Lynn Robertson works as a waitress at Old 82 in downtown Columbus.
Her day starts when she gets up to take her children to school. When she gets back home, she gets ready for her job and is usually at the restaurant by 10:30 a.m. She immediately begins setting the restaurant up for lunch, which begins at 11 a.m.
“I like it because I get to meet new people every day and I also get to see the regulars,” Robertson said.
Robertson is one of eight wait staff at Old 82. They are a full service staff and Chris Breland, one of the restaurant’s managers, expects customers to tip them between 15 and 20 percent of the bill.
Breland added that this restaurant standard has changed over the years.
“It used to be 10 to 15 (percent),” he said.
While most customers at Old 82 do leave the expected amount, not all customers have changed their tipping habits with the standards. This can be hard on servers.
“We’re living on tips,” John Allen, who has been working in restaurants for over 30 years, said.
Allen has worked at Old 82 for three weeks, having recently moved to Columbus to pursue a masters in education at Mississippi University for Women. Before that he worked at fine dining restaurants in Chattanooga. Allen said one of the things he loves about his job is the trust a customer places in him, whether by requesting to sit in his section, as several did when he worked in Chattanooga, or by asking him about the food. He added that a 20 percent tips always makes him extremely happy.
“We make $2.13 an hour and we work really hard,” Allen said.
The median hourly pay of a server in the United States in 2012 was $8.92, about $18,540 for the year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The federal minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour, according to the Department of Labor. That wage is several dollars less than the federally mandated $7.25 for other employees. Unlike some other states, Mississippi does not have a separate minimum wage for tipped employees. Theoretically, a server in Mississippi could go home at the end of the day having made no more than the federally mandated $2.13 an hour.
Fortunately, for servers in Columbus, that does not actually happen.
Breland said that on average, customers at Old 82 tip between 14 and 15 percent.
Employees at Thai By Thai bragged about their customers.
Kimberly Haynes, who has worked in the food industry off and on for 10 years, said her customers at the restaurant’s new location on Main Street leave some of the best tips she’s ever gotten. Most of them tend to be between $15 and $20, though the best she ever got was a $24 tip at the bar.
“If it keeps going like this, I won’t have to get an extra job,” Haynes said, adding that that was not always the case in other restaurants where she worked.
Chef and owner Kannika Carley employees a handful of wait staff who take orders and explain specialties, in addition to delivering food. Like Breland, Carley expects her customers to leave a tip of 15 to 20 percent of the bill. She said most of the time, customers tip very well, though not always.
Staff at Thai By Thai and Old 82 also get to keep all the tip money they receive for customers, which is not always the case in restaurants. Sometimes servers have to pool their tips or split them with other staff. According to Breland, some restaurants also deduct money from a server’s tip to pay transaction fees to credit card companies if a customer pays with a card, though the amount deducted is usually only about 5 cents on every dollar.
“We see that as the responsibility of the business not the server,” said Breland.
Thai by Thai floor manager Jayime Mathis has been working in restaurants for about 15 years. She typically arrives at work between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. before the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. She leaves around 2:30 p.m. to pick up her daughter from school and then she goes back to work until closing.
According to Mathis, the best thing a waiter can do to make good tips is to be happy. Usually when a server is in a good mood and smiles, the customers will be happy, which should result in a good tip.
According to Robertson, that can be one of the more challenging aspects of her job. If a waiter is having a hard day, he or she still needs to put on a smile.
“Sometimes making that effort actually makes it all better,” she said. “Other days it just seems impossible.”
She added that it was always great when a large group of customers leave a big tip even when the restaurant is extremely busy.
“It’s always nice because you know they see you’re doing your best and they appreciate you,” she said
Allen wishes more people worked in the restaurant business at some point during their lives because many customers don’t realize what all full service wait staff do. From getting in early, to getting the restaurant ready, to remembering new menus and specials, in addition to old recipes — more goes into it than the casual observer might realize. When customers leave a low tip or no tip at all, it makes Allen wonder what he did wrong.
Still, he says the best thing to do is keep a positive attitude and move on to helping the next customer.
“The next table’s going to be better,” Allen said.
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