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Why Can’t Busboys Become Waiters?

I got an interesting comment about my last post, My Busboy Is A Dick, from someone calling himself Xavier.

Sorry, as enjoyable as your post was I’m afraid I’ll have to take a defensive position. I work at a very large (100+ tables) restaurant in the middle of downtown. I am a food runner/expo and one of my good friends is a busser. We are both young ambitious guys who will outwork a horse if challenged but due to the way things are designed there has been somewhat of a falling out…..not so much with me, but with him. He is entirely fed up with the fact that oftentimes we will both do more work in one hour than most of the servers do all night yet we still walk out the door with 65$ in tips when the servers walk out with 250$+. Sure, servers have a higher ranking job and there’s more volatility in their tips but it sort of seems as if the system is flawed. At parties/buyouts, for instance, everyone does pretty much an equal amount of work yet the servers still walk out with far more. Top this off with the fact that even if we go above and beyond our call of duty for the servers we will get not one dollar more than what the servers are required to tip us. For all those reasons, my friend, the busser, has sort of become like the guy you mentioned in this post. He does the very minimum amount of work to get by and quite frankly I understand where he’s coming from entirely. I would do the same but I just happen to hold myself to a high standard.

I’d appreciate your thoughts on this…

It was a thought-provoking comment – and hit on some things I’ve thought about before. I’ll respond in more or less in the order he laid it out. Of course, I’ve no choice but to take it on faith that Xavier’s numbers and characterizations are accurate.

One question that needs to be answered is whether Xavier and his buddy are getting ripped off, or are they are just not understanding how the money actually breaks down (the problem Lencho had in the anecdote towards the end of my last post).

So, let’s break it down, using my best assumptions.

With 100 tables there will probably be 20 waiters (Michael’s only allows 3 tables per waiter, so I think 5 tables per waiter is a reasonable guess). Total tip-out for waiters is anywhere between 15% and 40% – meaning between bussers, bartenders, expediters and whoever else – that’s how much of their gross tips they give away. So I’m going to put the tip-out for Xavier’s restaurant close to the middle, and a bit higher than the median of my various restaurant experiences (about 12 restaurants) because he’s in a very busy, very large restaurant: 30%. Next, because servers are walking with more than $250 a shift, that must mean they are grossing in the neighborhood of $375 in tips.

Don’t worry, I’m going to put this in a table in a minute. Just follow the words for now. Next, we have to guess who is getting tipped, and what percentages. I’ve just got to go with what I know to be true more often than not. Bussers get 15%. Bar gets 10%. Expediter gets 5% or a flat fee of some kind. And there might be a Maître’d or Wine Captain mixed in there too, but we’re going to say there isn’t.

So here’s what we’ve got.

Server Tips (Gross) $375
15% Busser $56
10% Bar $38
5% Expo $19
Server Walks With $262

That means that servers are tipping $1120 to the bussers. The next question is the crucial one for the bussers: How many of them are there? Here’s where you might blame management for staffing too many bussers, which of course dilutes the money they receive. But I’m going to assume normal staffing.

So, plowing ahead, let’s say there’s a busser for every 3 waiters. And let’s make that 7 bussers on the floor, rounding up. That means each busser should receive $160. So Xavier’s friend is getting shafted. But wait. Many restaurants policy is one busser per station. So, of course, that makes for $56 for that one busser. That also makes for 20 bussers on the floor. I don’t know, but it sounds unlikely. Let’s split the difference and say there are 12 bussers. That still leaves a supposed $93 for each busser. It sounds like they are getting shafted. But remember, they might be getting only 10%. In which case, the individual busser tip would be $62.

As for Xavier, as expediter, every place I’ve worked, the expo got a flat fee – $5 to $20 per waiter. Though I have heard of a percentage being used. The key question, again, is how many expediters are there? If there’s only one, then even at $5 per server (an expected $100 per shift for the expo), Xavier is getting royally screwed. Of course, start dividing things by multiple expediters, and the numbers fall into line with Xavier’s account.

If the numbers are fairly cut-and-dried, there’s nothing to be done about it. Each restaurant has its system, and it’s each employee’s decision whether he/she wants to work in that system. I’ve always said, if the system sucks, don’t work there and find one you like. It’s like getting hired at Disneyland and complaining you can’t wear your nose ring. It’s just how they do things. You can work at Starbuck’s with a nose ring, so go ahead.

To address the point about the discrepancy in pay when there is a banquet-type situation, I must say even I (as a higher paid waiter) have a difficult time reconciling that situation. It is a scenario where people are doing the exact same things: delivering food and drink, cleaning, resetting. It is unfair to pay a busser less of the tip pool just because the waiters ‘outrank’ them. My day job, Michael’s, handles this fairly. When server ‘skills’ are not called upon for a banquet-type job, bussers are cut in for full shares. When server ‘skills’ are required, they don’t use bussers at all – so no tip for the busser.

Which leaves us with the emotional heart of Xavier’s comment. It just doesn’t seem fair that they should work so hard compared to the waiters and make so little. And that further, working extra hard does not seem to result in any extra pay.

This is the sadness of most laborers. And waiters are laborers too.

Most managers I’ve worked with have not impressed me with how hard they work. Yes, they all put in more hours, but those are desk hours, chatting up customer hours, walking guests to their tables hours. And that’s when they’re working, not sitting in the bar with their buddy having a scotch, or smoking in the office with their feet up on the desk. General managers at big (and small) restaurants make six figures a year. And they don’t all work “hard.”

Men and women making widgets in factories work hard and earn $40,000 a year. While a salesman selling them flies around the country, staying in fine hotels, eating on the company’s dime, driving a company car, and earns $200,000 a year.

My take is that specialized positions are rightfully rewarded with more money. There are workers in that factory who could do the same or better job of selling as that salesman. But by far, most of them couldn’t.

There are bussers who could (and eventually will) be good waiters, but most of them can’t.

I used the salesman analogy for a reason. Waiters are the salesmen of the company. Even a waiter who doesn’t know how to up-sell or pitch an expensive bottle of wine in the right way to the right person can do an effective enough job. This is because he has or has learned, the skill of communicating with the guest.

The sales paradigm in restaurants is unlike most other businesses. Customers don’t accept your pitch, your data, your fine personality, and then go back to their office and hash it out (pun not intended) with the boss before making a decision. They make their decisions right then.

And then . . . and then, your company (the restaurant) has to deliver the goods right away. Not take the order and deliver in 5 to 10 days.

This is why it’s so hard, as a waiter, to break into serious restaurants. There is an essential part of the skill set that is being able to connect with the customer so he/she knows exactly what you mean and what you offer. And the other side of that – equally important – is that you in return understand exactly what the customer has communicated to you about what he/she expects.

There are a lot of people, and unfortunately a lot of waiters, who fail miserably here. And they are simply dullards, or high, or both. For these waiters to have gotten the job in the first place, they must have been way overachieving during their interviews.

And then there’s another contingent. Treading lightly, I qualify that in my own career, 95% of my bussers have been Latino. Most of them have had good English – that is, good enough to converse with me somewhat in English. But being generous, I’d characterize only about 10% as being capable of detailed, nuanced communication in English. Again, this is the sample from my career in Southern and Northern California.

There is a large factor of public relations in the job of waiting tables. Being able to shoot the shit with people, being able to detect subtle verbal clues as to their demeanor or true intentions, is very important. It is the big difference in saving a table that is ‘on the fence’ about whether they’re pissed off or not. It’s the difference in knowing the dude is in a bad mood and his second cocktail needs to come before you do anything else. It’s the difference in knowing that never mind what she said it, how she said it actually means she wants it this way.

And then there’s the exactitude of the communications. When you’re making a sale that has to be delivered as expected in 20 minutes, you need the ability to be very precise in your communication. Imagine a salad order where the guy wants romaine only not the mixed, his Ranch dressing (a substitute) light, the tomatoes chopped but not tossed with the salad, add anchovies but on the side, and the chicken needs to be blackened in the pan and not on the broiler. Yes, these nuances can be learned as they have been by most waiters, but without a total command of the English language, that salad will probably not come out the way the guest communicated.

I’m obviously heading in the direction of that oft-heard statement: ‘If you hate bussing tables so much, then get a job as a waiter.’

It’s not just my opinion, it’s borne out in the real world – most bussers would not make good waiters. However, as readily evident in Xavier’s prose, he’s got a good command of the language. And he claims to have a strong work ethic, and a well-developed sense of ethics in general. I have no doubt if he so desires, he will be able to get a food serving job, and thrive in it.

His friend, doing the bare minimum and grumbling about it all the way, however, is doomed. Even in the unlikely circumstance that he has adequate English communication skills, his shitty attitude and unremarkable work will never inspire a manager to promote him to waiter (or even expediter). The stink of his shitty attitude would also raise the hackles of ‘fresh meat’ managers were he to apply for server jobs at other restaurants. That’s why Lencho hasn’t been able to get another job since leaving the Prime Rib joint.

Xavier stated that doing ‘extra’ hard work doesn’t result in any more than the same prescribed percentage tip as normal. That’s too bad – he’s in a bad restaurant. I don’t know how common it is, but it’s definitely not unusual for waiters to kick down extra when their busser is kicking ass.

What do I do? I deal out extra, but not tons. Maybe I’m cheap, but I reward good bussing by rounding up come tip-out time. Using the previous numbers, if my busser was busting ass, I’d make that $56 tip $60. The macro aspect of the house should be remembered too – as managers are always telling waiters. If excellent work is being done, that will result in higher tips for the waiters, which of course means more for the bussers because they are tipped on a percentage.

So finally, my advice for Xavier is to keep up his good attitude and work ethic. But don’t just wait to be recognized by management as ‘waiter material.’ Badger the managers regularly about the desire to be promoted. Likewise, go out and try to get a serving job somewhere else – lying as much as necessary about previous serving experience. (That’s how I got my first waiting job.)

About waiternotes

I'm a waiter in a couple of fine dining restaurants.

13 responses »

  1. busboy get pay minimum wages and server gets between $4 and $5 dollars an hr so busser and up getting pretty good amount by the end of the week and remember a lot of them are very lazy too and server and up doing there job!!

    Reply
    • I am a busser (female) at a very upscale, fine-dining restaurant, and we do not make minimum wage; we make $3.68 on the hour. I find the situation to be the same at my restaurant as what is described here. The average ring for each server is one to two thousand a night because it is a very expensive restaurant; each server makes between two and four hundred a night. As a busser, I make between thirty and sixty dollars a night (tops)! And as a busser, I do: waters, bread, all pre-bussing, drink orders, refills, bussing/resetting, coffees, and food running for the servers.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the comment, Mimi. It sounds like this is the way the management wants the restaurant to run. Because, check it out: they have scheduled enough bussers to do all these things for their waiters. Now, if they felt differently, they could just as easily schedule more waiters and fewer bussers. The same job would get done – only, waiters would be doing more of the things that you currently do. In that world, waiters might be making $150-300 a night (smaller stations and lower sales per waiter), with bussers making perhaps $50-80 a night.

        Make no mistake. This is a value judgement the owners/management have made. They WANT their waiters and bussers compensated as they are. Because they could easily change the balance at no extra cost to themselves, as both waiters and bussers earn the lowest possible hourly pay. Their reasons for this value judgement could be many. That’s another article.

        Thanks again for writing!

  2. This and your last post shows your bigotry. First, busboys are not necessarily Hispanics or immigrants. Some of us are students trying to make ends meet. Bussing is also a lot harder work than serving tables and makes a lot less. Trust me, I’ve been a waiter for almost 2 years and am now a busboy for the past 9 months or so ever since the staff convinced the management to go with server-busser system instead of having servers bus their own tables. Second, your so-called ‘skill’ of a waiter is way overplayed. It is just excuse waiters used so management won’t promote the busboys. They don’t want to share and dilute their tips. They also want to keep the good busboys working for them instead, and would lobby for management to hire a new and inexperience server (usually one of their friends) when there is opening for a server instead of promoting the busboy who they know was a good waiter before.

    Reply
  3. Eric, I feel I took care to point out that the ethnicity of bussers (and back-of-house staff, for that matter) is mostly Hispanic *where I work*. It is different in many other places. Much of my post on my dick of a busser dealt with that particular busser. However, the first busser I had at that job was a ‘white boy.’ And he sucked even worse. Now, I’ve got another white boy busser, and he’s great. I’m not being bigoted. I’m just evaluating my help.

    Your point about management (and waiters) wanting to keep good bussers working in their current position, rather than roll the dice with someone new, is a good one. It happens everywhere in business, from secretaries to factory workers to restaurant hostesses: when someone is truly good in their job, people ‘above’ them usually don’t want to change a good situation if they can avoid doing so. Kind of a glass ceiling thing.

    I deliberately titled the post ‘Why Can’t Busboys Become Waiters?’ because it hit harder, but I think a closer reading will show I’m quite even-handed about whether they can or not.

    Things are relative. When I talk about communication and salesmanship, that naturally has more importance some places than others. My point of view comes from somewhat high-end restaurant sales. If another restaurant has people ordering one ham sandwich after another, with only sodas, coffees, and iced teas – then it probably doesn’t matter as much. Now, a great waiter vs. an ineffectual waiter could make a significant difference, but the stakes are much lower so, again, it probably doesn’t matter.

    Lastly, your personal situation makes me wonder why you were demoted to busser after being a waiter? And why you haven’t been able to fight back up to waiter when you clearly already have experience doing that job?

    Either way, thank you for your comments. And keep plugging away and improving to get back to the waiter position.

    Reply
  4. As a busser, I personally believe that going from a waiter to a busser is not a “demotion”, both are labor jobs that require little skill. Yes, a waiter has to know how to smile and ‘kiss ass’ but a busser has to have the ability to communicate effectively with host as well as guest needing assistance. Furthermore, the busser is required to have more physical ability if a push-cart is not allowed inside the restuarant. I have worked in nearly every part of a restaurant in 5 years of experience, besides managment (which I’m prepairing to become an intern right now). Being a waiter is not a special or higher ranking job and I personally believe anyone who can smile and write is capable of waiting. If you would like to pitch an expensive bottle of wine (that’s not going to help your paycheck anyways) then you would evaluate the speech, age, and appearance of the person to see if it’s even someone capable of affording such a bottle (also if the person is on a date because the man wants to look like he has something) then ask if he would be interested in some wine, if so say that you recomend $blah blah blah$ and if he takes the bite, great! This way you don’t seem pushy and still get tipped well. That’s not hard. If you can’t evaluate the social class of a person then you have no social skills which are required in nearly any job you work in. Currently I am a busser because I have to go through the ‘motions’ of the store (Cracker Barrel) in order to become a management intern. You have to learn each position if you would like to manage it. Also, your stereotype basically saying bussers are ignorant is incorrect. If you think I’m ignorant, you’ve lost it. I own and run a small business myself and have employes who work for me to do so, however, there’s only so much you can do in a custom knife making business so I want to expand my career. I don’t work for minimum wage though, I can tell you that.

    Reply
  5. I feel that your generalization of bussers is correct to a certain extent, but that they only work the bare minimum because they dont get any extra money. I think that applies to the human race in general; people work harder for an incentive. However i do feel that bussers are treated poorly. I personally am a busser at a resturaunt with 50 tables and have had to buss them on busy friday and saturday nights with no help. I averaged a table every minuite or so and literally sprinted to and from the kitchen. Do i get extra money? No, i get taken advantage of and am expected to buss 20 tops by myself, which i do in two trips with no bussing tray. For four hours of work i averaged 20 dollars while the waiters made 100+. No matter how hard i work i fail to make even minimum wage on some nights. I also find that you generize bussers as unintelligent an elitist point of view. I consider my command of the english language to be better than the average waiter, but they are somehow above me? I mean cmon lets be honest, we both work as unskilled laborers serving people. I have to make sure waiters are not pissed so they can make better tips in order to earn an extra 2 dollars on my tipout. But i dont really care anymore because i will probably become a waiter to pay for college.

    Reply
    • Thanks! It’s always nice to get a well-written comment. Nothing much you say is wrong. I took pains to state that I was speaking from MY experience in both the details and the generalizations I wrote. And you prove to be one of the exceptions I acknowledged. The parts about bussers working their asses off for far less money? That’s the way of the world. Is it “fair” that an average construction worker gets $15 an hour working his ass off shoveling dirt, while his foreman sits there ordering people around and gets twice that? While the owner of the construction company is having a martini at lunch making another $100,000 deal? While Donald Trump, whose name will be on the building, doesn’t get speck of dirt under his fingernails and yet nets millions on the deal? Fair is not the issue, because it just is.

      Reply
  6. Your high-and-mighty attitude towards migrant busboys is hilarious, as is your salesman analogy (but I won’t bother with that). The way you talk down about the Mexicans you work with almost makes you sound like someone important, and not just one of the thousands of burnout food servers in America-which is what you appear to be after all.

    Reply
  7. I’ve been a server for about 8 years now. The place has about 170 seats with outdoor patio.
    During season is busy and we have 6 servers and one busser,7 friday and saturday with 2 bussers.
    There is front dining-32 seats, private room-12 seats.
    Middle bar area-20 seats.
    Middle dinning-32 seats.
    And back dining-up to 45-48 seats.
    We sort of have stations but generally have to run and have tables outside or on the other side of the restaurant.
    Coctails are picked up at the bar.
    Soda , tea, coffee, kids drinks, in middle of the restaurant at wait station.
    Salads from,salad/cook person, soups in back of the kitchen ourselves, also we have to bake bread ourselves as needed, serving water and prebuss tables. When is busy, we have hostess,otherwise we have to seat our tables. In the back we have to refill jugs of water and tea as there is no plumbing.
    Just imagine having table of 8-15 and several others, serve water bread collect dirty dishes, package peoples leftovers,which I think busser should at least help.We process CC, gift card and coupons.We have 3 computers now, thank God.2 in middle and one in back. Had 2 for 6 years so you can imagine how “nice” it was to try order things withs 6 of us, nevermind new people!
    Bussers basically only clean tables after. We have to keep asking for help and get yelled at by boss that it isn’t his/hers job.
    And we set tables and roll silverware too.
    Every now and then we have busser who does more and help roll silverware too to help out.
    Sales are not that great average 7-9 hundred b/c we have early birds all night and free coupons.
    We have to tip busser 2% of the sales. Bartender I tip on bar sales only b/c sometimes I have only 20-30 bucks in sales, other times 150.
    It is very stressfull to work there and not organized but it is a job and pays bills.
    Plus I have my own customers so sometimes I get really great tips.
    I do have regulars that tip 4 bucks thou too. I guess you take the good and bad.
    I am former chef and this is one diffuclt place to work in, but I am making same money for working 5-7 hours so I shut up.
    I would love to own restaurant.
    It would be nice to set it up so it would be easier to work there and with people who know their duties.

    Reply
    • That sounds like a really tough work situation. My math has your busser making (all things being equal) the same or more than the waiters – but less on weekends. Though in the situation you describe it sounds like he/she is working every bit as feverishly as you are. That’s a lot of tables for one busser, even with those limited duties! The same advice I’ve given others in these comments applies: Although that monetary arrangement – busser vs. servers – is highly unusual, that’s just the way it is at your restaurant. You are free to go somewhere else and ply your trade.

      That’s certainly what I would do with your experience, and considering you have regulars who tip you well (as that implies you have your act pretty tight). Dress up really sharp, smile a lot, accentuate your talent for teamwork, and apply everywhere that has much higher check averages than your current place. If you just get into a restaurant where you’re selling $1200, even with a heavier tip out you’ll be making 50% more. And perhaps have a lighter workload to boot.

      Reply

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