So today I’m going to take a few minutes to share my own thoughts on the subject. If you stick with me for just a few minutes, I’ll reward you with some highlights of some of my more “memorable” customers. It’s going to be a little bit ranty but not super ranty. Hopefully you learn something about minimum wage in America, and get in a laugh or two.
Minimum Wage For Tipped Positions In The United States
As pointed out by Adventure Rich, the minimum federal minimum wage for people in tipped positions is $2.13/hour. That is not a typo. If you don’t believe Adventure Rich or me, check out the Department of Labor Minimum Wages for Tipped Employees page.
That amount can be further reduced if the employee receives meals or lodging.
Only seven states and Guam require employers to pay tipped employees the full minimum wage for that state. Another 26 states, D.C., and the US Virgin Islands require something above $2.13/hour but below full minimum wage. But in many cases it’s just barely above $2.13/hour. And Oklahoma is on the list and I don’t know why, considering the number listed is $2.13/hour…which can be further reduced to $2.00/hour in certain cases.
Tip Your Server. Seriously.
Remember that this person is giving you time, and/or comfort, and/or ease. That’s worth something.
I’m not asking you to turn into an extraordinarily stupendous tipper that servers fight over (that happens if you’re well known). I’m just asking you to make sure your server earns a living wage.
The great 15% vs 20% debate can rage on – I’m not going to get into that. Instead, what I’d recommend is that at the very least you tip your server enough to bring them up to a normal (non-tipped job) minimum wage. It’s entirely possible – especially on a weekday from 6am-5pm – that a server might not see enough business to earn a full minimum wage through tips alone if the customers are stingy.
My starting point is to make sure the server makes minimum wage for the time period I interact with them. This means that even if I’m at a cheap diner, I’ll tip enough to bring them up to full minimum wage – even if that means I end up giving a 60% tip. I try to stay abreast of the state’s minimum wage rules, and I will tip better in some states than others to account for different rules. If the meal is expensive enough that a 15% tip brings them to minimum wage, then I tip as follows: 20% for normal service, 15% for not great service, and unlimited on the high end for excellent service.
And I pay attention to what else is happening. If they have four other tables, I will assume they are receiving some sort of tip from them. Not a nice juicy 20% tip, but something. So I’ll consider that when deciding my tip.
And I may or may not leave a $20 tip for a $7 hamburger towards the end of the year when I’m feeling extra generous.
Be generous. What good is it to have money if you’re not willing and able to help others who might not?
If you go out to eat twice a week, throwing an extra dollar into the tip is going to cost you about $9 each month. But if every server received one extra dollar from each of their tables, they might be looking at an extra $80-$150 each week. Seriously. Small amounts can help enormously if consistently applied.
The state I lived in during college didn’t have a minimum wage at the time, so we followed the federal minimum wage for tipped employees. That meant I had the same minimum wage mentioned in Adventure Rich’s post: $2.13/hour + tips. I didn’t go to college in 1975, I went to college in the early 2000s. Stop and think about that for a moment – the federal minimum wage for tipped employees hasn’t changed since the early 2000s. In the meantime, total CPI inflation has been 33% since 2002.
My poor-college-student living expenses were about $13,000/year. You can see that if I wasn’t earning tips, $2.13/hour wasn’t anywhere close to enough to pay my bills. I relied on tips to keep food in my mouth and gas in my car.
When somebody gave me a shitty tip, or no tip at all, it had a direct impact on my life. And while that wasn’t common, it did happen a lot more than I expected considering it had never occurred to me to not leave a tip.
Being a server is not the mindless exercise in incompetence that people who have never worked in the service industry make it out to be. There are physical and mental aspects to it that make it really not a lot of fun.
For instance, at the restaurant I served at the longest, we had very particular rules about how you could and couldn’t carry items. One was that the entire table’s food order had to be brought out at once. Table of 8? Figure it out. Usually that meant waiting around for other servers to become available so they could help you carry the food. But sometimes it meant loading up my not-particularly-long arms with plate upon plate upon plate.
Can I carry five plates full of food on one arm without dropping anything? Why yes I can.
Beverages had a separate set of rules. There were trays, but you were only allowed to use trays for alcoholic beverages. Non-alcoholic beverages had to be carried in hand – again, all brought to the table at once. I can carry up to five glasses in one hand. It’s weird how often that skill comes in handy.
Meanwhile, carrying a single glass of wine on a tray is just inviting someone to spill the wine. Did you know that a single glass of wine, with its tapered stem, is actually very precarious on a large tray? Which, by the way, could only be carried in the left palm – no two handed carries. And if the whole table ordered alcohol and that tray has 12 drinks on it, I also couldn’t set the tray down on the table – I had to remove them one by one, making sure I didn’t upset the balance.
These rules were f-ing stupid. And they sometimes made me a worse server than I would have been otherwise.
And how about those restaurants were the server isn’t allowed to write down your order? You know what I’m talking about. The one where your table of eight is ordering eight entrees, two appetizers, and oh yeah everybody wants a different side dish and you are getting nervous that you’ll get the wrong thing? If the server isn’t writing your order down, there’s a good chance it’s because the restaurant won’t let them. Keep that in mind when you get upset that you were served fries instead of a side salad.
And oh yeah – gotta mention – if someone skipped out on the check, it came out of my pocket, not the restaurant’s. That’s right, I was held responsible, even if they walked out while I was serving another customer. There went what tips I did earn.
So tip your server. Tip them enough to deal with the terrible, comical and sometimes just bizarre people they have to deal with every day. Because even if that wasn’t you, trust me – it was somebody that day.
Alright, if you’ve made it this far you deserve some stories. I present to just a few of the ridiculous customers I had to deal with while I was a server. Some of these folks tipped just fine, but the stories are funny or weird enough to stand out 15ish years later. On with the show!
The Random Low/No Tippers
There was a guy who always paid in exact change. EXACT CHANGE. Wouldn’t even give a dime in tips. And this guy was a regular, and he stunk to high heaven. We would do anything to not be assigned to him. But still, when somebody is a customer five days a week, you’re bound to end up with him sometimes.
Or the family of 12 who would come in for lunch every Sunday, kids throwing things, ordering their meal in several stages, needing drink refills every 5 minutes (partly because of how often the kids spilled), who would charge $120+ in food each time and stay for almost two hours. With a table that large and needy, the assigned server couldn’t get any other tables. And they would give the same tip no matter what: $5. For two hours of work.
And there were several families that “didn’t believe in tipping.” You could always tell who they were because they would leave a penny on the table in recognition of your work. Heads up if you did well, heads down if they didn’t like the service.
Folks, whether you like it or not the US has a tipping culture. The meal itself is lower priced than a comparable meal in a non-tipping country for this reason. Tip your server.
The Angry-For-No-Reason Gentlemen
It was lunchtime and I had a pair of guys come in. They were probably mid thirties and looked like businessmen. They were wearing suits, anyway, which was pretty darn fancy for the town I lived in.
Anyway, they ordered their food, I brought it out, and when I saw them getting towards the end of their meal I printed out the check, put it in the black leather book, and took it to the table. I placed that book directly in the middle of the table, asked them if they needed anything else, and went back to working on my other tables.
Five minutes goes by. The book is still standing in the center of the table.
Ten minutes. I drop by the table and ask how they are doing. One asks for a refill on his drink, so I take care of that.
Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Twenty-five. The book is still standing in the center of the table.
Finally, 30 minutes after they were done with their meal, one of the guys flags me down. And they are pissed. They proceed to tag team me with complaints about the service and why haven’t they received their bill yet they have been waiting for 30 minutes don’t I know they are busy where is the check??? I calmly reach to the middle of the table, pick up the book (which is still standing vertically) and hand it to the guy who waved me over.
To their credit, they both looked sheepish and the guy with the book muttered an apology. They left me a 25% tip.
The Lady With The Scalding Hot Coffee
You know the story about the lady her burned herself with McDonald’s coffee? The one who gets made fun of so often but was actually in the right? Let me tell you about her opposite.
One thing I learned as a server is that the older a customer was, the hotter they wanted their coffee. I have no idea why 80 year old women want boiling hot coffee, but they do.
One particular woman always insisted that the coffee was not hot enough, even if it had just been brewed in front of her eyes. So she would demand that I microwave her coffee until it was boiling. I had to see the bubbles, and then I had to get it to her quick enough that she could see them too. Not easy in a large restaurant. And also not safe.
Did you know you aren’t supposed to microwave liquids to a boiling temperature? It’s really dangerous.
It was a lawsuit waiting to happen and I’m glad I escaped unscathed.
This has nothing to do with tipping. She was just a difficult and not too smart customer. Maybe she wanted to sue?
The Lady With The Iced Tea
Oh, this lady. Seriously, what is it with women in their later years needing extreme ends of the spectrum on beverage temperatures?
This woman, who was probably about 65-70, wanted iced tea every time she came in. But she was very particular in how she wanted it served.
The glass had to be filled to the very top with ice cubes. Every possible inch of the glass should have ice. Anything less was not iced tea, in this woman’s eyes. I’m not exaggerating. When you brought the glass to the table she would push down on the ice. If it moved even a tiny bit (signaling room in the glass) she would hand it back and demand more ice be added to the tea.
Here’s the problem (other than that being insane). At this restaurant, we brewed the tea fresh. It wasn’t soda fountain iced tea; that stuff is gross. Brewing tea fresh means that at its coldest it was room temperature. If it was a fresh batch, it might still be warm.
So this magic would happen where the ice would melt when it came into contact with something warmer than it. I know, weird right? Of course that meant that the glass basically always had wiggle room when it reached her table, because there was no longer top to bottom ice. It was now water mixed with tea. So she’d send you right back to fill it with ice again. Good use of the server’s time.
And if you are thinking “just bring the woman a damn cup filled with ice” let me tell you, you are not the first person who thought that. Nope. She would not allow such an abomination on the table. Ensuring the glass was filled with ice was the server’s job, not hers.
And then of course this would be repeated every 10 minutes, because when you fill your cup with ice you end up with not a lot of tea.
I’m like 90% sure this was just a way to torture the servers. Because that is straight up crazy.
The “No Tomatoes” Lady
This one is just bizarre. This woman comes in with her husband and orders chicken fried steak with biscuits and gravy, one of our specialties. Now, if you’ve eaten those foods before, picture them in your mind. Think about the possible ingredients. Ready? Okay.
As soon as she lists her order, she says “Now, there’s no tomatoes in that dish, right?”
No ma’am, there are no tomatoes in chicken fried steak, biscuits, or gravy.
“Are you sure?”
“I need you to ask the kitchen.” (I protested but she insisted, so I did)
Back at the table. Ma’am, I confirmed – no tomatoes in that dish.
“Okay. And they aren’t, like, physically near the dish are they? I can’t have any tomatoes near the food either.”
Ahhhh…now I understand. I bet you think you do too, right? Surely the woman is allergic to tomatoes. Right? Right?
“I’m on a food cleanse, and I can’t have tomatoes anywhere near my food. They have a bad aura.”
No joke, that’s what she said.
I bet you didn’t see that one coming!
I also still to this day haven’t found a food cleanse that includes chicken fried steak, biscuits, and/or gravy.
The Classiest Wedding Of All Time
Okay. Alright. This one.
I told you last week that I also delivered pizzas in college. Well, I would fill in as a server on occasion, if the manager was short a body for the front of house. This was an eat-in Pizza Hut, to give you an idea of the level of restaurant we are talking about.
So one night I’m asked to work as a server because we have a wedding coming in. To Pizza Hut. Okay. That’s cool. And they are taking up the entire front of the restaurant – it was enough room for about 30 people.
So for two hours, myself and another server are the dedicated wait staff for this wedding reception. We are running drinks back and forth (no self serve during a wedding, we are classy as all get out). We are bringing out pizzas and breadsticks and wings and cinnamon sticks. The beer and crappy box wine are flowing.
The group was happy and fun and for the most part we enjoyed ourselves. When they were gone, it took us a good thirty minutes to clean up. We’re talking about a raucous group – they made a mess.
You wanna guess how much they left us in tips for two hours of waiting on them hand and foot at Pizza Hut? For a $500 bill covering about 30 people?
I wasn’t expecting a $100 tip, but that is ridiculous.
Tip Your Fucking Server. They deserve it.