From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

From Behind the Bar: On Tipping

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.

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[Photo: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking:
"Racer 5" IPA (Bottled)

On the surface, tending bar looks easy. You pour ingredients in to a glass, shake them up, and voila! That'll be twelve bucks, and please don't forget to tip your bartender.

In times like these, when Wall Street is occupied and people are out of work for months at a time, it's natural to look back at one's life and think, "What other skills do I have that I can utilize to make money?" I have met many people who used to tend bar. If there are no jobs in your chosen field, the temptation to step back into the service industry can be very strong.

The lifestyle itself also seems attractive. After slogging through the corporate grind, the free-wheeling life of a bartender looks ideal. No early meetings. No taking your work home. People operate under the illusion that bartending is easy, lucrative, and comes with a number of fringe benefits that are unattainable for people who lead more conventional lives.

It's true, I stay out late and sleep late. As a bartender, I work for tips, and if I am good at my job, I might make 20 to 25% on top of my sales. If I am qualified, and if I work in a busy bar where people appreciate the services I provide, that percentage might be even higher. At one of the best jobs I've ever had, it was not uncommon for me to take home $600 on a Saturday night. That's real money, and I appreciated the fact that I had a job that afforded me the opportunity.

Working for tips, though, is a double-edged sword. At that same job, I was able to work the lucrative Saturday because I also worked Sunday. Over the same twelve hour shift, I might walk home with $100. The princely sum of $50/hour on a Saturday was balanced by the roughly $8/hour I made the following night.

Also, when I worked the high-dollar nights, I executed hundreds of cocktails correctly and efficiently, all the while maintaining a level of service that made both my customers and my bosses happy. The job required a seasoned bartender working at the highest capacity. Yes, the money was good, but someone who used to tend bar in college could not have taken my place and operated at nearly the level that a career bartender could maintain.

Working for tips ultimately means we earn our money a dollar at a time, and we rely on the worldliness and generosity of your clientele to pay our rent. I might have a bar full of Europeans who have a wonderful time, but come from a culture where tipping is not customary. I'll do the same amount of work, and execute at the same level I do for a local clientele, and walk away with empty pockets.

I also carry the burden of every bartender who has ever delivered bad service. People have said to me on many occasions, "Because of (fill in the bad service story here), I don't tip." As I am employed to make and deliver drinks, I do not have the freedom to offer non-tippers anything less than I offer anyone else, even though they have declared ahead of time that they aren't going to pay for my service.

For now, tipping is a fact of life in America. The alternative is to include the wage of the bartender in to the cost of the drink, like they do in Europe. Despite its flaws, I like our system. Bartenders have an incentive to offer the best service possible. Customers are responsible for compensating them to the extent that they are wowed by that service. Most people who live in our country expect to leave a little more for the man or woman who provides the services which they enjoy.

Until our culture changes, the dollar you leave on your beer is likely the sole income of the person pouring it. While I don't feel like I have a right to anything, an additional dollar goes a long way to showing me that you appreciate the time and care I put in to your service. In this, our flawed system, the more each of us gives, the more each of us gets.

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