Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Tipping Pint

They also serve who only stand and wait. From 17 to 27, I earned my living from tips.

I left home/was kicked out just as I turned 17. I ended up in Banff, where I worked as a chamber maid for a couple of months and then found a job waitressing in a pancake house (I was too young to get a job anywhere that served booze once they checked my S.I.N, although I looked old enough to make it into almost every bar in town).

For two years, I got up (or, okay, was still up from the night before) at 5am and made my hungover way down the pathway on Sulfur Mountain to Phil's. One spring morning,I literally walked into a moose. Luckily, he or she did not take offense. I'd let myself in, turn on the back lights, start the big pots of coffee up, and begin squeezing whipped butter islands into little side bowls. The cook would show up and cook us some eggs and pancakes, and then the utility crews, the ski patrol, and the hands from the dude stables, along with any early morning hikers or skiers would start pouring in, desperate for coffee and carbs.

I'd work till 1:30pm, turning over about 80-90 tables in that time. The money was great--not much per table, but the sheer volume made up for it. And time flew by, because it was so insanely busy. Everything I know about multi-tasking today, I learned at that job. When I turned 18, I was able to move over to evening shifts, serving booze. Even better tips, and not quite as frantic. I took a bussing job at a good restaurant and, by the time I was 22, I was serving in a high-end, nationally rated bistro, featuring a French trained Japanese chef, who created some of the first fusion cuisine North America had seen. On a slow night I'd take home $60, on a good night I'd take home $150 (this after tipping out about 30% to the bussers, bartender, and kitchen staff). Typically, my customers tipped 15-20% on their rather hefty bills (I think Canadians tip at a lower percentage than Americans, but we have up to 15% sales tax on a bill, too).

I made almost nothing in wages--the owner refused to pay us for more hours than he had assigned to the shift, which he said ended when the restaurant closed. Yeah, show me a restaurant where the wait staff get out at the same moment that the kitchen closes! My covenant with the customer was that I would serve delicious food in a way that enhanced the evening--whether inobtrusive and seamless, or friendly, flirtatious, slightly aloof--but always as flawless as I could make it. I hated it when a customer had to ask for water, bread, wine pouring and coffee refills...

I treasure the memory of the engagement proposals I helped facilitate; the nervous guy on a first date with the woman he ultimately married who used his finger bowl (hot water with lemon slices) as a dip for his mussels. I didn't say a word until I had cleared the plates and she was in the bathroom and then slipped him a note for future reference. He thanked me with a 40% tip and came back often.

It's been over 15 years since I last put on my cummerbund and bow tie. I'm still a heavy tipper and can't help but grab the check when it's one of those group bills and tell everyone how much they owe, having factored in tax and tip. I dine frequently with an older friend who loves high end dining but hates tipping--he thinks that 10% is generous--I can't help but slip an extra $20 or so under my saucer when he insists on picking up the bill. I guess I am a pathological tipper, because I know how poorly the serving staff are paid, and they are often required to tip out a certain percentage of their sales (not their tips) to the kitchen, bartenders and bussers. From 3-7% of sales, in fact, depending on the business model. Which (there is no other word for this) sucks if you've had a big table that has stiffed you.

P.S. if you recognize yourself as the slimy type who "forgets" to pay at the group table, once you realize that there is enough money down--your table mates didn't decide to treat you, they were TIPPING the server who ran back and forth with drinks, water, appies, meals, desserts, coffee and tea, etc. It's theft, and there is a special place in hell for you.