A Lansing doublecross left most waiters earning just $3.52 an hour. Here's how they make it work.
by Sally Mitani
From the March, 2019 issue
What do you do if you need a job around here and you don't have or can't find a use for a college degree? Baristas and Lyft drivers may represent the zeitgeist, but more people actually make a living the old-fashioned way: waiting tables. After studying the Ann Arbor Observer City Guide and talking to folks in the business, I'd guess there are close to 1,000 full-time waiters here.
Last year, Michigan passed legislation requiring tipped employees be paid a base wage of $9.25/hour and receive paid sick time. But what looked like an uncharacteristically progressive move for the state's conservative Republican legislature was in fact a political double-cross. By passing the bills, lawmakers prevented two similar proposals, collectively known as One Fair Wage, from appearing on the November ballot. As soon as the election was over, they rescinded almost everything the bills provided.
Some local waiters I talked to watched the legal double-dealing closely. Others barely noticed--they were otherwise preoccupied, or, suspecting some such knavery, never got their hopes up. One lucky soul remains nearly incredulous that his workplace already provides more than the laws offered. But all had tales about what it takes to make a living waiting tables in our famously pricey city.
All but one of the people I talked to are paid just $3.52 per hour. Tips are presumed to bring that up to Michigan's $9.25/hour minimum. Sheila Graziano, a familiar face in high-end restaurants for more than forty years, says that's how it's worked for her.
Graziano is nearing the end of a long career--"another 318 days," she says in February, till she reaches her full retirement age for Social Security. "Waitress" is the job title that works best for her, but "waiter" is fine, too. After working everywhere from Leo Ping's, a Chinese dive on Liberty, to Tecumseh's Evans Street Station, she's now at Mikette.
Graziano followed the One Fair Wage fight closely, but isn't surprised that others didn't.
At lower-end places, she says, "restructuring the wage system would throw many into arrears," and people working at diners would rather have a low-paying job than no job.
From her own precarious no-benefits job, she has fashioned a stable, happy life. It helps, she says, that she "always had a good family saying 'can I help you out?'"--and a forty-year marriage. She and Angelo Graziano, a truck driver, own a home in Chelsea and have two grown children.
She's always loved waiting tables, and says flexible hours are part of the appeal. When the kids were little, she says, "I'd work one shift, and Angelo would work the other." When she needed to, she could get a few days off, or "pick up a few extra shifts, like when I needed a camp fund for the kids." As an empty nester, she has more time to dance--she teaches, choreographs, and performs Appalachian clogging and Canadian step dancing.
When she started, waiters left work each night with a wad of cash. No more. At Mikette, "I'll go for weeks without having a cash sale." Her tips come to her in her paycheck, compiled from credit card records and time cards. She says Ann Arborites tip an average of about 20 percent. She keeps 14 percent, and Mikette shares the rest with the runners, bussers, and bartenders.
Asked how she herself tips when she dines out, she says the most extraordinary thing--one later echoed by several other waiters I talked to: "If I have substandard service, I usually tip a little more. That person needs a boost. Maybe they have a bad knee and couldn't get to the doctor."
"We have to make it quick because the father of my baby has to work." says Kristy Knight (no relation to the Knight restaurant family), as she hurriedly counts money at the end of her shift at Classic Cup Cafe. "Ask me anything," she adds. "I'm an open book."
Her daughter, Kylie Claire, was born in October. She and Kylie's father, Keith Alder live together, but she's adamantly resisting marriage: "He's trying to convince me, but to me, it's a piece of paper. I've seen too many divorces."
Knight's income is low enough that she qualifies for Medicaid--it footed the entire bill for the pregnancy and birth. She accepted the benefit gratefully but thinks it unfair that people earning only slightly more pay dearly for health coverage.
Boyishly slim and never without eye make-up ("you get better tips when you look presentable"), Knight, thirty-one, says she's "not from anywhere; I bounced around." Most of the bouncing was in Michigan with her mom and sister, but some was on her own. She left home and school at age sixteen--"I have a GED"--and has always worked in restaurants, though this is her first waitressing job.
"I was a line cook at Denny's. I didn't think I'd be good at waitressing because it's hard for me to put a smile on when people are being rude ... When I used to be a cook, waitresses would complain. But it's the easiest job I've ever had. I feel I'm hosting them in my own house."
She came to Ann Arbor a few years ago "to be with a guy I met on the Internet," which didn't work out. She was a customer at Classic Cup until the manager offered her a job. She met Alder there, too--his small company services the restaurant's heating and cooling systems.
Like diner waitresses everywhere, Knight makes liberal use of "hon," "love," and other endearments. With cranky customers, "I go one of two ways": relentless cheerfulness or sassing them back. Also, "some people just like to be left alone, and I can tell who they are."
If there's a personality trait that defines a good waiter, it's intuition. Every waiter interviewed mentioned an ability to sense and match the moods and needs of customers.
Knight works about forty hours a week, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Though prices are low, the tips tend to average over 20 percent. "Well, when the check is only a few bucks ..."
Asked if she's a natural early riser Knight says yes, then "no, actually, but that's where the tips are here." Anyway, with a four-month old baby, her own biorhythms are kind of irrelevant.
Some of her customers still pay cash, but "I always report all my tips," she says crisply and firmly. In her income bracket, "you get it back," some at the end of the year in a tax refund, and the rest eventually in Social Security.
Terance Gordon works at Ann Arbor's only no-tipping restaurant, Miss Kim. He already enjoys all the benefits One Fair Wage would have provided, plus much more.
Common in Europe, including employee compensation in the price of the meal is still experimental here. At Miss Kim, waiters make a straight wage of about $13 an hour. While this is less than the tip-enhanced total they might make elsewhere, Gordon and another Miss Kim waiter I talked to say it is more than offset by a generous benefits package as well as the unquantifiable dignity and esprit de corps the policy confers.
Miss Kim's commitment to the experiment isn't ironclad: what began as a strict no-tip policy has recently evolved into an "optional cash tip" policy. But "there is still no line on the credit card slip for a tip," Gordon points out, "and the most I've ever taken home in one night is forty dollars."
We meet at the Sweetwaters in the Westgate library: "I'll be the black guy in dreads," he texts. Normally, he would have been working, but with the January temperature far below zero, Miss Kim was closed, so Gordon had taken a few of his coworkers to the Sky Zone Trampoline Park in Canton, his favorite place to blow off steam. When he can't get to Sky Zone, he does parkour around Ann Arbor.
When Gordon was growing up, his mother had a tough time making ends meet. He and his siblings had lived in nearly half a dozen cities by the time they arrived in Ypsi for his senior year of high school. After graduation, he tried unsuccessfully to continue his education, but ended up as "a pizza delivery guy for way longer than I liked."
Connecting with Miss Kim when it opened a few years ago was like finding a stairway to heaven. "When I saw the ad that said thirteen dollars an hour, I said, 'Wow, that's insane! I'm used to, like, seven dollars.'" He laughs: "Believe it or not, I had never heard of Zingerman's." Because Miss Kim is a Zingerman's business, employees get intensive, paid training in customer service; a benefits package; and even $30 toward the price of a pair of non-slip shoes.
He says his job is now split between waiting tables and managing, and he has "two associate's and one bachelor's degree from University of Zingerman's," as it calls its roster of classes in finance, food, and service. He teaches a UZ class himself--"Courageous Conversations"--and he's working on a WCC degree in human resources.
The fine-food world was entirely new to him. In the pizza business, "everything was 'Do you want flavored crust?' and I knew nothing about wine." Now he guides customers through an exotic menu of pricy and inventive Korean cuisine. A nondrinker, he created most of the restaurant's creative "mocktails."
He has built up 115 hours of vacation time that he can't bring himself to use. "The way I've lived, the idea of taking time off is kind of scary. I've scheduled time off and not gone. I've even thought of taking time off to work another job." And he vouches for the four free psychotherapy sessions that came with his benefits package. "They're quality therapists," he remarks. "And I know therapists."
Suzanne Cohen was "kind of" following the One Fair Wage machinations. "I was just going to wait and see," she says. "You can't sit there biting your nails," especially in a world where political sleight of hand often obscures the real consequences of legislation--"this was a perfect example," she says wryly.
I had never met Cohen when I limped into Espresso Royale to interview her, but she guessed it was me from the laptop peeking out of my bag. I explained I had slipped on an icy sidewalk the night before. "Oh honey! Let's find you a comfy chair!" she said, already scanning the room. Her reflexes are finely tuned to caring for people, both in her home life and in her job waiting tables at Casey's Tavern.
Cohen has worked at Casey's for thirty-two years, since it opened. Now sixty-ish, she lives in the home she grew up in. As if to illustrate her penchant for food and care, her phone rings: "Hi Dad, what's happenin'? Well, there's that chicken and potato dish in the fridge for lunch ... Roasted root vegetables, steamed bok choy ... got it? Okay, babe, excellent." A little easy chitchat about upcoming errands and doctor appointments follows.
Cohen's family moved to Ann Arbor when she was in seventh grade--her father, a clinical psychologist, helped found the progressive and now defunct Institute for the Study of Mental Retardation and Related Disabilities. She moved back home several years ago to nurse her mother through dementia, and stayed on to help her father after her mother died. She remains very close to her three siblings--they fly in and stay with their dad whenever Cohen needs a vacation.
Despite a life focused on cooking and nurturing, "kids, marriage, that's not my thing," she says. The New Jersey neighborhood where she spent the first half of her childhood reflected her parents' Jewish and Italian backgrounds, "where people got married in their teens." She knew she didn't want that for herself. She met her partner of fourteen years, a musician, on a semiannual camping trip/gourmet bacchanal she and friends used to hold up north: "pooping in the woods, but eating prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with ginger-lime chutney." They have separate places but spend most of their free time together.
Asked if she sees any commonality in people who choose restaurant work, she thinks a minute. "We're all middle children?" (Graziano, a middle child, had never made the connection before, but was delighted by it. Gordon is also a middle child.)
She works the dinner shift at Casey's five nights a week and says she loves the gig more than ever. "You always have days when you want to kvetch, but I have customers who have been with us since the beginning, three generations of families--births, engagements, couples who met here on their first date. I know it sounds like a commercial, but it's true. The food is good. And hearty. The mac and cheese is to die for."
"I'm embarrassed to admit I was only peripherally aware of" the One Fair Wage campaign, says Terry McClymonds. "It was not a particularly hot topic either among the staff or clientele" at the Aut Bar. Embarrassed because, he emphasizes "I am for all measures that would provide an economic safety net for people in our wonderful, albeit unreliable, business."
If the word "waiter" seems resistant to becoming a gender-neutral descriptor for the profession, it's because it calls to mind a tuxedoed man in a white tablecloth restaurant, setting down a plate of escargots with a flourish. Which exactly describes McClymonds. In 1982, he "served the first meal at Escoffier--escargots and poulet saute a la diable." The restaurant's tuxedoed waiters spoke in the third person ("what would Madame like?") and passed out menus written entirely in French. (He says he used the third-person only for people who wanted it--he had a folksier approach for other customers.)
He left Escoffier in 1997 and began tending the Aut Bar the same year. It has only six stools, but he's also the service bartender for its twelve tables, and many more outside in the summer. Now seventy-one, he works about three shifts a week, and "hand-curates" the Thursday trivia quiz.
Chatting amiably with the owner of Argus Farm Stop about his homemade harissa, and wearing a Yale sweatshirt, McClymonds looks like Wallace Shawn. He had suggested meeting at Argus because he lives nearby and was having car trouble.
Nothing in this picture seems out of place: that a septuagenarian waiter would still be working three nights a week has the ring of hard economic reality. It is equally unsurprising that he has car trouble, lives on the Old West Side, and is an impassioned foodie. Even his Yale education (class of George W. Bush) isn't an eyebrow-raiser: the restaurant industry and Ann Arbor are both magnets for overeducated oddballs. But when he reveals that his nearby place is in Liberty Lofts, where condos trade in the high six figures, some explanation seems needed.
McClymonds grew up in Pittsburgh, "the first person in the family who went to college. Mom was a nurse, dad worked for the gas company.
"I was very smart--there's no other way to put it," he says apologetically, and he went to Yale on a National Merit Scholarship. Drafted after graduation in 1968, he served as a linguist in the Army, went to bartending school on the GI bill, and headed to Ann Arbor.
He ended up at Liberty Lofts several years ago after his father died. "He had a surprising amount of money," which McClymonds was advised to invest in real estate. He could live comfortably without working but believes "it's important to stay active," hence the several nights a week at Aut Bar.
McClymonds concurs that most Ann Arborites tip about twenty percent. "Everyone has their stories of thousand-dollar nights, though who knows if most of them are true?" he says.
Then he tells a true story of his own. "The day the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality, I made about a thousand dollars," he says. "It was a Friday, nice weather--things like that you remember."
[Originally published in March, 2019.]
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