Dishin' That: Even in Vacationland, a little rain must fall

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Last weekend’s fall weather preview made neither Mainers nor Vacationland-visitors too happy. What should have been an Old Port retailer’s dream didn’t turn out as such. Various reports of high head counts and lower average checks (meaning lower average tips) from the restaurant grapevine echoed the disappointment.

“Oh, there were people in and out all day Sunday, that’s for sure,” said a longtime lower-Exchange Street retailer. “But very few were actually buying. It’s an ongoing conversation, but there’s a problem when the streets are jammed with umbrellas and plastic ponchos, but only a few shopping bags. It’s past Fourth of July and we should be doing better.”

“When it rains, we put people on call and staff up because visitors have nothing else to do but eat and shop,” said a hospitality sister with an impressive resume. “The only time that doesn’t make sense is if you’re working at a place with a great deck. In nice weather, the majority of people will wait to sit on it, or go somewhere else, rather than dine inside. Then, it’s just shifting the same number of staff to different sections. But, this past weekend wasn’t such a good one, inside or out.”

Standing in line at Arabica, I chatted with a middle-aged couple From Away.

“When you come to a place like this, so much depends on good weather,” said the woman. “My husband detests stores and we wanted to hike and ride our bikes. The man at our hotel suggested the Titanic exhibit at the Science Center, or the Museum of Art, but we don’t want to deal with crowds. The restaurants on our research list all are less expensive outdoor places, so they’re out. But, we can’t control the weather and we’ll just have to make the best of it.”

My aforementioned hospitality pal also stated the obvious by telling me people are so much crankier when the weather is bad. Kids are restless and tempers are short.

“We had a family of four, and the little girl wouldn’t stop whining,” she told me. “One of my servers is a preschool teacher and is great with kids. Well, she finally got the little girl to calm down after she brought her a large pizza dough ball to play with. Everything was fine until the kid got pieces of wet dough crumbles on her dress and in her hair. The parents sat and watched while the kid put tablespoons of water on the dough and it became a sticky mess. Then, the mom flipped out and literally screamed at the server. The whole dining room went silent.”

Asking her if she stepped in and defended her server, she just sort of smirked.

“They were leaving anyway and had already paid,” she explained. “So, I just shook my head and didn’t say anything. It was tough, but I kept my mouth shut. Besides, it was pouring like crazy as they headed out the door.”

Peas & Q’s

Q — My daughter works in a restaurant where, for tax purposes, she claims 100 percent of her credit-card tips and 5 percent of her cash sales. She makes an hourly rate far below minimum wage and the assumption is her tips will more than make up the difference. There are some weeks when she claims everything she brings home. Why the outrage about raising server minimum wage? — Judith Marks, Portland.

A — I’ve danced around this never-tiresome topic before.

Honestly, the gig isn’t what it used to be, that’s for sure. I’ve seen it go from claiming whatever you want, to 13 percent of total cash and credit card sales, to various mandates similar to what you describe. The outrage of which you speak is the devastating effect a pay raise would have on restaurant owners who operate under tight budgets, with line-item cost increases at every turn.

But, the tipped minimum wage increase issue is what I call a “kaleidoscope problem” because the nuances (and the fallout) can be seen from many angles.

Take my word for it, tipped employees experience cost-of-living increases in our daily lives, too. Most of us do not receive benefits from our restaurant jobs, and as expressed above, consistency in business flow is not something we can bet on. That, and not all of us work in places where the average entree is over $25.

It makes sense that some legal meet-in-the-middle compromise be reached. Until then, please tip your server or bartender in cash. It’s an above-board thing to do, and shows us a just little bit more love.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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  • GF

    Are you agreeing that it is OK for tipped staff to NOT declare cash tips received on their tax returns? If someone earns little over the course of the year, they won’t owe income taxes anyhow (ignoring payroll taxes). Our tax system depends on voluntary compliance, with stiff penalties for those who violate the rules. For their own protection and peace of mind (current and future), those earning income should declare it on their tax returns.