eight leave you?”

“The hot one in the leather pants?”

“Yeah.”

“Thirteen percent.”

“Unbelievable,” the owner says. “When she left she told me what a good waiter you were.”

“She’s operating under the delusion that flaunting a nice ass counts as a tip,” I reply, bitterly.

The owner laughs heartily. “You’re a bad man.”

“Is her ass going to pay my rent?” I ask. “Can I use it to buy groceries?”

“I guess not.”

“I rest my case.”

Forgive my flare of working class/misogynistic anger. Every server has good days and bad days. Old pros like me should be able to roll with the punches. But business at Café Machiavelli’s has been so bad lately that my patience is wearing thin. We’re down five hundred covers a week since I started. That’s bad. Waiters are getting cut on Saturday nights. Working a thirteen hour double last Thursday earned me a paltry sixty bucks. The staff members at the bottom of the tip totem pole, the bus people, are really hurting. One guy told me how he was having a hard time affording Pampers. Several bussers have already left, looking for greener pastures. The sad part is that there are no greener pastures. Things are bad all over. I don’t know if America’s economy is in a recession or not, but the restaurant industry sure as hell is.

“People aren’t going out to eat as much,” I say. “And when they do I think they’re skimping on the tip.”

“You think so?” the owner asks. “My stats say sales are down but the tip percentage is holding.”

“The regulars are still good,” I reply. “But the once a month types? I think they’re holding back five or six percent on the gratuity.”

“I’ll keep on eye on the numbers,” the owner says. “Maybe you’re right.”

“We’ll see.”

To cap off a miserable night, a romantically inclined couple decides to come ten minutes before closing and stay two hours. They tip for shit. I get home at 1:30 AM. I only made $120 for on Saturday night. That sucks.

The next morning I put $40 worth of gas in my gar and drive over to the grocery store. I buy only staples, no luxuries. When the girl at the register tallies up my purchases I get my weekly dose of sticker shock. $1 for two lemons? $4.35 for a half pound of domestic Swiss? Thank God I don’t have to buy Pampers.

I read somewhere that the economy’s in a period of stagflation – slow economic growth coupled with rising prices. From a waiter’s point of view this makes sense. Food costs have gone up so menu prices have increased. People bitched when entrees broke the $30 mark – now they’re pushing past $40! Faced with higher prices and economic uncertainty customers are eating out less – forcing restaurant owners to raise prices even more to make up for the losses, causing even more people to curtail dining out. It’s vicious cycle. I’m sure some economic type reading this will correct my logic, but that’s how I see it.

When I finish shopping I head home, put my groceries away, and go to the gym. After I work out, I hit the shower and head into the kitchen. I make rigatoni with chicken and broccoli in a pesto sauce. I wash my meal down with a glass of wine, skip dessert, pack up my leftovers, and put them in the freezer. I’ll reheat the chicken and pasta on a night I’m too tired to cook. It’s good to be thrifty with food.

After I wash my dishes I brew some coffee and settle into my leather chair to do some reading. I’m currently working on No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. I liked the movie so much I thought I’d try the book. So far I’m enjoying it, though McCarthy’s lack of punctuation takes some getting used to. After an hour lost inside the sere emotional landscape of McCarthy’s Southwest Texas, Buster, my joint custody dog, starts making noise. It’s time for his nightly walk. I leash him up and walk into town. I pass by a restaurant. It’s empty. A lone waiter is staring out the window with his hands in his pockets. Two bus boys are in the back, unenthusiastically folding napkins. I wave at the waiter. He waves back. He looks broke and angry. “I feel your pain, buddy,” I telepath to him. Not picking up on my psychic attempts at camaraderie, the waiter turns around and disappears from view.

I take Buster home and finish my book.


Comments

Stagflation — 27 Comments

  1. It’s true–it’s expensive to eat out nowadays. I don’t think this trend is unique to restaurants alone–retail that deals with food in general is suffering, too. I work in a high-end candy store and customers are always grumbling over the prices. They don’t realize that we HAVE to raise the prices because of rising chocolate prices. Unfortunately, Americans’ wages haven’t risen enough to be able to pay for that good chocolate and good restaurant food.

  2. $40 entrees?! I get sticker shock when prices exceed single digits. But I have to say, I would rather spend $10 and leave a 20% tip then spend $12 and leave no tip…

  3. I’m an Australian, I’ve been reading your fantastic blog on and off for about two years now. I’m always struck by the importance of tips in your blogs. Here in Australia we rarely tip. You can tip, if you get really special service, or if you were a troublesome customer, or if the food was really great. But it’s not a big deal. The waiter’s livelihoods don’t depend on it, it’s more just a gesture of thanks. I have been a waiter and I used to get tips, but we were not allowed to keep them. They went to the restarant.

    Anyway, my question was, don’t you guys get a proper wage without tips? Don’t you have award wages over there? Waitering is a skilled and difficult job. It’s hard to understand why a good one such as yourself would be paid so little by your employer.

  4. The site change popped this through my RSS feeder again – a good thing since I missed it the first time.

    The economy has everyone jittery – even for folks in stable jobs (or even retired), the media frenzy surrounding the economy is really starting to get to people. I’ll admit that I’ve cut back a touch on my trips to the pub, but when I’m there, I tip as much as I ever did. The servers & bartenders are trying to make a living just like everyone else. I tell myself I’m helping with the economic comeback. :)

  5. Sadly, in the US, servers get jack for a wage. It’s under minimum wage actually. When I was waitressing back in 1988-1995, it was $2-something an hour.

    Depending on the state, the hourly wage can be from low $2s, up to $7.50 (minimum wage in California). Then tips on top of that. I remember having some tight times, and I was a very good server.

  6. Minimum wage in California is 8/hour. Washington has 8.07/hour. Many states require that waiters be paid at least minimum wage and employers cannot use their tips as a part of their wage. The economy is horrible right now, but it’s not a terrible job to be a waiter in every part of America.

  7. Unfortunately, while the wage in Washington state might not be awful, it doesn’t get you anywhere. Washington state has the largest difference between housing (median house price here in Seattle is 300,000) and the average income which is around 50,000 per year. Rent just spiked everywhere by about 300 to 500 hundred dollars, so a “cheap” (read tiny and moldy)studio is around 900 now.

    While serving gets you a full time income for a part time job, it doesn’t mean a thing when a full time job doesn’t get you anything either.

  8. Last time I went out, I think I accidentally under-tipped. I still feel bad. And I used to be a line-cook! (Okay, so there were nights I’d swear my wait-staff was out to get me, and I’d have a reputation for serving everything lukewarm, but I was always on their side. Really!)

    Geez, you’re down 500 covers a week? Your boss must be shitting bricks. I don’t know how big your place is, but in my world, 500 covers is the difference between keeping the doors open and 90 days to bankruptcy.

    I wish you well. Oh, and anyone that offers you retraining for the “new economy” is selling you a big bottle of snake oil. I was a line cook, and pretty good. I should have stayed with it. Now I fix computers and computer networks. There are no jobs here either.

  9. I feel the same as Kylie. I too am Australian and last year when I stopped serving my base hourly rate was $18.80 with a penalty rate after 10pm then on the weekends I would get around $25/hr on a Sunday. Mind you I was working in a place where we would basically never get tips but that is the basic wage for servers here. In more upmarket places you can get the same hourly rate plus walk home with $20+ a night in tips.

    And remember our dollar is nearly on par with your’s now. I think we seem so lucky here now!

  10. pretty much here in kansas its 2.13/hr plus tips, bartenders make 5.00/hr plus tips. i know in cali its like 8/hr plus tips or something…my cousin was a waitress in some fancy place served all the celebs. i can average 15-25 in tips an hour at outback steakhouse, which is pretty damn good for me. we have a wide range of customers, our restaurant is located in the richest part of town so it scares off most of the cheapies, but there are still a few cheap people that come in, which is ok every once and a while.

  11. Ahahaha, wow, they got it good in Australia. Here in Canada it’s the same kind of deal, minimum wage for tipped workers is lower than the actual minimum wage. Good thing I’m not in that industry. Here in Vancouver BC, regular minimum wage is $8 but it costs up to half a million for a decent, small house in the city. Vancouver has to be about the most expensive city to live in. Everybody’s moving to the suburbs and making the long commutes.

  12. *sigh* i’m not going out as much as i used to. mostly because i can’t afford it. but when i do go, i never tip less than i ever did before. i’d feel like such a worm.

  13. Here in Illinois it’s $4.09 per hour plus tips. However if you consider the tips in your hourly wage I probably make about $18-$25 an hour on average. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy to wait tables. It’s a lot of sweat, hard work, you have to keep everything straight, and smile at the jerks at table 56 even when you want to put hot sauce in their coffee.

    I think everyone should have to either serve, or volunteer and do some real grunt work in their lives. We Americans are so spoiled, we complain about everything when we really need to take a look at how lucky we are compared to other countries. I appreciate even having a job waiting tables, I know people tend to look down on me because it’s not a high paying self important job, but I am happy.

  14. Aussies –

    Even though our exchange rates are about even now, I still think that $20 buys more in the US than in Australia… for example when I moved from Syndey 7 years ago a pack of cigarettes was around $9 aud, same pack where I am from was about $3 usd. Now prices in the US have gone up, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. But…

    Minimum wage in the US is in most places not a living wage. For example, I live in a reasonably priced area (not new york or some other big city where housing is even MORE expensive) and if I only made minimum wage a cheap, small, clean 1 bedroom apartment would cost over half of my monthly income. In fact probably about %60-75%. Its difficult to eat healthy food on the remainder, let alone pay for things like medical, transportation, clothing, phone, etc. If you make minimum wage in the US and you don’t still live rent-free with your parents, you are *poor*. Consider now that in most US States waiters make less than minimum wage hourly. In the USA tips are a really big deal.

  15. oh Jodie I wish everyone felt the same way. I was just watching a youtube rant from a “lady” who couldn’t understand why her waiter came running after her to complain after she left him $6 on a $120 tab. Some people should have to take an IQ test before being seated.

  16. It cracks me up at times to see the difference between what we consider a good night. At the mid-western family restaurant where I work, $60 is a pretty average kind of night. I have a feeling your $60 transkates to a $15 or $20 night where I work, whereas your passable $120 night is a night to mark on the calendar for me. The most I’ve ever made is $180 and that was a day I worked from noon to close.

  17. Jen and Jodie, very good points! Yes in Kansas it’s a measly $2.13 an hour, and that is the reason tips are SOOO important! Can you live off $2.13 and hour…non tippers?

  18. If only we knew then what we know now, that the economy would go for a tailspin. I knew something was wrong as far back as September of 2007 (trying to find a job with benefits and better hours, so I could hang up my apron for good), it took me 9 months to find a job. And, the tips from waiting tables were getting slimmer and slimmer. I had to get a 2nd job working retail (which I still have to this day, even with the corporate job). Times aren’t getting a whole lot better.

  19. $40 for an entree? Here in Australia, I won’t pay more than $12 for an entree!
    The dearest meal I’ve seen in my city is $33 for a pan seared eye fillet steak.

  20. I think its so interesting that someone comments that when they worked from 1988-95 they were paid $2-something an hour not including tip. Its about 20 years later and we are still making $2.13/hr.

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