There’s been a lot of anger vented in social media following server Leila DiFazio’s dismissal from Lynn’s Paradise Café. Some of it’s righteous, some it’s naïve.

Fair gripe #1: Lynn’s servers shouldn’t have been demanded to liquefy its support staff tip pool by carrying $100 cash to work. The business serves as the bank, especially when it’s a restaurant that, according to owner Lynn Winter, hauled in $4 million per year ($76,923 per week). I don’t care how many guests pay with credit cards, such a business should have a few grand extra in house to see that its tipped employees get their share.

Fair gripe #2: According to Kentucky law, DiFazio should not have been fired since a restaurateur cannot mandate anyone participate in a tip pool in the first place.

Unfair gripe: One thread of complaint woven through many Facebook posts and blog responses that has bothered me is when servers complained they don’t make enough money to make a decent living.

Well, of course they don’t make much money, which is why most people view waiting tables as temporary work. Very few view it as a career. (For exceptions to that argument, read about these “career servers” I wrote about in this story two years ago.)

If you have significant financial obligations (mortgage, children, debts etc.), most table service jobs tables won’t yield enough skrilla meet those needs. (Fine dining service is another matter, but those restaurants are struggling these days and assume their servers are, too.)

If your money burdens are light, and you’re single and childless, you can do OK—while you work toward something better paying. It’s a near-perfect job for those pushing through college, and it’s a suitable second job for someone supplementing their income, piling up cash or getting out of debt.

But for single parents like DiFazio, trying to go it alone just by waiting tables … that will always be a tough row to hoe. Those folks have my sympathy, but they have to accept the position for what it is: employment that generates modest income because it doesn’t take unique skills to learn it. Some are better than others at it, but most people can be trained to do it reasonably well and make a few bucks in the process.

I’m a perfect example of someone who was only a decent waiter and still made pretty good money. I served tables for about a year and a half while I finished college—and at a restaurant not half as busy as Lynn’s.

In fact, I made more dough and worked half the hours hauling plates than I did when I was in a stressful supervisory role a sous chef. Yet in both roles (even when I was a $4 per hour cook in 1984) I paid all my bills, lived well below my means (drove used cars, lived in low rent places with roommates, had some “bounce back” stays in my parents’ home, and had a lot of cheap dates) and saved a little along the way. Many times in those same years, I worked two jobs, which few people seem willing to do anymore.

But that waiting tables didn’t pay much never made me hate the job or angry at my boss. Its shortcomings, in fact, spurred me toward a college degree and another career.

Make no mistake, I see table service as important and valuable work, not the step-and-fetch flunky activity some say it is. It’s skilled management of the guest experience, arguably a craft when one is really good at it. I just see it as a temporary trade.

For restaurateurs reading this and thinking, “He’s trying to talk my employees out of working for me,” to some extent I am because life as a server offers only limited financial promise.

I’m neither a genius nor a financial counselor, but if I could advise any struggling server in this matter, it would be to set a goal to achieve steadier, better paying work.

If that means going to school for nine hours a semester until you get a degree, do it.

If you have to and can work two jobs to save enough money to get your head above water, go for it.

Do what you have to do to get beyond it if necessary, or stick with the trade en route to restaurant management or ownership.

Restaurateurs, if you want good servers to stay longer and become veterans your guests request when they return, then pay them accordingly for their extended service, that veteran experience. Reward longevity with benefits or boosted wages just as you would do it for your best cooks.

But if you want to keep paying them the required $2.13 per-hour base wage and, in essence, say, “The rest of your income is on you,” expect continued turnover in those positions.

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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