The tipping point

Burgermeister: Musician (and sometimes gourmand) Jonathan Ammons tends bar at Burgermeister’s, where they specialize in “neighborly service” and great burgers. Photos by Max Cooper

It's Friday night, and Carla Gilfillan is just starting her shift at Outback Steakhouse on Tunnel Road. She'll spend the next six hours juggling orders and handling the requests of several dozen people. By the end of the night, her pedometer will indicate she's clocked nearly 20 miles around the restaurant, refilling drinks, dropping off entrees and returning dirty dishes to the kitchen.

As most people with restaurant experience will tell you, service-industry jobs can be taxing. And around here, they make up a big part of the workforce — and that’s a segment that’s not exactly flush, according to the statistics.

For example, labor-advocacy organization Just Economics of Western North Carolina reports that 34 percent of low-wage workers (those making less than $11.35 an hour without receiving benefits, or $9.85 an hour with employer-provided health insurance) in Buncombe County are employed in food preparation or serving jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean income in 2011 for serving positions in our area was $19,450.

Restaurant staff help make this area the hotspot for foodies that it’s becoming — but that doesn’t mean it’s always a gratifying job. The hours are out of the ordinary, the clientele is demanding and the pay can be unpredictable for servers, always dependent on their customers’ graces. The expectation is they’ll perform exceptionally under duress, and make it look effortless.

But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that diners don’t realize: understaffed restaurants at busy times, outrageous demands and even downright hostility.

What do servers have to deal with? Just check out these epic meltdowns: In late May, an Ohio man rammed his truck into a Taco Bell over receiving the wrong order (no one was hurt). In early June, a man threw a fit — and water — in the face of a British Columbia Starbucks barista because the store ran out of cream (she wasn’t hurt either).

And, last summer, a wealthy businessman broke the fingers of a server in a Florida dining club because he delivered the check to the wrong person at the table (that guy was hurt). While those are extreme circumstances, almost any server has a horror story or two under his or her apron.

What is it about being served that makes people forget their manners? "They don't forget their manners," says Barbie Angell, a local poet and writer who has earned multiple degrees, published books and who spent a decade serving. "The problem is that, in the service industry, for the most part, you're not worthy of their manners."

Angell could write another book with her service horror stories, tales involving everything from being tripped by children while carrying a tray of just-filled ketchup bottles to a time when two Harley-riding businessmen grabbed her butt at a truck-stop diner. It's given her perspective and major sympathy for people in any sector of the service industry, she says. “I think that everybody should have to wait tables at some point in their life and work retail at Christmas so they know what it's like,” Angell says. 

The customer is not always right — but neither is the server, she says. Lack of focus, for example, can cause major problems. “I saw someone serve a display-only dessert once," Angell says. “If it's in a rotating glass display case and it has ice cream with it, chances are that's not really ice cream,” she says. “And the woman who took the really big bite of shortening that was made to look like ice cream? She was really, really upset."

Dealing with it

But it’s not all bad: Gilfillan, for one, says she has it reasonably good at Outback. "I have no complaints about where I work," she says. There’s a certain camaraderie among workers there, and working in a corporate-owned restaurant has its perks, too. Outback offers health benefits to employees, something that many independent restaurants cannot afford. 

Still, Gilfillan, like many servers, is paid slightly more than $2 an hour, a standard restaurant practice (the federal minimum wage does not apply to tipped employees). "We rely on tips to make our living," she says. As is the case with many servers, the wages go to pay the income tax on her tips.

Many people either aren't aware that servers live almost exclusively on tips or they feign ignorance, Gilfillan says. Even though Gilfillan is friendly and mentally capable — she's holding down a double major in French and psychology at UNCA — she ticks off a number of stories about people flat refusing to leave her a gratuity. U.S. News & World Report says that all service providers should be tipped from 18 to 22 percent, calling the 10 to 15 percent tip “archaic.” Twenty percent seems to be the industry standard for good service (Condé Nast Traveler backs this up) and even more for exceptional service.

Although, on plenty of days Gilfillan and her co-workers walk out with pockets of cash, she says that watching parties leave $3 (or even nothing) on a check of $100 is a common occurrence. Gilfillan shrugs. "I just don't think they see us as real people," she says.

"You get to the point where you stop getting upset and holding it against people when they don't tip you at all, or just tip 10 percent, because it's obvious that it comes from a place of ignorance," she says. "Otherwise, you get so bitter about humanity. It can be the ultimate insult to be someone's servant for an allotted amount of time and not get paid for it."

Gratuities for graduates

Over at Burgermeister’s, bartender Jonathan Ammons has less of a problem with getting his gratuity, he says. His restaurant draws a friendly, local crowd, many of whom are regulars and understand the system. “In the service industry, you're there to provide a service. And if you're good, you will get tipped,” he says.

But here's some real talk: Anyone who dines out around Asheville knows that the grouchy server is as much of a reality as the low-tipping consumer. Both Ammons and Gilfillan think that sour servers are often well-educated, yet struggling in our tourist-oriented area. Survey a random selection of restaurant workers in this town, and you’ll turn up a slew of degrees — which almost inevitably means student-loan debt.

"In this economy, you have so many people with bachelor’s degrees working restaurant jobs," Gilfillan says, "especially in Asheville." It often doesn’t help that servers are often condescended to by their customers, she says.

Choosing to live in Asheville, though, often means making career sacrifices. “We're a service-industry only town, there's not a lot of other jobs to take," Ammons explains. "There's nothing else to do in this city. There's no work. Everyone's relegated to the service industry, so everyone's pissy and short-tempered because we don't want to be there — it's not what we set out to do.”

Still, it’s a decent chance that your server today could be your child’s teacher tomorrow. Gilfillan herself would like to be a French teacher after graduating. Although with the current economy, a college degree doesn’t guarantee employment.

In the meantime, remaining cheerful while insulating customers from the various annoyances of restaurant work is part of the job description, Ammons says. "[The customers] are going out so that their world is stress-free, and I'm there to make their life easier, essentially,” he says. And even though morale among his fellow front-of-the-house folk can be low, the money can be good for the amount of hours worked (and servers don’t have to take their work home). “I don't like the idea of servers saying 'Poor me.’ We're where we are because the money's better than in a lot of other [restaurant] positions.” Still, he concedes: “At the same time, the money's pretty low for what we have to deal with.”

Ammons chose to bartend after years of dealing with the corporate world and owning his own artist-relations company. “I felt like I needed to do something different and I needed to be around people,” he says. "Sometimes I think it might have been a bad idea," he jokes.

Stick a fork in it?

Holly McGee, a longtime server and active Asheville-based illustrator, thinks that the notion that most servers feel stuck is a prevalent but erroneous one. "A lot of people see it as a stopgap measure, a temporary state, something you have to do because you've fallen on hard times, but you're working to get out for the 'real job' — that may be true for some people, but not all," she says.

McGee waits tables because it allows her to nourish her talents. "I like what I do because the ratio of money to hours worked is the best that I can find. It affords me time to do a lot of artwork," she says. Last year, McGee illustrated the book Hush Little Beachcomber, written by Dianne Moritz and sold internationally. "I wouldn't have been able to do that if I had more of a 'career,'" McGee says. "With serving, one person can work the other person's shift. What other job can people substitute each other's positions so easily? It's the overwhelming day job of choice for artists and musicians, I would say."

Still, tourists will fawn over artists in the River Arts District, but not so much when they’re jotting down orders at their dinner table. McGee says servers sometimes are reduced to food-carrying machines in the minds of some diners — ever hear the term waitron? "People don't want to see their server's humanity so much," McGee says.

Maybe that’s why being waited on brings out the sadism in some people, especially those who already have bullying tendencies, she says. "The other day, a woman told me I was 'looking haggard,'” McGee says. “I've had a customer tell me that I've put on weight. I've had several men tell me that I'm getting a little gray on top. A guy the other day told me I was 'looking a little rough.'"

It’s hard to understand the motivation behind jabbing someone in the rear end with silverware to get noticed, as McGee once observed. "He leaned over and actually poked [his server] in the butt with his fork to get her attention," McGee recalls. Talk about attention-grabbing.   

The devil is in the details

Not all servers are moonlighting in the restaurant industry, however. Some make it into a career — and to good end. Just ask Felix Meana, a man who’s worked on perfecting the art of impeccable service for nearly 20 years. Meana’s standards have taken him across the globe. He’s helped fine-tune service in Ferran Adrià’s vaunted elBulli in Spain and assisted in the opening of The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles, where he was the director of service. LA Times Magazine, in giving Bazaar four stars, gave Meana a big nod for the excellent service staff working under his direction during his tenure. Now, Meana runs Cúrate, an Asheville tapas restaurant, with his family.

There, he impresses upon his staff the single most important factor in providing good service: focus.

"You can't be doing a good job if you're not focused. Working in a restaurant is details all the time," he says. Meana suggests that focusing on the tiny things helps bring about the perfect, reciprocal relationship between diner and server.

Of course, finding the right staff is important. "From there, everything is about training," Meana says. That’s why Meana would rather hire enthusiastic workers who are willing to learn than “rock stars.”

Meana says the best kind of boss is able to both be a leader and keep a watchful eye on staff members without breathing down their necks. “You need to train your staff and be close to them," Meana says. "You need to make them involved in your philosophy, teach them and give them the tools to make them excited and work with them on a daily basis," he says. After that, well, servers simply need to be flawless.

“When you go to a restaurant, the expectations are the full picture,” Meana says. “You want everything to be smooth and perfect. They need to know that the server was great, but in the end was not too intrusive, knowledgeable about the food, the concept, the whole thing.”

But, even with the best staff in the world, certain customers can simply not be pleased, Meana admits.

"You can't make everybody happy. That's something you learn from day one," he says. "Maybe they came frustrated from another place or had a bad day. You can't read everyone's mind. But that's why you need to train your staff very well how to handle the situation."

With the economy the way that it is, great service is a cost-effective perk that restaurant owners should consider devoting more energy to, says Meana. “At Cúrate, we are not fine-dining, but we are people that know what people expect when they come into a restaurant: details … The service is the key in your restaurant.”

If service is the key, Xpress asks, do people — both diners and business owners — underestimate the importance and difficulty of good service? “Yes,” Meana says simply. “Still there are people out there that don’t know what service means and how important it is to be on top of your table from the first moment they come into the restaurant … all the steps of service. It’s not easy.”

Serving isn’t easy — and neither is cooking. Next week, we’ll take a look at what it takes to be in the hottest seat in the restaurant industry (and we mean that quite literally).

— Contact food writer Mackensy Lunsford at


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7 thoughts on “The tipping point

  1. ace

    “U.S. News & World Report says that all service providers should be tipped from 18 to 22 percent, calling the 10 to 15 percent tip

    • bill smith

      You should stay at home. Restaurants are over-priced and for the most part, very unhealthy food. IF you cant afford a good tip, you should probably just cook your own meas at home.Restaurants are for the rich.

  2. Damn_yank

    Yes, Ace, please stay home. If you can afford to eat out you can afford to tip decently. Unless there’s a valid reason not to, the server should be properly compensated.

  3. Gene

    Yes Ace, stay at home and cook your own meals. Inflation has absolutely nothing to do with tipping an employee who makes less than $3 an hour. How do you think inflation is affecting someone who makes $19,000 a year?

    My absolute minimum for average service is 20%. For good service, I’ve tipped 50% or more. Guess what? At the places I frequent, I always get good service because people know they’re gonna get a fat tip for being nice and doing a great job.

  4. bsummers

    “Meal price increases well exceed inflation; I should pay a tip surcharge on top of that?”

    If they’re exceeding inflation now, it’s because they lagged behind for most of last year:

    “Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the price of a benchmark basket of food products intended for home consumption has, on average, risen by 13.5 percent this year (2011). In contrast, the price of meals at restaurant has risen much less, only 5.44 percent from December to September.”

    If your point is that servers tips have gone up commensurate with the rise in meal prices, you ignore a couple of things. First, for a long time, those meal prices didn’t follow inflation because restaurants were reluctant to raise prices in the middle of a recession, and are only now forced to do so. Second, other things that impact working people have exceeded the rate of inflation, like gas, health care, groceries, etc.

    The recession is hitting the people who serve you food pretty hard – is it really that much of a hardship for you to throw five bucks on the table instead of three? I spent quite a few years waiting tables, and I know how hard it is.

    Don’t stop eating out, Ace.

  5. Curious

    Does the reporter give any figures on what low, high, and average earnings for wait staff in Asheville are? One website has this: Average Servers Salaries in Asheville, NC In USD as of Jul 9, 2012 $56,000. Another website says $36,000. Are these figures anywhere close? One server is quoted as saying that her minimum wage of $2.13 an hour goes to pay her income tax. At 40 hours a week for 50 weeks (assuming no paid vacation), her minimum wages are $4,260. According to the website Askville by Amazon, “with an annual salary of $40K, the IRS says you can expect to have about $4,260 withheld over the course of the year for federal income.” Does this mean the server is making $40,000 a year? Is that a poor salary for Asheville?

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