Even at the best restaurants, servers don't make that kind of money

Denise Rouleau
Denise Rouleau, artist and former waitress and restaurant manager.
Submitted photo

Gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer says restaurants shouldn't have to pay waiters and waitresses the minimum wage, because those employees get tips. He said some servers in St. Paul make more than $100,000 a year.

I used to work as a server at a highly rated fine-dining restaurant in Minneapolis. I was also a manager for one of the largest and most successful restaurant corporations in Minneapolis.

Even at what was considered the top restaurant in town, the servers at my establishment made around half the $100,000 that was reportedly earned by those few St. Paul-area servers. Even at the height of a server's career -- and yes, it is a career, requiring extensive food, wine and service knowledge -- most servers will not come close to such a salary.

When a guest tips a server, the server by no means receives the whole sum. We pass a percentage along to bartenders, wait assists and sometimes cooks. At our particular restaurant, a portion of our guaranteed tip for party reservations also goes to the management and cooks.

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Servers cannot get away with concealing their tips from Uncle Sam these days --especially with almost 100 percent of our tips being paid with credit cards. (By the way, we have to pay the credit card fee for the tip portion.) Even when servers declare 100 percent of their tips they still worry about being audited by the IRS because their credit card tip total is more than what they walked home with, after "tipping out" all the support staff who aren't under the same scrutiny. Also, some restaurants (illegally) make servers declare tips based on the server's sales for the day -- even if they never made that amount.

There are a lot of ups and downs in the service industry and not much of a safety net. Please do not take the following points to be complaints about the service industry, but the facts of this profession and lifestyle:

Some weeks I have been scheduled to work five days but have worked only one or two, due to a lack of reservations. Are we paid for those days? Can we make other plans, or work another job? No, we have to wait and see. Most of the time we are told right before our shift.

Some days, we are sent home after a few hours without having had any customers. We do not get tipped for those days, so we count on our minimum wage.

While other businesseses and professions offer health care, retirement, and vacation benefits to their employees, most servers NEVER receive these benefits and have to pay and save for them on their own. Our minimum wage helps defer those costs. If the minimum wage changes for servers, then they should be entitled to health care, retirement and vacation benefits from their employers.

Even if these supposed six-figure servers were fortunate enough to be compensated so well (I would like to hear from them personally), their financial success is being portrayed as somehow undeserved. Theirs is by no means an easy job. Like those in any other profession, they have earned every penny by working their way up the service industry ladder. Isn't that how it's done, and applauded, in most professions?

Maybe people don't see being a server as a true profession. How many servers are complimented for their expertise, only to be asked what they "really plan on doing?"

During this financial crisis, people are throwing out dangerous ideas with little understanding of the reality of a situation. Lowering the minimum wage requirement seems to me a lazy way to cut costs. A restaurant that can't afford to pay its staff minimum wage probably has other underlying operational problems.

This is a tough, competitive industry requiring not just talent and personality, but a savvy knowledge of the restaurant business. Many restaurants fail because they lack the management and marketing expertise to stay afloat. People would be surprised by the slim profit margins of restaurants. The labor cost of servers is just one expense among many.

Even if this proposal does not go through, these uninformed claims about tips are putting crazy notions into people's heads about "wealthy" servers. Most of them are struggling like everyone else these days to get by.


Denise Rouleau, Minneapolis, is an artist.