Many, many moons ago in a land far, far away I used to be a waitress and did some bar tending. Actually it’s how I paid for one of the most expensive collages in the country, bought a truck and saved for my downpayment too. When said truck and my fridge broke a lot in grad school I waitressed then too. Recently honey’s daughter got her first waitressing job and we were talking about what she needed to know. It got me thinking when you get your first witnessing gig no one tells you things you need to know including things you legally need to know. So here it is what I learned in my almost decade long waitressing career. I was just a drop in for the summers for the most part but my hat is off to the ladies (and gents) who do this all the time, you folks are heroes! Thankfully? no photos of me survive (or were taken) of me as a waitress so enjoy these free stock photos instead.
Don’t over serve ever!
This will get you fired and potentially thrown in jail in extreme circumstances. This is most of what they teach you in bartending courses and no one even mentions it when you take a waitressing position. Basically this is the long and short of it if you serve someone so much alcohol that they are over the legal limit and they kill someone or hurt themselves you can be held legally responsible for their actions. It varies somewhat by jurisdiction and this is waitressing advice not legal advice but that can even include being charged with the actual crime in some places like vehicular manslaughter in extreme cases.
This is generally an avoided topic in the industry but you should ask about a bar or restaurant’s policy an how many drinks per person you can serve before saying something, and what to say. I’m ashamed to say I never asked but I gather the answer would have been “just don’t over serve.” Asking is still a good idea though for you and the others on your team. If something does go down your asking and not getting a clear answer helps everyone. Just to clarify and scare you a little less your legal responsibility is to take all reasonable steps to prevent someone from driving drunk. If they arrive half in the bag, you try but fail to do something or they lie to you that all pretty much clears you. It’s true that sometimes dealing with this situation lessens or kills you tip but you’re a decent human being and even if only for that reason you need to do something. So I thought I’d share the strategy I developed over the years maybe it will help you too.
At a bar after two drinks each or after a long dinner in a restaurant after three drinks each I ask people so, “before I get you the next one I’m just going to ask you all how you’re planning on getting home because as much as I’d like some help with the dishes later you seem like you have a better plan for the rest of your night the that?” Depending on circumstances (body size, time etc.) you can vary the number of drinks and what you say. If someone is drinking responsibly you can skip this step entirely and assume they are the driver. This does two things it limits your responsibility and nicely lets them know that they can’t all stay here and drink all night without consequences. Chances are they’ll have a plan, leave and go somewhere else or leave and you’ll still get your tip. If they say he’s driving tell him then this round is his last then. It usually (like 97%+) worked for me.
How to cut someone off
Here’s the secret to cutting someone off for whatever reason do it when you are handing them their last drink. Here’s another secret if it comes to this you’ll almost never get a tip so it’s best to deal with it earlier. Slow them down by ignoring them as much as possible, serving singles (feel free to still charge for doubles), pouring light, going easy on the ice and hard on the pop, or upping the glass size claiming all the smaller ones are dirty. You won’t have to cut them off because they’re driving we already learned about that but rather bad behavior. As you hand them their last drink discreetly let them know its their last one (if you want you can say for an hour) so they should make it last. Sometimes they will handle this as they should about half the time it will still make them angry, give them a break they’re drunk. If you cut someone off and they get upset the best idea is to head out back through the kitchen and go for a double smoke break, just make sure everyone else knows not to serve them first. PS I lost a cell phone to a drunk groomsmen beer toss once after the younger girls om staff let them get way too far. They’re drinks are comped juice the tip, what could go wrong went really, really wrong.
Tip outs and how they work
Chances are all your tips are not yours to keep you have to tip out the house. That will be the kitchen, the bar staff and maybe a hostess. The most reputable places do it as a percentage of sales. So 2% of food sales to the kitchen, 5% of bar sales to the bartender and something for the hostess. Other places do it as a percentage of tips which is iffy because no one knows what cash tips you got but you. If you don’t have to tip anyone out realize that this is not in fact standard practice and consider making it rain for the kitchen and bar staff on a really busy night. Also if the tip is going to the owner of the business that’s a bit wrong. I did 15% of tips to the chef/owner for years before I found this out. Even as a customer traditionally you do not have to tip the proprietor of a business. If you’re tipping out an owner you have a greasy boss.
Looks matter (sorry)
Don’t shoot the messenger what you look like matters to the tips and that’s your bottom line. One owner once told me that my tips were like my business that I was running with in his, that was good advice. Through trial and error I realized that my tips were better if I wore a skirt, makeup for sure, nice tops and heels. My goal was always to leave with my full 15% after tip outs so you want to bet I kept track. Often that meant doing my makeup in the car on the way to work. Long story short it’s probably worth it to look your best when working.
Officially claim every single cent you make in tips. Unofficially claim at least something. Even more so then when I was working and even then the vast majority of my tips were tracked and digital. Even if you just claim the tips you get digitally the IRS or RevCan won’t believe you didn’t make a single dollar in cash. That said I worked a lot of places and no one I ever worked with got audited. I would say the shadier the place you’re working for the more you should claim. Keep in mind though your yearly report won’t say what your annual sales were just your hours worked. Tips in the industry vary a lot. When I was bartending a weekday day shift I was pulling in about $25 dollars in an good eight hour shift. At a romantic inn restaurant I’d routinely pull in $100 or more in a 3 hour shift and at a family restaurant I could count on about $45 per 5 hour dinner shift. Friends that worked at night clubs used to get about $800 in a 8 hour shift. The authorities have no idea what sort of gig you got yourself. Pick a number per hour that seems reasonable to you (we all know you’re going to underestimate) and multiply by the hours you worked that year. As for tracking your tips its actually a lot of work for the auditor. When you run through a credit card or debit card its just for the total amount. In order to see the tip they have to compare the detailed receipt to the final charge. Pick a number that makes that not worth their time and you’ll more than likely be good.
Learn how to tip whore and decide where to stop
You’re going to have to develop some tricks that I refer to as tip whoring. That means saying and doing things that you wouldn’t normally do to get better tips. That might be as simple as smiling but can go oh so far. More than likely over time you’ll end up with almost a waitress alter ego. I’m not totally proud of all the things I did but a girl does what she has to. One of my go too moves was asking older couples what their secret to such a long and happy relationship was and saying they reminded me of my own grandma. Older people sometimes weren’t the best tippers and I did get some great relationship advice that way. Not telling off guys who slipped me their number while their partners were in the bathroom was harder but slipping it into my bra worked like a charm for a killer tip every time. When bartending letting people (guy people) think they had a chance was par for the course as was not busting people for their own bathroom activities but both always worked well for a good tip. Wearing a plaid skirt and a high pony tail well that was probably too far.
This is in fact as soul sucking as it sounds but it’s not all bad. It teaches you how to be charming and still works to this day in getting customer service people to help you that extra little bit. It also teaches you how to interact nicely with all sorts of people. I have to say though every fall when I returned to school I was a jaded, nasty version of myself full of cynicism and hate and I put it down to tip whoring for too long and working 100 hour weeks. This is where my heart goes out to the lifetime, full time waitresses out there you folks are stronger than I ever was. But no tip is worth taking it too far, if you grab my butt after slipping me that number your wife is getting it right after you pay the bill, I refused to serve wine to a pregnant lady and if you threaten my safety you’ll be leaving whether you go by yourself or not. Decide how far is too far and no 25% tip is worth your dignity or safety.
Stay above the fray with the other servers
Controversial but an important lesson none the less so I’m not going to expand on it. Most often all of the servers on your team will be female. Sometimes women in groups in competition with each other can be catty witches with a B. Stay above the fray, don’t get caught into a she said this about you discussion or don’t you know she steals the good tables stuff. But try not to be seen as snotty or stuck up either. Just be friendly to everyone and if the nails come out go check on your tables and then get distracted cleaning something. Honestly I think this cost me my first bartending job.
It will take a while to get the good shifts
But it happens so much faster than you’d think. There is tonnes of turnover in the service industry I think for two reasons. One is leave a job in the morning you can have another in the evening and power mad shift supervisors. If you hate who is on shift with you get a new job it’s that easy. When you start even at a busy, lucrative well managed place you’ll have weekdays and Monday nights, hell you might even be the hostess. With in a few weeks or months you’ll go up a rung then you’ll be the go to for subbing the good shifts than you’ll have those as your own. Just follow these tips, keep a will do attitude and don’t roll your eyes (too hard) when someone says “if there’s time to lean there’s time to clean”. The tips will suck in those less desirable shifts but getting a Friday (and surprisingly) Thursday night shift is just a few months away.
Dealing with ‘problem’ customers
Maybe I was lucky though I’ve been told I seemed stand-off-ish as a bartender but I really only had about two real problem customers three times in my busy waitressing career. It’s not to say I didn’t learn to serve drinks from a tray while swatting at my bum, but I was lucky. On thing to keep in mind though is tip whoring too hard will lead to more issues. I bartended at a dive bar first and this group of guys would come in after ball and drink hard, fast with a designated driver so I pretty much had to give them what they wanted. One guy in the group would regularly ‘flip a switch’ and it was a well known thing. His friends would do their best to deal with him and apologize when he did. After just too many lewd comments one night I had to tell his friends he needs to go and if that means you all do, so be it. They did but he returned another night with just one friend and it picked up where it left off. The old guy that lived upstairs and was to take care of these things was already down and two or three regular customers had told him to stop too. My only recourse was to push the hidden 911 button but it wasn’t really a life or death emergency. Then this thirty something guy playing the machines in the corner who was about 50 pounds and 4 inches shorter than the mouthy guy got up, picked the big dude up by his shirt carried him outside and locked the door behind him. All he said was “he had to go” and returned to his machine well all of us sat there speechless. Now 16 years later I’m still with and engaged to the littler guy.
The other one was way nuttuier I worked days and the dinner rush at a mid range restaurant and it didn’t have a drink all day vibe. It was more a come, eat and leave sort of place but we did overcharge (slightly) for the food. One rainy Saturday a guy I’d never seen before about 15 – 20 years later came in ate and drank three beers. I asked him how he was getting home and he said he’d call his wife and was that okay? No problem so I kept bringing him beer. He stayed for about 4 more and then the dinner rush started. I asked him to move to the bar and he got up to leave. Oh no you don’t mister! I asked about his wife and he said she’d be pissed and there was no way he could call her, turns out she’s really religious. So I offered to buy him our carbiest appetizer and a few coffees but there was no way he was driving out of there now. I chatted with him when I could that night and eventually hours later gave him the go ahead to leave. Pretty embarrassing for him right?
But then he kept coming back for dinner and sitting in my section. I started giving the table to my male co-worker, one night he parked out back in staff parking and I started freaking out a bit. I got Mark to walk me to my car after that when he was in because he always left as I did. Then he started coming in days mostly when I was by myself. I was still nice to him but more cordial than welcoming. One night he was parked out back again half an hour after I left and Mark walked me out. He took off right away seeing Mark and I hopped in my truck and went home. Soon after I realized that he was now behind me and I sort of freaked. I pulled into a busy gas station and went inside. Our town is a small town and I asked around about him. Eventually honey got his details and did tell him to knock it off he was freaking me out and he did. PS that’s the one and only time he ever had to step in with anyone and defend me. I don’t know why he acted that way maybe because I made him feel welcome that day but it showed me anyone can be dangerous. FYI eventually his wife left him for the plumber after a long affair.
When it comes to problem customers don’t lead them on at all, be cordial at best, ask co-workers to take the table and ask your boss for help. Get your boss to talk to them and if that doesn’t work get your boss to have them served with a property protection order banning them from the premises. If they won’t or it doesn’t work sometimes you might have to find another job it’s not fair but it’s also not worth the risk.
So I hope this helps all of you newbie witnesses and servers out there. These are the things I wish I knew before I started. Do you have any more tips (pun intended) and tricks from your serving days that can help out a newbie somewhere?