Serving tables has lure of quick cash

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By Laura Hagan

 I have a love-hate relationship with being a server. 

I’ve worked in restaurants off and on since I was 16, as a hostess, a food runner and when I was old enough, a server. I worked during breaks in college and it was my full-time job the summer after I graduated from college and looked for a job as a reporter.

I love it because you always leave with cash in hand. The hours are pretty nice too – though random, because if it’s busy you stay later, if it’s dead you leave early. People are nice nine times out of 10 and as long as you’re doing things right, you can leave each table with a decent tip.

The cash is why I couldn’t stay away. It’s sure not the paychecks – servers earn a little more than $2 an hour. So when I moved back to the town I grew up in last year and moved into a nice apartment, complete with monthly bills plus student loan payments, I took on a part-time serving job. Just for weekends, at least, to make some extra cash. 

It wasn’t that I was broke. As I watched my odometer inch closer and closer to 100,000 miles, my dad suggested I start thinking about a new car. I bought furniture for my apartment and student loan payments went up.

It works out perfectly – my availability is strictly weekends, and that’s really the best time to work in a restaurant. Luckily I found a place not too far from home – the place I worked summers during in college – with a manager I already knew who graciously allowed me back despite a two-year absence. 

Yes it’s good to leave with cash, but the bad part is, you never know how much. If serving is your only income – which for a time, it was for me – it’s hard to predict when you’ll earn enough for rent, a student loan payment, the electric bill and even the slightest hint of a social life. 

If you work at a high-end restaurant, it has the potential to be easier. The food at those types of restaurants is more expensive, so your tips should be higher. Even at a family restaurant, if you have more than just tables of two, there’s a good chance you’ll make more than you would on a table of two. And, of course, if the food takes too long, something’s wrong with an order, or if you just have a bad attitude, chances are even though your tables are full, you’re not making much. 

If it’s a holiday, it’s good. I worked Valentine’s Day and the restaurant had a wait list for three hours. But it’s not always like that. There’s other factors that quickly fill a dining room – like if it’s a local restaurant, if the menu offers something pretty unique and if the restaurant airs an important basketball or football game.

While several other industries throughout the country have experienced hard times because of the state of the economy, I can’t tell where restaurants stand. You can’t judge recent weeks in Louisville for several reasons – Valentine’s Day, basketball season and an ice storm that left people without power. Before that, it was Christmas – and if they’re anywhere near shopping centers, restaurants are doing alright during the holidays.

I only work at the restaurant once or twice every other week or so. What I’ve seen is pretty good money for the amount of time I’m working, the number of tables I have and people just as happy and ordering what they did when the economy wasn’t in such bad shape. I recently served a group of eight people who ordered only four meals. Each of the couples split dinner and when I offered dessert, one man said, “We can’t afford it.”

In my interviews with businesses this week for our piece on the economy, one restaurant manager told me “It’s not as bad as people think,” and I have to agree. People still have to eat, and they’ll still want to go out and eat for whatever reason. Servers still won’t be able to know how much they’re going to make at the beginning of their shift, but like I said, it’s a love-hate relationship.

E-mail us about this column at: lhagan@oldhamera.com