Served: A food service industry column

After dedicating nearly a decade of my life to the foodservice industry, I think it’s safe to say, it fucking blows. The restaurant food chain of labor is brutal, and is mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing. I have successfully wasted my youth running around trying to make unappreciative customers and bosses happy. I have thrown out my back carrying trays that no one less than 6 ft and 200 lbs of pure muscle should be carrying. I have missed countless important holidays, parties, even my own birthdays, because I had to just to keep my job. To this day, I have reoccurring nightmares in which I forget I have a table or a screw up an order and customers leave mad. I wake up drenched in sweat and stressed out. If I look back at all of the jobs I’ve had, I can honestly say that I was most appreciated at the very bottom of the foodservice chain, at Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors (in reality it’s more like 52 flavors). My boss was cool. I was allowed to do homework in the back if it was slow. I could request days off, and actually get them. I was paid minimum wage, but I was allowed to accept tips. The most physically demanding task was scooping the ice cream in the rightmost cooler because it was somewhat more frozen than the rest. I got all of my closest friend’s jobs, I didn’t have to wear a uniform and I got free ice cream. Things deteriorate quickly from here. My next job was a step up the ladder: hostessing at a full service restaurant. It was stressful. I was sexually harassed on a daily basis. Customers were in a hurry and rude. My coworkers were greedy and my bosses barked orders right and left . I had to buy expensive clothes to meet the dress code. I had a set schedule and was unable to request days off. I bounced around as a hostess for about two years. The only perk to working in a restaurant was the free food. Then I became a busser. The money was great! The waiters were instantly nicer (they were bussers once too ya know). The customers were eating and generally not SO unhappy. But then I realized, I’m basically waiting tables and only making a small percentage of the tips that the waiters were getting. So, given the opportunity I moved up. Waitress. “Hello, my name is \*\*\*\* and I’ll be your waitress this evening”. It felt great to do the same work as before and instantly be making WAY more money. I might add at this time that I grew up in Washington State. The minimum wage has been the highest in the country for a LONG time and it applies to tipped employees. I was making $8.50/hr plus tips. Employers treat you with respect because they respect your time. They have to, they’re paying for it. I soon realized however, that “kids eat free” promotions and teenagers on their first date, are not lucrative. I wanted a more sophisticated crowd. I wanted people that appreciated hard work and were willing to pay for it. I quickly realized the place for me was in the bar. I got my liquor license (strictly necessary in the state of WA) on my 21st birthday. I started cocktail waitressing about a week later. All of a sudden a “good” tip went from 20% of the entire check to a dollar a drink. I can honestly say I’ve never worked harder or made more money. Cocktail waitressing at a dingy Mexican restaurant-bar in a crappy small town, I was making my wage ($8.50/hr) and averaging about $35-50/hr in tips. I was working three days a week, three hour shifts and I was a filthy rich kid. Once I learned the ropes a bit I was promoted to bartender. This is the top of the foodservice chain. This is the only person in the restaurant who gets tipped out and tips out no one. This is the person who has regular customers that adore her and drunkenly leave a $10 tip on a $5 tab. This person is suddenly not a servant, but an equal. You are a psychologist and a friend. You mix drinks and pour beer. In my opinion, much easier than bringing them their chips and salsa or filling their water glasses every ten minutes for an hour. You open a bottle and suddenly you earned $1 (at least). This is the job that every foodservice employee is striving for, or should be. So, here I am at 22 years old with a meager 5 years of full service restaurant experience, and I’ve got it made. I rarely work, I actually have a savings account, and if I have to work on my birthday, it sucks, but I go home with $200. I can always celebrate tomorrow. I thought my hard work had finally paid off I had the skills to get part time work that can be found nationwide, that pays the bills and isn’t too dull. A “cool” job to boot. When the Washington rain really started to get to me, I decided to move. Financially this has been the worst decision of my life. Of all the states in America, 5 have a minimum wage for tipped employees, that is the same as the state minimum wage. I was living it up in one of them. When I arrived in Texas, I couldn’t believe that tipped employees only make $2.13/hr. I thought, wow, people here must tip REALLY well and surely most establishments pay more.... Who would do restaurant work for less than $20/hr (tips included)? Turns out, a lot of people do. Not just in Texas, but all over the country. In the year or so that I bartended and waitressed at various Austin locations, I didn’t once average more than $12/hr. Being a bartender here isn’t “cool”, it’s hard work. Being a waitress isn’t fun, it’s exhausting and the money just isn’t what it should be. Why is it that tipped employees make close to nothing in hourly wages? It has been said that this lower minimum wage for tipped employees was first put in place to protect small businesses that couldn’t afford to keep servers who were already making decent wages from their clientele. Small mom n’ pop businesses were dropping like flies while their waitstaff was making a killing. So a bill was passed that dictated as long as a server was making an average of at $7.25/hr, tips included, then the employer was only required to pay the two dollar minimum wage. Somehow, this loophole to protect small businesses has become the standard of the restaurant industry, not only in Texas but in a lot of states. You would think that Applebee’s, with the same prices at all of their restaurants nationwide, would be able to afford to pay all of their servers nationwide, the same wage. Apparently not, and they don’t have to. When I was making $8.50/hr, I never cleaned a single bathroom. I didn’t mop any floors. I was a valued and skilled employee and the more tips I made, the more money the restaurant made. We had a very healthy symbiotic relationship. I have worked for six restaurants and bars in Texas and they are all the same. You are free labor, your time isn’t important. Employers think that they are doing you the greatest service in the world, letting you wait their tables and clean their bathrooms. You stay around when there are no customers “just in case.” I always say: the hardest job in the world is finding a job, because until you’re hired, you aren’t getting paid. In Texas, waitressing just might be a little harder.

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