Why Some Servers (Deserve To) Make More Than Others

Subtitle: How to Make $100,000 a year as a professional restaurant server.

A lawyer once asked me about the fairness of a server getting tipped $2 (20%) for a $10 meal at a diner, while another gets tipped $20 for a $100 meal at another restaurant.

“They do the same work, don’t they?” he asked.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in a month,” I snapped.” What’s the difference between a lawyer who charges $100/hour and one who charges $500/hour?

“The $500/hour lawyer is a lot better than the $100/hour lawyer,” he pointed out, “and that’s important when you’re negotiating million dollar deals and settlements.”

“Glad you understand that.  Now what’s the difference between a first baseman who gets paid a million versus counterpart who makes 10 million, assuming same free agency scenario?”

“One is a lot more productive, has a track record of being 10 times more productive. I get your point, but is one server really 10 times more productive than average server?”

“Absolutely,” I replied.


Anyone who thinks servers get paid simply to take orders and bring and clear food either has  limited dining experience or doesn’t pay attention to surroundings, especially other people.

Take a blue-collar fine dining experience at El Gaucho, Seattle’s priciest steakhouse (my favorite).  Many of their customers are spending up to a week’s paycheck to celebrate something, perhaps a 10th anniversary, a kid’s graduation, a promotion.  These folks rarely — maybe twice a year — experience fine dining.  When they’re dropping $100 bucks per person, and total cost may be their week’s paycheck, their experience better be fucking perfect, like once in a lifetime special.  Anyone really think that some friendly, polite, and obedient 20 year old who thinks Red Lobster is fine dining can ensure that their experience will be perfect, that they’ll go home thinking that that was a week’s paycheck well spent?  No fucking way.

Servers at El Gaucho spend many years working and learning their way up to their position, where top servers can make over $100,000 a year.  Not only have they acquired over many years deep and broad knowledge about food and wine so that customers can consult them when building their meal, they have heightened sense of awareness about people.  They can sense when the table of 6 is about to spend a week’s paycheck on dinner to celebrate a special event and will adjust the service accordingly.  They’ll be careful to not embarrass customer by making him feel cheap if he doesn’t order top shelf vodka on his wife’s special day.  They choose their words and phrases carefully.  They can tell when there’s slight dissatisfaction and will resolve the problem without making the customer feel or act like a high maintenance bitch.  They’re in tune with the rhythm and pace of a table and will work with the kitchen to ensure food comes out at just the right time.  They can make or break a million dollar business deal, even a marriage.  Can you imagine how much better sex will be between a couple if server doesn’t inadvertently make him look like a high maintenance princess cheapskate and instead makes him look like the Man?  Could it save a marriage?

When I’m at El Gaucho, I usually let the server pick out the wine.  I word request carefully, using code words like “value,” never any mention of cost limit.  Not once has a server screwed me over with a $2000 bottle of wine (and they have lots of those).  Always under $100, and they preface recommendation by telling us that it’s one of their favorites esp. when paired with yada yada.  They make me look good.  Most men, deep down, are scared little boys.  Once in awhile, we want to appear like men.  Good servers can do that for us.

There are many other little things these top servers do that go unnoticed and unappreciated, maybe because we take the service they provide for granted or we’re just too self-absorbed to notice their dedication to their craft and their deep sense of responsibility for the customer.  Good service has NOTHING to do with being friendly, polite and obedient (we make sure our baristas are neither polite nor obedient).  Good service is about being responsible.  Most servers never make it to a place like El Gaucho, not because they’re not friendly, polite, and obedient enough or because they were never given the chance, it’s because they don’t have the sense of responsibility for customers, the business, and their colleagues necessary to succeed at top establishments.  Sadly, most don’t realize their shortcomings (inflated self-esteem), making it even more difficult for them to acquire the self-confidence, skills, and attitude necessary to advance their career.

I’m not suggesting that the pricier the menu, the better the servers.  Definitely not true.  Eva Restaurant in Tanglewood offers excellent service.  Meal there costs less than one at Outback Steakhouse.  Service at Outback Steakhouse, based on 2 experiences, is amateurish.  But in general, great servers have many more options available to them — from casual bistros like Eva Restaurant to steakhouses like El Gaucho to classical fine dining at a place like Herbfarm.   Servers at Outback Steakhouse have reached their career limit and are rarely able to cross-over to more lucrative positions because good restaurants, regardless of price-level, don’t hire those from bad restaurants.  Too many bad habits to correct.

(Apparently I’m wrong about Outback being more expensive than Eva Restaurant.  But point stands).

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