February 11, 2003
Take It Out of My Tips
"Hi everyone. My name is Melanie and I'll be your waitress tonight. To answer your first questions, my accent is American. To answer your second, I don't agree with my president's actions. Everything else will work itself out as the night goes on. Now, who'd like to order a drink?"
It was Saturday night and I was working the upstairs party room at Volare. The guest of honor was Michael and it was his 27th birthday. He'd assembled about 20 of his nearest and dearest. The room was packed. Being on the bottom rung of the seniority ladder at a restaurant has its disadvantages. This is one of them. The upstairs room, besides its undesirable location at the end of a LONG flight of stairs, is always hot, packed tightly with people, and hard to maneuver. Big parties, though not necessarily more demanding than smaller parties, are notoriously bad for last minute additions. Just when you think you can sit for a second, the one person who didn't want a drink the first four times you asked decides they'd like a beer. Did I mention all the food and drinks are located downstairs?
At one point during the night, my aisle was blocked with presents. One of the guests in the far corner had asked for some sweet chili sauce and I couldn't reach around to give it to him. I handed it to Michael and asked him to pass it down. "No worries, he said. "That will be five dollars." "No worries," I said. "Take it out of my tip." One of his guest interrupted - "Oh, we don't tip here," she said. "I know," I said. "I figured I was safe." Everyone laughed as I headed downstairs for yet another quick "addition."
In the US, waitressing and working a big party is usually a benefit. Though it's hard work, you are almost always rewarded with a nice big tip. But here, tipping is not ingrained into the culture, except at some of the nicest restaurants. As one of my coworkers said, about 30% of the people tip well (well being defined at around 5-10%), about 30% might leave the change, and the rest don't tip at all. Though I know I sound like I am complaining, it's not quite as bad as it seems. Waitresses are also paid better than their US counterparts. Though it varies depending on location and type of restaurant, in my neighborhood about $10-$12 per hour is pretty standard. As you might expect however, service is not up to US standards. When you know you most likely won't get a tip, there is not much incentive to provide the perfect dining experience. :)
Ending a night with good tips depends as much on your coworkers tables as it does on your own. While in the US a server is designated a certain table to manage for the night, in Australia, the whole serving team manages all the tables at the restaurant and then splits the tips at the end (after tipping out 30% to the kitchen). So, while you take the order at table 10, you might not see them again until dessert, if at all - while at the same time, you'll deliver meals to tables you never saw before that moment. This took some getting use to, and a lot of double questions to customers until I got the hang of things. While this type of "zone serving" has some advantages (and once you know the system is easy to understand), I have to say I prefer the US way better. Besides being easier to know what needs to be done next for a table, you have the time to establish a relationship (ie flirt) with the customers, which usually allows for a bigger tip. In general, I've found that establishing a relationship with the table does help when it comes to tips. :)
That night I was pleasantly surprised with a better than average tip - $8.60. Of course, the bill came out to over $500 dollars. Still, I was pretty excited. Mostly because my expectations had been set especially low following the previous Saturday's party - a 20 person hen's night. That night, I had set my expectations pretty high.
For those unfamiliar with a hen's night, it is the Australian (and British) version of bachelorette party. As it was wedding season, we'd had quite a few coming through the restaurant, but that night's group took the cake. They had been drinking quite a bit throughout the evening and getting pretty rowdy, and it was well into the night when the hen's best friend pulled me aside and told me to keep my eye out for their stripper. Stripper? No one had told me there would be a stripper. This was going to get interesting.
About 10 minutes later the stripper showed up. "Hi, mine name is Chaz," he said. Of course - what else would it be? I showed him to his room to get "ready" and went back into the party to get the hen's friend. By now the group had moved all the tables to the sides of the room to create a dancing space - and were they every dancing! Abba was on full blast - and had been looping for at least two full CD cycles. The friend followed me out to talk to Chaz. I was clearing dishes but over heard him say, "...and don't worry about the grandma - even though I'm going to take off my G-string, I have another one on underneath.." Of course.
By the time he came out, I hardly recognized him. He had on at least 10 layers of clothing and was dressed like a drunken bum. He handed me his CD and asked me to hit play when he came in. No problem. I have to say I was a bit intrigued by the whole thing. I'd never been to a bachelorette party where there was a stripper and I was curious as to his, ahem, "act." However, it was not to be. Just when things started to get good, Martin asked me to help out downstairs and leave clearing the dishes until after Chaz left. Damn.
The party lasted until late, and the women were the last customers to leave the restaurant. As they left many of them called out to me. "Bye Melanie!" "You were the best - thanks for everything!" "Good luck on your travels!" "Thanks!" The hen had to be guided out of the restaurant, though she could - mostly - walk on her own. Martin, the owner, was sitting at the bar and watched them leave. "How much did they tip you?" he said, noticing the wad of cash in my hands. "One dollar, twenty cents," I replied, stunned. "How much was the bill?" he asked. I looked down at the total. "Over $600.00," I replied. "Australians don't really tip," he said.