Demoted To Busser

Rachael wrote (edited):

I’m a server and without my consent our restaurant decided each server would have to be scheduled as a busboy. The woman making the schedule says she’s splitting the shifts but I have seen a ‘top’ waitress only have one bussing shift in one week and haven’t seen her do it since then. … this has been going on for a few months, and … I’ve only seen her do it once, while … I’ve been scheduled to do it 3 times, and this week I was not given any serving shifts. I feel that this is somehow not something I should have to deal with since I was hired as a server, not a bus boy. Please help!

Thanks for your question, Rachael.

I had a similar experience to yours (though yours is decidedly worse).

Then, I was being forced to work banquet parties (something I was not hired to do) vs. regular floor-serving. Admittedly more a lateral move than being demoted to busser.

It’s not comforting, but if you brainstorm for other professions where workers can be shuttled back and forth between positions, you will come up with lots of them. If your boss in the sales department of XYZ Widgets decides to move you to telemarketing, you kinda just have to do it. Likewise if she shifts you to a crappy territory. Regular companies do it all the time and it is framed this way:

‘We’re moving you to <blank> at a <blank> cut in pay. You can have the job if you like. If not, we’re going to have to part ways.’

You have three options:

  1. Do/say nothing and just suck it up, grateful for (or bitter about) the job you have.
  2. Get another job and then quit your current place. Very few restaurants practice the BS you are encountering.
  3. Sit down with someone high up in management and have a calm, reasoned, cooperative conversation about your objections. Including offering a suggestion to fix things.

I recommend #3. But be prepared to find another job. They won’t fire you as long as you continue to cover the busser shifts, yet if they don’t change the system you will be miserable and resentful.

What I didn’t know when I wrote my post, was the fallout from my confrontation with management. The rest of that holiday season – and in fact forevermore – I was not asked to work another banquet. I was lucky. Management took to heart my considerations and objections and apparently decided I was right.

I don’t expect you to have the same luck.

You could try making a stand based on the principle you were hired to be a server, and you chose the job because of that. You could, by all means, play the money card for sympathy – tell them the cut in income makes it impossible to pay your rent, child care, DUI fines, whatever.

As for possible solutions, the most obvious is hire (more?) bussers! Or what about eliminating the position and having all waiters bus their own tables, fill their own waters, bring their own bread, etc? That way no one gets preferential treatment like the ‘top’ server you mention. Or start a tip pooling arrangement where you do cycle through busboy shifts, but the busser position gets the same cut as the waiters?

I’m not hopeful about any of those solutions besides hiring bussers, and I’m guessing that’s not on the table (pardon the pun). So you should reconcile yourself to working at a different restaurant if nothing happens from your communication efforts.

However, before you take any steps, consider whether it will be wise to change jobs.

I don’t know what kind of money you make (i.e., how desirable your serving job is). It matters because if you are pulling $300 a server shift along with $100 on the busser shift, that would still add up to a great bank deposit at the end of a 5 shift week. Your pride might feel better in another job where you didn’t suffer the indignity of bussing tables, but it’d be a hollow victory at $150 a shift.

On the other hand, if you’re in an average-paying server job, then just get out and into another average one (or better!). Just don’t quit till you’re out of training at the new restaurant.

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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.)