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.)

Something In The Air

A furious day at Michael’s on Friday. Not me furious, as in my grumpy post about Restaurant Overstaffing, but furious business.

It’s funny that ideas and thoughts are just out there in the air . . . Have you ever had what you thought was a great idea for a movie or TV show, or a simple great invention, or just a new feature for an existing product – only to find out days or weeks later that exact thing in the marketplace? You thought of it on your own, yet obviously the parties bringing this idea out had been working on it well before you came up with the concept.

For some reason, after my post complaining about the overstaffing at lunch vs. dinner at Michael’s (which I concluded by saying I was ‘this close’ to having a sit-down with management on the subject), the next three days bore out exactly the result I was hoping for. And of course I never had the chance to talk to management about my objections.

Each day, management ran the floor with a small staff, forgoing the on-call server. Each day, we had relatively solid business – nothing enough to crash the system, but enough so we all felt busy enough – and the servers on the floor got another 30% more covers than has been usual. Instead of $40-60 days, we had $75-90 days. I was lucky each day, as I got some prime tables. I made $150, $155, and $194.

The last of these days, Friday, though, was a crusher. I had 29 covers, most of them in one seating (tables of 5, 8, 4, and 4). If you recall the last post, us lunch servers had been averaging 9 a shift. But it ended up proving my point magnificently . . . as if management really knew my exact ‘point.’

It was like a Christmas rush day. There were three of us on the floor, and we were all taxed about as far as we could go. We got some life-saving help from available management in running food or at least expediting it. We were totally selfless for each other regarding food-running. I was nowhere to be seen for entrée-delivery of several of my tables. Likewise, after checking back, I returned to several tables to find them cleared and crumbed. I did the same kinds of things for the other two waiters whenever I had an extra moment or hand – including refilling waters and drinks.

And we all got out of it with no more than the normal hiccups, and zero major situations.

Here’s where it proved my point: This was a blockbuster day for three servers to handle, but we did it. In other words, we ran into the absolute outside expectations for customer traffic and we still got through just fine.

I don’t warrant going with three waiters in a situation where you know business is going to be like that. It was hard on everybody, and things could have gone wrong. In that case where management has a pretty damn good idea, then bring on another waiter. But as I said, we saw the enemy, and we still beat him.

Meantime, I hope they’ve learned something here. Unless there are a tremendous number of reservations on the books, just let us go with what we have. There is excess production capacity here.

* * * * *

I haven’t written much about Carney’s here lately. A couple of things:

After our amazing hot streak from January through part of April, things have cooled off. Some weekends have been $120, $150 (Fri-Sat). Some have been $120, $185). But we haven’t been hitting $200+ each day like we were. (For those of you in other parts of the country, things are different where I live in California. I’ve discussed it before. Rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is about $1800 a month. A small 2-bedroom 1-bath house would be $2200. Mortgage on same house, even at today’s prices and interest rates and with 20% down payment would be $2900 a month. My own mortgage is almost $4000 a month.)

Ciera is always having the best time and the worst time. She’s flying to Vegas with a new boyfriend for two days, and she’s making a deal with her landlord to pay her rent weekly so she won’t get evicted.

She really hit a bad deal a couple weeks ago. Her cousin, who was like a sister to her when she lived back in Chicago, was part of a murder/suicide tragedy. The cousin had even been out for a week’s visit with Ciera only a couple of months earlier. The estranged husband killed her with a knife and then shot himself when he returned to his own home.

Of course, Carney tried to spin it as her own tragedy: ‘We have to cover her shifts so she can go back for the funeral. We just don’t know what we’re going to do . . .’

Ciera self-medicates religiously (actually, more than religiously) with pot-smoking and drinking. She usually portrays her travails in a kind of humorous, ‘what else can happen?’ manner. And it’s usually true. Hell, late rent, boyfriend-juggling, car trouble are part of living. And she understands she reaps what she sows, so most of the time she’s not bitter. She’s the kind of person who can have the most vile, screaming phone argument with a boyfriend, then hang up and start cheerfully making jokes about it.

But this. Her real vulnerability is pain and suffering. She always has between 3-7 dogs – all of them rescue animals. Kind of like her boyfriends, but I digress . . .

She has been understandably torn apart with this family disaster. Very sad. She went back for five days to grieve with her family and attend the funeral/wake. Because it involved a few shift-switches, Carney called it ‘her vacation.’

* * * * *

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t tip-off (pun intended) everyone to what I hope is the final game of the Los Angeles Lakers 2008-09 season today. Game Five, the Lakers lead the series 3-1 and can finish off the Orlando Magic today at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. If you don’t care, please root for the Lakers just because I’m asking you to.

Can’t wait till about 6:15 p.m., when I’ll fire up the Tivo (having buffered an hour or so of recorded game), shake up a New Amsterdam gin Martini, and watch it unfold.

Go Lakers!