By Ryan S. Clark
Thirty minutes have passed since the lunchtime crowd vanished from the Casa Ole, and a tired Lee Brown plops into a chair and pulls out her notebook with money wildly coming out from all angles.
Many of them are $1 bills mixed with a few Lincolns or a possibly a Hamilton, creating Lilliputian cash hill. It might look like a lot of money, but it's only around $50, a far cry from what the waitress use to see in tips.
"To me people are becoming tighter with their money," said the 31-year-old who has been a waitress since she was 18. "Getting around $40 to $50 in tips every day is bad, compared to what I use to make in tips."
That comment might surprise some Southeast Texans who see what appears to be nearly every restaurant filled to the brim as some places sport a 10-minute or longer wait for lunch or supper.
But area waitresses said they are seeing a decline in tips, another sign that the global economic crisis is crippling wallets, pocketbooks and purses.
Brown, who has worked at Casa Ole for about a year, said tipping is a "lifeline" for waiters and waitresses, who make low, hourly wages.
As a waitress, Brown only makes $2.13, about the average wage for an area waitress, according to the waitresses interviewed by The Enterprise.
Though minimum wage is $6.55 an hour, there are some industries such as food and beverage, for example, that have employees who customarily and regularly receive more than $30 a month in tips, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because of that, an employer may consider tips as part of wages, but an employer must pay at least $2.13 in direct wages.
Jessie Reed, her co-worker, added that she makes $3.50 an hour because she is a trainer, but she's quick to admit that it's still not that much money in the grand scheme of things.
"I just don't think people realize we only make $2.13 an hour," said Reed, who was rushing back and forth serving customers.
"We can have a group of five, six or seven people, and with all they order, they may only leave a $1 tip."
Brown and Lee agreed that the biggest evidence of the struggling economy comes with Sunday crowds, many of them who appear to be leaving church.
Connie Poche, a career-long waitress who has raised her children off a server's pay, said Sundays are hard because waiters and waitresses wait on a large groups of people but will get a paltry tip, making it harder to raise a family.
Poche, who works at Willy Ray's Barbecue, said on those days with low tips, she'd go home in tears, wondering how she would be able to pay her utilities and take care of her three children.
"You want to know how I did it? It was by the grace of God," she said. "It's hard to explain, but the Lord was always there to protect me. He was always there to provide for me.
"There would be those days where you wonder how you are going to pay your electric bill, and I gave it up to Him and He took my worries away. That is the only way I can explain it for myself."
Poche said customer traffic at Willy Ray's has been good, but she's seeing turbulent economy's effects on tips.
Four or five months ago, she would average $75 in tips on a Friday night. These days, Poche admitted she's lucky to average $40 to $50 on one of those nights.
Once Amanda Newman heard about some of Poche's experiences, she was stunned and shook her head in amazement that someone was able to raise a family off a waitress' pay.
Newman, 35, is a server at the Poblano Grill, where she says customers, many of them regulars, have continued to tip servers well.
Because the restaurant's clientele includes businessmen, doctors and lawyers, Newman said she believes her tipping has not decreased, but there was fear that it would.
"I have friends who are also servers, and when (we) start talking about what this could all mean, you start to get worried," she said. "I think about how this is an upscale or fine-dining restaurant and you start to wonder if we are going to be affected by all this, but we have great customers who have taken care of us."
Newman called eating out a "hobby of mine," and it's for that reason she always tips well no matter how good or bad the service may be.
Coming from a family where her three sisters have been waitresses at one point in their lives, Newman stressed that her entire family always leaves a good tip especially at places like a Casa Ole, where the wait staff is constantly on the run.
"If they are busy when we get there, I will even pre-bus a table. They look at me and they ask if I am a waitress and I tell them, 'yes'," she said with a smile.
"My advice on tipping is this: If we get 15 percent we are happy; if we get 20 percent we are thrilled."
Still the food and beverage industry is not the only beneficiaries of tipping.
As manager of the Gold Club, Shay Barrington pointed out that her business is "the biggest tipping industry in the world."
Barrington said that at "gentlemen's clubs," it all depends on whether her employees work the day or night shift. She said that around two weeks ago, a customer came into the club one night and ran up a $20,000 tab.
"At the end of the night, he tipped a dancer $4,000 - and the shot girl (got) $4,000 too," she said. "There is money to be made, but it's not like that every night."
Shannon DeHaven, 26, a Gold Club bartender, said the economy has been affecting business, because there are some days where she cannot even muster a 25-cent tip for serving a beer.
DeHaven said she's been puzzled as to how a customer can run up an $800 tab, pay it off and not leave a bartender or a waitress a tip for service.
Monaca Nolan, 29, a dancer who has been at the club for about a year, said tipping is sporadic at best. She said there are some nights where she will make $300 in tips, and there are days where she will come up with $30.
But Nolan admitted that it's still not as bad as what a waitress at the club will have to go through to get a decent tip. Nolan said that she and other dancers have confronted customers and yelled at them to tip a waitress.
"It sucks," Nolan said about the declining state of tipping. "Because I have kids to support, and if people are acting that way, how are we suppose support our kids and pay our bills?"
Business | Nov. 10, 2008 | Page 1A
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