A while back, for a piece on high-paying jobs that don’t require a university degree, our writer spoke with a waitress who earned a six-figure salary. I actually know the woman who she was referring to in that story, and I thought that the details of earning $100,000 serving tables would merit further exploration.
So last night I sat down with Katie, the highly-paid waitress to talk about her career and working in the hospitality sector. Because she talks about revenue that she didn’t pay taxes on – I’m only going to refer to her by her first name.
What did your very first waitressing job pay?
My very first waitressing job was at a jazz club called Gate 403 and I probably made about $45 a night. I started to make good money when I tended bar at a night club called Whisky Saigon. There I often made upwards of $400 a night. I was only working part-time, though.
How did you get hired at the establishment where you were able to bring home the six figure salary?
It’s a high end hotel bar. I had always wanted to work there. The manager who I knew somewhat from a former club job actually called for my roommate at the time, asking her to come in for an interview. When I told her about it, she wasn’t interested. So I turned up instead. There is a lot of competition for jobs like these, but I told them, “You have to hire me. You won’t be sorry. I will work really hard for you. I really want this job.”
I think they could see my motivation. I had to do three different interviews, but in the end I got the job.
Explain how you made $100,000 as a waitress? How much was your actual salary?
My actual salary was $10 an hour. The rest is tips. I would be bringing home between $4,000 and $6,000 a month, usually just in piles of cash in my pocket at the end of the night. Sometimes I would make my rent in one shift. So I wasn’t actually making $100,000 – but because most of my income was not taxed, I was earning the equivalent of what a six figure salary would be after taxes.
My mother would comment that serving tables was ‘beneath me,’ but she had been a teacher for 25 years, and I made considerably more money than she did.
How much did you declare and pay at tax time? Did you ever get audited?
I declared my salary and about 10% of my tip revenue. I was never audited, but I have a friend who was. He was fined $10,000 for unpaid taxes. The really high-end places that we were working are targets for audits. They know we’re making a lot more than we claim.
Part of the reason taxes weren’t so much of an issue for me is that I was paying off a hefty student loan at the time. One night, one of my regulars asked how much I had left to pay off. I told him there was just a couple of hundred left. He gave it to me in cash and said it was on him.
You’re obviously very physically attractive. How much do you think your looks contributed to the tips you make?
Not that much. I wasn’t the prettiest one there by any means, but I was usually able to make more than most. Plus it’s just the vibe of the place. The bartender, a 70-year-old man, made more than any of us.
So what allowed you to out-earn your coworkers? What sets an average server apart from a $100,000 one?
It’s the desire to be good. I wanted to earn a lot of money, but I also really wanted to excel at this. I love the idea of being amazing at something. And serving a large crowd of demanding, high-end clients is incredibly hard. People would order things that weren’t even on the menu because they’re wealthy and entitled. Maybe a little bit spoiled. So I spoiled them. You want rosé and we don’t have it? I’ll call a neighboring hotel and get it for you. I would give them free drinks if they felt they had to wait too long for a table.
Eventually I had a whole community of regulars who would always request to be served by me. It guaranteed me good money all the time.
What would you say are your key skills that allowed you to thrive in that environment?
I’m really good at reading people, and I have a very good memory. Being a waitress isn’t just about bringing people their order, it’s about shaping their experience. Some people want you to put on a show, they want jokes, they want to be bantered with or told stories. Other people just want respect and fast service. You have to be able to read them quickly to get it right.
One time I was able to give five credit cards back to the right people at a table of strangers just by assessing which name they looked like. They were blown away.
Everyone likes to be remembered. They like it if you can remember all of the details of a table’s order off the top of your head – and they’re touched if you can remember what they like the next time they come in. It makes them feel important, and perhaps even more significant is that it makes them look good to whoever they’re with. And everybody wants that.
When I would get it wrong, and someone would get upset and have a bad night or complain, I wouldn’t be angry with them. I’d go home unhappy with myself for failing.
What advice would you offer to people just starting out in the service industry for making a lucrative career out of it?
Be awesome at it. Treat every customer from the kids out on a first date to the politician having a meeting as if they are the most important people in the world. Some are going to tip better than others, but it all evens out in the end. And it’s your skill and attention to detail that gets noticed.
And network. Keep in touch with your coworkers and managers. The hospitality jobs have a high turn-over rate, and people often move from jobs to jobs. So once you’re in it, it becomes easier to find connections at the places you want to work.
What were your best moments on the job?
My coworkers. We had the funnest, funniest times at work. Sometimes it was high-pressure or stressful, but we still always laughed a lot.
What did you like the least about the work?
When I lost. When a client would get upset, and I couldn’t make them happy. I once got into an argument with Russell Crowe. I still won’t watch his movies.
Who else did you meet?
I served Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the film fest in 2007. Tom Jones hit on me in an elevator. I’ve met several former prime ministers and been proposed to by a dictator’s son. I think the most famous table I served was probably Bono and The Edge having drinks with Eddie Vedder.
Do you have any strategies or ‘tips’ you can offer other servers for earning higher tips?
Be on it. You have to be on the ball the whole time you’re at work and attuned to your customers’ needs – and their moods. You figure out what they want – and how they want it – and you provide it. This includes the specifics of their food and drink orders – but it also includes the attitude, the experience… the show.
Excelling at something comes from a genuine desire to be really good at it and a willingness to put the extra effort into it. The money follows from that.