I started my first serving job at the age of 20 in Flagstaff, Arizona, where I studied Hotel and Restaurant Management. I worked at an Italian restaurant in the college town serving summer tourists in order to bankroll my upcoming semester abroad in Europe. This was my first experience as a tip earning employee; making most of my income from the gratuity left by the guests of the restaurant. My hourly wage at that time was $2.13, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees. Though extremely low, I didn’t complain about my wage because on a slow night I would walk away with about $100 in tips, and on a good night up to $250.
For those of you not deeply familiar with the American restaurant tipping culture, there are many debates about the pros and cons of this system, which are far too complicated to get into here (but it may be worth your time to read more). Ultimately, who was paying my salary? One could argue the restaurant guest had more control over my actions because they ultimately paid me more than the owner of the restaurant. On a busy week the owner would pay me less than $100 for 40 hours of work, while our customers could potentially put over $1,000 in my bank. My employer rewarded me more with the opportunity to earn tips in the restaurant than with actual money. My incentive to follow the management’s rules and standards was simply to ensure that I maintained my place on the schedule, ideally earning spots on the busiest shifts.
After beginning to earn my income from tips, I learned very quickly the importance of selling alcohol. It is fairly common knowledge that alcohol is sold at quite a premium at restaurants and bars, bumping up check averages and increasing potential tips. Restaurateurs take advantage of the human desire to feel alcohol’s intoxicating effects, marking up alcohol far higher than the food. In fact, without alcohol sales many restaurant businesses would be unsustainable (doubly so if they are required to pay a full wage to tip earning employees). There is no doubt that most restaurants have a strong incentive to sell alcohol, but this amplified for tip earning employees: a bigger bill means a bigger tip. There is a big challenge with this model: alcohol is a regulated substance with potentially dangerous effects. Overconsumption of alcohol can lead to a variety of afflictions in the short and long term, and in extreme cases can cause death.
When we combine the American culture of tipping with the potential risks of alcohol consumption, we set ourselves up for some challenging situations. Simply put, bartenders and servers are incentivized to over-serve their guests. The more alcohol they serve, the higher the final check, and the more tip they are likely to receive. For the guest, this is also challenging, because as alcohol’s affect on the brain increases they are less likely to make responsible decisions.
Alcohol has powerful effects on our thoughts and feelings, and while under these effects it may be hard to know when it is time to stop drinking. When we aren’t in full control of our behavior, it is beneficial to have a friend or someone sober around to help us determine how much is too much. This is where a server could be a great asset to a diner, helping them to question their decision to order another drink, or at least slow down the process. Unfortunately, a server does not always find it easy to intervene when poor decisions are being made. In this situation, the server is thought of as being in a lower social position: a position of deference. Certainly, the guest has financial control over the situation, using this position to influence the decisions of the service staff. Questioning someone’s decision to drink more could offend them, or possibly lead to anger or violence. It is not uncommon for the server to simply fulfill the guest’s request and over serve them, not wanting to affect the tip they will leave behind.
I have encountered many situations in which I have felt the incentive to help one do harm to him or herself. The more the server sells, the more he or she earns. If they can sell more alcohol, they can earn more money, regardless of the potential effect on the guest. The decision to order another drink, to potentially do harm to oneself through the overconsumption of alcohol, is not always an intentional one. Perhaps the person feels uncomfortable and thinks the drink will help them relax. Maybe it is just habit to respond yes to the question: “would you like another drink?” Following a pre-programed habit is often the path of least resistance for the brain, even if it leads to negative consequences. Often the person is so intoxicated that they don’t have the ability to make the healthy decision. The power here lies in the hands of the service staff. Should another drink be sold, earning money for the restaurant and tips for the server? Or should the guest be refused service?
Handling an intoxicated guest ordering more alcohol is challenging, especially when the restaurant or bar is busy. Having served on and off for years in restaurants, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to juggle a full section of tables, coordinating the arrival of food and drink at just the right time. Stress can build slowly until you feel like you are just at the breaking point. All of your hard work is balanced on a razors edge, but you manage to maintain your calm and keep everyone happy. This is often the moment when someone orders a drink that you aren’t comfortable serving. The guest slurs a little bit, or can’t quite look straight at you while they order another cocktail or bottle of wine. You can feel that it is not a good idea. You are just too busy to handle this situation, and your manager isn’t around to help. You think that serving them this one drink will buy you some time so you can get through the rush. You know better, but you also know that cutting someone off in the middle of a busy dining room is potentially embarrassing. You know there is a chance that the guest will make a scene or be offended, possibly even stiffing you on the bill.
When this moment happens, and eventually it will, remember that this is not about you, it is about the guest. Yes, you have an incentive to serve them more alcohol, possibly increasing the final check and your tip, but don’t forget that you are there to serve. You are not the focus of the evening. Don’t worry about what you will receive. Instead, focus on creating the best experience for the guest. Recognize that getting extremely drunk is not usually the best experience, and help the guest find that balance (either subtly or overtly). Taking the time to address this potentially awkward situation, letting the guest know you aren’t comfortable serving them another drink, and making the right decision will be good for you, the guest, and the business. You can’t prevent that guest from going and drinking somewhere else, even at home, but you can feel good that you did not contribute to the potential harm to the guest. You can do your part by making the tough decision, knowing that you will put some good karma into your account. At the end of the day, helping others is the best thing that we can do for ourselves.