Economy takes a bite out of tips for wait staff
Struggling restaurant servers are eager for a turnaround, and more tips
Fridays are slow for Jason Jakway, a bartender at Chili's at Bayside. Jakway, who has worked at the restaurant for more than two years said his income has taken a major hit from the economic slump.
He's not alone. When business is good, servers often make more than half their income in tips. But when consumers tighten their belts and cut back on nights on the town, those dependent on tipping feel the pain instantly because so much of their pay is tied directly to consumer demand.
``I'm not paying attention to the wage. I'm paying attention to the tips,'' said Socil Belleza, a waitress at Prezzo Restaurant and Martini Bar in Aventura.
Jakway said in good times he could make up to $400 on a weekend night. Now it has become difficult to buy gas and pay tolls to commute to Florida Career College, where he is studying network engineering. Two months ago he was forced to cut back on classes.
Restaurants experiencing slowdowns usually cut back on hours for the service staff, said Allen Susser, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Miami-Dade chapter. He said this at least allows those who are working to make money.
But business is so slow now that servers are scrambling to work more just to break even, said Wilson Vazquez, a bartender and waiter at Bayside's Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
``I'm hurting,'' he said. ``I've picked up more shifts than usual, worked double shifts, just to make what you would during a regular shift.''
Vazquez said his customers tip about as much as before, but there are fewer of them.
Many South Florida restaurants charge an automatic 15 percent gratuity on meals because in a tourism-driven economy, many patrons come from countries where tipping isn't customary.
But local custom can give way in a recession. ``Even Americans have been tipping less,'' said Veronica La Rosa, a waitress at Hofbräu München Beerhall on Lincoln Road. La Rosa said when she started last August, servers were making $3,000 a month in tips alone. That was during the slow season. But after the financial meltdown last fall, she said, business dropped off noticeably. ``This year, it's been so bad that the slow season was better,'' she said.
One Friday, she only waited five tables during her shift, and only one tipped more than the automatic 15-percent gratuity. La Rosa said that surcharge is split between the servers, busers, bartenders and hosts. Hofbräu München has cut overtime and started opening later in the day, she said.
``Everybody's fighting for more hours,'' said Sascha Perisic, CEO of the restaurant.
While the minimum hourly wage is $7.25 for most workers, tipped workers such as bartenders and waiters are paid a minimum of $4.23 because of a $3.02 credit for tips.
Peter Edouard, a buser at Prezzo, said he has noticed his 3-percent take on gratuities drop. While he makes the standard minimum wage, the waiters make the lower one for tipped workers. ``A lot of them have houses and bills to pay. It's harder for them,'' he said.
Another factor that may be depressing wait-staff pay: an oversupply of restaurants, according to a noted economist. Though taxable sales at Miami-Dade restaurants have actually grown on a year-to-year basis since January, restaurants are closing. There may be more local establishments than demand can support, said economist Tony Villamil, dean of the business school at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. ``Some may go out of business and some may be consolidated,'' he said.
Reduced consumer demand has forced restaurants to cut costs and pin hopes on luring customers with a host of specials, promotions and discounts.
While these deals can help fill the seats, they also mean lower tabs -- and therefore lower tips for the servers.
Hofbräu München has cut prices on its traditional liter-sized mugs of beer from $13 to $10 and instituted a 20 percent discount on meals before 4 p.m. Perisic said the restaurant has seen more customers on Tuesdays for the new all-you-can eat buffet.
Hope Thomas, Prezzo's manager, said the restaurant is trying new events to bring in a younger crowd that will help traffic at the bar. Thomas said the economic climate has made things difficult. ``Where people used to go out and spend $15 for lunch, now they're bringing their lunch,'' she said.
Ati Eskandari, a waitress at Prezzo, said the slump has changed the staff's expectations of a good night.
``Now if you make $100 a night, you're happy,'' she said.
``People were making two or three hundred before.''
Belleza said she still enjoys her job, but hopes to see more patrons. She said she's not sure when the economy will return to normal.
``Soon, I pray,'' she said.