Becoming a Server: Tips on How to Survive the Restaurant Life


These pink basketball uniforms were worn this past season against visiting Louisiana. 

Cheryl Nuzum

If there is one universal truth all college students have come to realize, it is simply this: life ain’t cheap. Tuition. Rent. Food. Even those blessed happy hour prices. It all manages to stack up and it can be a bit overwhelming in the pre-real world stage of our lives.
There are some of us who can be grateful to have parents provide for our living. There are others who have taken out enough student loans to turn a blissful blind eye until graduation. There is a third category though and if you’re one of the poor unfortunate souls stuck in it (or will be eventually), it’s time to start hunting for one of those minimum wage or $2.13 + tips part-timers.
If you happen to choose the latter, you’ll need a bit of advice:
Buy a pair of non-slip shoes.
Not all restaurants have dress codes, some aren’t very strict on them, and some have very basic guidelines such as “closed-toed, closed-heeled” and “solid black”. If the restaurant you work at cooks anything in grease, spend $25 at Walmart and buy yourself a pair of non-slip shoes. Otherwise you’ll be like me, who once dropped an entire party (6+ people) tray full of food. Not only did I bruise my ass, I also had to have the food remade backing the kitchen up, making my table wait longer and resulting in a very poor tip.
Automatic gratuity will become your best friend
You’ll learn which customers to use it on and not. Some people consistently tip 10 percent or less. Some consistently tip 20 percent or more. But always check what your tip would be if you did add gratuity though because sometimes a $25 isn’t worth risking. (If a party is 8+ though, I’d strongly recommend it.)
Be nice to the cooks
These are the people that will fix your inevitable screw ups, will accommodate your picky customers and will know when to throw your favorite dessert your way when they happen to make an extra. Plus, just because they don’t deal with difficult customers doesn’t mean their job isn’t just as hard as (or even worse than) yours. Drop the attitude.
Do NOT, under any circumstances, claim 100% of your tips
If you make $7.25 an hour, at the end of the pay period you get a paycheck with the taxes already taken out. What’s left is your paycheck. Servers get paid $2.13 per hour. They make their entire living off of tips. I’ve had paychecks that literally say “non-negotiable” which means I didn’t make anything. The amount of tips I made that pay period outweighed my hourly pay, so it went entirely to taxes and the restaurant owed me nothing. If that happens enough times, at the end of the year, you’ll end up owing taxes back, which you don’t want. Report the credit card tips (because you have to) and leave the rest up the imagination. Your paychecks may only go from $2.78 to $11.78 but every little bit counts.
The host can either be your best friend or your worst enemy
They can give you good sections or bad sections. Over-seat you or under-seat you. Stick you with nothing but large parties with lots of kids. Give you the good tippers or bad tippers (cause trust me, we keep track). It’s all in their control and you are entirely at their mercy. Just like the cooks, drop the attitude. Better yet, make a friend.
Be honest with yourself
There are times you really can’t take another table. If you have three tables that are crazy demanding and soaking up all your time, tell the host or a manager. The same goes if you have a big party or just got double-sat. We all want to do the best we can but that doesn’t always mean doing the most we can, especially if we aren’t going to do it well. Admit it. It’s okay.
Don’t let your friends take advantage of you
It’s one thing to charge your best friend for a water instead of a Coke, but don’t push it and do it for everyone. Free drinks, “accidental” order mess-ups – all that adds up and your manager won’t stay dumb forever. Plus, and trust me on this, you don’t get much back in return. Your friends may tip you a little extra at first when you throw it in, but eventually they’ll start expecting it every time, and eventually those tips go right back to the normal.
True story: I had a hometown friend come in with some of her friends. I pretended it was two of the guys’ birthdays so they could get a free birthday shot, and also charged all of their drinks happy hour price. By time they left, they each racked up a bill something close to $15-20. One of the guys rounded his bill up to the nearest dollar, leaving me a $0.33 tip. The other simply drew a line and wrote “Next time. Sorry!” Now every time they come in, they still request me and I tell the hostess to pretend my section is full.