Gratuity-based jobs take hit in bad economy

Annie Reed and Catherine Leyden

Shannon Thomas has been waiting tables for 13 years. But lately, the cheerful 28-year-old is sounding more like an economics analyst as she tracks her tips based on pay periods of others.

“A lot of families get paid every two weeks, and when they get paid, the tips are good. But when it gets closer to pay day, they tend to get worse,” Thomas said, a Stickney resident who works at Emmy’s Pancake House in Westmont.

It is a trend she has been noticing more and more in the last six months. Workers who rely on tips are especially susceptible, since their weekly bread and butter depends on the generosity of others. 

David Craver, president of The National Bartenders Association, which represents both servers and bartenders, said the penny-pinching trends have been a “double whammy” for members of the association, who have seen a decrease in clientele and gratuity percentage.

“We’re seeing about a 20- to 25-percent slowdown of people coming in the door,” Craver said, according to data from member surveys.

In Downers Grove, Pete Konstant, manager of Omega Restaurant, said the wait staff depends on tips from customers for income, and those diminish when everyone is taking a hit.

“This economy affects everything.” he said. “Everybody is starving -- restaurants, dealerships, small businesses. Who’s affected first? The restaurants. The tips have decreased, too, but that’s normal. (Customers) used to go out (to Omega) three or four times a week. Now they come in sometimes.”

According to Kim McLynn, a spokesperson for the consumer tracking agency NPD Group, her agency projects the federal economic stimulus checks will be a shot in the arm for the restaurant industry. However, the outlook was less hopeful in a May consumer-sentiment survey by food service consultancy Technomics, Inc.

Asked how they planned to use their government checks, a meager 9 percent of 1,500 respondents said they would “eat at a nice restaurant,” while only 3 percent said they would “eat out more often.”

“(Restaurant) traffic across the board — regardless of what segment you look at — is down,” said Technomics President Ron Paul. “Casual dining has been hit the hardest — your Applebee’s, your Ruby Tuesdays.”

Rather than shortchanging a waiter on a tip, some are eliminating table service altogether, like Brian and Jessica Leonard of South Bend, Ind., who were waiting for a train in Downers Grove Thursday.

“I think our recent decisions have shown that we’ve been going to more places where you can sit down and get your food without a waiter,” Brian Leonard said.

Although restaurant industry performance improved in May, as measured by the National Restaurant Association’s comprehensive index, confidence is shaky. The Expectations Index, which measures restaurant operators’ six-month outlook, hit its lowest level on record in May.

“While the restaurant industry is absolutely feeling the economic squeeze right now, it is still moving forward at a solid pace both when it comes to sales and job creation,” said Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association. “We expect to see sales reaching $558 billion this year, and our industry is one of few that keeps adding jobs despite rising overall unemployment rates.”

While the economic forecast remains dreary, servers in Illinois got some reprieve last week in the form of a 0.25 cent minimum wage increase, which was applied to the base pay of service workers.

While she may pick up a few more shifts at Emmy’s, Thomas said she is not looking to change industries any time soon because of bad tips.

“It just means you got to work harder for the money and move your butt some more,” she said.

Annie Reed can be reached at Catherine Leyden can be reached at

Tips on tipping

The word TIP is considered by many to be an acronym: “To Insure Promptness” or “To Insure Prompt” service

-Restaurant servers pay taxes on 8 to 10 percent of their total receipts, not the actual amount of tips they earn. If you don’t tip them, they lose money because they are paying taxes based on the amount of your meal

-There is some debate about tipping on wine. You should because sommeliers are tipped out a percentage of the evening’s gratuities

-Tipping the host upon entering a restaurant in order to get seated quicker or be placed at a better table is more akin to a bribe than a tip

-When tipping a cab driver, a 15 percent tip is considered standard, except New York where 20 percent is standard


CABS 15% of fare, no less than 25 cents

TATTOO ARTISTS Referrals, praise and repeat business are often better than a tip, but $10-15 minimum for a $150 tattoo

CHAMBERMAID $5 a night minimum, more if long stays. Consider $7 to $9 a night.


BELLHOP $10 for bringing you to your room with luggage; $5 for opening and showing the room

LOBBY ATTENDANT None for opening door or calling taxi from stand; $1 or more for luggage help or finding a taxi on the street

DESK CLERK None unless special service is given during long stay then, $5

CONCIERGE $5-10 average. More for special services or favors

HAIR STYLIST 15% of the cost, generally a minimum of $1. If you do not get your hair cut often, then $5 is suggested

MANICURIST $1 or more, depending on cost

PIZZA DELIVERY $1-2 if short distance, $2-3 for longer distances, $5 or more for large order

FLOWERS $2-5 for flowers, $5-10 if it is a large plant or for heavy or large deliveries

POKER DEALERS $5 (cash or check) per session, win or lose. Winners should tip at least $10, but 10 percent or more is not uncommon