If you told 16-year-old me, after taking what was only supposed to be a summer job in a hotel, that I would still be a waitress almost seven years later, I would have laughed in your face and then probably cried. Really.
The service industry can be a slippery slope, made all the more greasy by gravy spills and oily kitchen floors. Having waited tables and bartended in Ireland and New York City, the time has come to share my experiences with you, the general and money-hungry public, so that you too can capitalize on the “kindness” of strangers.
Want to know how kind these people can be? In 2016, the minimum wage for a server in NYC — with the understanding that tips would be made on top of this — was $7.50 an hour. Meanwhile, in other states, the minimum wage for tipped employees can be as low as $2.13 an hour.
You wouldn't see the majority of your wage due to taxes, yet my top-grossing week was $1,500 for approximately 35 hours of work. Not too shabby, eh?
And that’s not even as much as you could make as a bartender or server. Friends of mine have bartended their way to $2,000 a week, easy.
The food-service industry is perilous and has taught me two alarming things: Weekends don’t exist and you are very replaceable. I have spent the past seven years figuring out how to make myself valuable to the businesses I work for.
Waiting tables is a job that anyone (though not everyone) can do. People will tell you it’s simple — that a monkey could do it. Well, those people have never had Barbara at table 36 scream at them for 10 minutes because her fish is too fishy. Those people will never know the horror.
How to Be a Bartender or Server: Top Tips
Fortunately, I’m here to guide you on your way to making big bucks while also being the best bartender or server you can be. The only way to survive is to fight your way to the top of the food chain. Yes, it’s that serious. Kinda. Think Shark Tank meets Hell’s Kitchen. Let's start with a few tips for how to be a good bartender or server.
I don’t care what gender you are, what your sexuality is, or if you have morals. You better flirt. You’re not too good for it. Make yourself good at it.
A lingering smile here, a cheeky wink there, and you’re on your way to that 20-percent tip.
It doesn’t have to be much. In fact, subtlety is your best friend. Compliment their clothing, make a witty retort, banter cheerfully. Every little gesture can increase your financial gain.
That’s not to say you should flirt with everyone who gets seated in your section. Read your customer. If he’s a disgruntled middle-aged man bickering with his wife, bad idea. If they’re a couple clearly on a first date, bad idea. But if they’re a group of 21-year-olds out for brunch, give it a go. Just prepare to be ridiculed the second you leave the table. They’ll love the free entertainment, and their tip will be worth it.
That said, don’t overdo it. Laying it on thick is gross and can land you in trouble. Once you master the art of subtle flirting, people will forget you’re doing it for the money and those dollah billz will roll in. Manipulative? A little. I prefer to look at it as a win-win.
Your customers could be talking about quantum physics, retirement schemes, or the cost of milk these days — it doesn’t matter. Ask questions, “hmm” and “huh” in all the right places, and make them feel special. You could make their day, and you might be surprised what you’ll learn.
I can’t stress enough the importance of conversation. They don’t owe you a tip just for being there. You have to earn it. On a slow hour or day, you have ample time to get to know your clientele, and once you do, they’ll keep coming back for more. Surely sitting through an hour of George’s political tirade is worth the $50 bucks at the end, right?
You’ll master the art of talking about nothing, and you’ll do it so well that people will think you’re an intellectual godsend.
You might think this is a pointless skill, but wait until you’re in a future meeting and you need to ass-kiss your way out of a situation. They won’t know what hit them.
Dealing With Those Customers
Ah, yes. Difficult customers are the bane of every bartender and server’s existence. They are the ones who, no matter how many hoops you jump through, will complain about the food, their table, and most important, you. They met you five minutes ago when the host sat them, but they hate you now for some reason. What can you do?
Kill them with kindness. Be so over-the-top, toothachingly sweet that they'll crash from a sugar overload. It will make them falter. They want to see you upset by their words. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
Get them a new drink. Reheat their “cold” dish. Do everything in your power to grant their ridiculous requests, and all with a smile on your face. Chances are, the rest of the table is mortified to be with this person and will commend you for keeping your cool in the form of an extra few bucks at the end of the meal.
Then go into the kitchen where they can’t see you, and call them every name under the sun. Scream into a napkin if you have to. If all else fails, get the manager. You’re an underling — you’re not paid to deal with this. Go stuff your face full of sympathy fries that the kitchen gave you and concentrate on the money.
The Upside of Being in Food Service
Aside from the horror stories, server and bartender jobs aren’t all bad. In fact, I've met some of the best people I’ve ever known through the service industry, bonding over our mutual disgust for humanity. But the big upside to all of this is the money.
Here in New York City, you can make upward of $1,000 a week if you know the right places to work and have the right skills to maximize your tips.
And thanks to me, now you do. So go forth and conquer the serving world, young grasstablehopper!
Tips for Making Tips
All of that said, your hourly wages alone won’t make you rich — not even close. So it’s not enough to know just the bare basics of how to be a bartender or server. Tips are where it’s at. Here are some of the best ways to keep the cash flowing.
Up-Sell, Up-Sell, UP-SELL!
You’ll get real tired real quick of your managers giving you that sickeningly sweet pep talk at the start of every shift: “Service with a smile! Full hands in, full hands out! Up-sell, up-sell, UP-SELL!”
But it works to your advantage. Think about it: The bigger the check, the bigger the tip (providing you’ve earned those tips).
In the service industry, the glass is always half empty, and it’s your job to convince the customer to refill it.
Three people order the same drink? Convince them to buy a pitcher or a bucket of beer. It will save you time, and more importantly, it will make the customers feel as if they’re saving money.
Cash Tips Trump Credit Card Tips. Every. Single. Time.
The IRS can see your credit card tips and it wants a share of that money, honey! It’s gauche to request cash tips rather than credit card tips, but if customers ask, or you’ve developed a good relationship with them, give them a nudge in the right direction. You’ll save yourself hundreds of dollars. Trust me. One paycheck of mine went from $750 down to $500. That was a dark week in my life.
Horror Stories From Servers and Bartenders
Kelly Meehan Brown (That’s Me!)
It was late on a Monday and the bar was pretty empty, save for this one older lady. We got to chatting, and while she was a bit strange, she seemed fine. I gave her some drinks on the house, and when I handed her the check, she walked out without paying. Cue me running down the street at 3 a.m. chasing this drunk woman. She returned, paid her $60 bill, and left me a $3 tip. I’m still not over it.
“I kept the bar open late once for this group of guys, who I had been serving for hours. It was around 2 a.m., and their bill was at $500. They all drunkenly walked out shortly after without paying a cent.”
“I was serving a table of four dudes and was trying to be extra friendly and flirty for more tips. But when they racked up a $400 bill and left me only $20, I flipped out with my coworkers at the bar. Little did I know they were right behind me and heard everything! The less said about the Yelp review I got the next day, the better.”
“A guy I had been polite to for the duration of his meal refused to tip me until I would give him my phone number. Thanks but no thanks. You can keep your $10, creep!”