I live and work in New York City – the epicenter of uber-Liberal extremism as well as what’s likely the biggest melange of races and ethnicities the world has ever seen. I reckon it’s the first place a vast majority of Bible-Belt Southerners envision if asked about those damned Yankees trying to impose their will. I absolutely loathe extremists of any kind. The Westboro Baptist Church, N.A.M.B.L.A., the N.R.A., The Brady Center, various white supremacist organizations, their corresponding violent and separatist black power organizations, militant Islamic Jihadists all come to mind first. I preach and practice M.Y.O.B. and “live and let live,” so long as you don’t infringe on my rights.
Unlike many disillusioned city dwellers living in their bubbles, I’m not stupid enough to believe the world is a perfect place; it never will be, since humans are imperfect. Few things get my blood boiling faster than intolerant bastards who insist on shoving their agendas down your throat when you’re clearly not hungry for their flavor o’ the day. As Charlie Murphy so eloquently put it, these folks are “habitual line-steppers.”
I can’t count how many times in my hometown that I’ve been peacefully sitting at a bar; slinging drinks at the bar, or casually strolling through Midtown, and have been the unprovoked recipient of a campaign of Shock and Awe. Sometimes, it’s militant Vegans. Sometimes, it’s UWS, wealthy Moms with megaphones, hell-bent on (a) overturning the 2nd Amendment (b) preventing the next Big-Box Store opening or (c) pushing for life- without-parole for not outfitting your 14 year old with a bicycle helmet. There’s the occasional bow-tie sporting fringe group getting all up in my face, insisting they’re still due their 40 acres or other reparations here in 2013. At other times, it’s been physically-threatening, in-your-face D.O.M.A. proponents. I’ve run into many tactical mall ninja types (typically urban douches from North-West Brooklyn), recruiting folks to raid and shutdown the nearest Petco, citing their “horrific” dog management practices. Lastly, I tend to be a magnet for a significant contingent of my darling gay male acquaintances (as well as a brigade of strangers) who appear to be on a Jihad of their own: a never-ending (and equally irritating) quest to “flip” my (forgive the pun) straight ass.
In a town oozing acceptance, and one in which municipal law and Hospitality Management Groups supposedly enforce it, what’s really in the minds and practices of Servers and Bartenders when it comes to race?
No matter how technologically advanced we’ve become, despite relatively consistent and efficient enforcement of modern-day law, no matter how brutally Hizzoner has beat you with his bad-ass legislative stick, the reality is that we humans are little more than highly-advanced animals – “birds of a feather…” As I’ve mentioned once before, I despise ignorance, hate and discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religious views, etc. At the same time, I often severely struggle to accept that all forms of discrimination and “sticking together” are necessarily unwarranted. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for like-minded, like-looking, similar aged, same ethnicity, etc. people to congregate, stick together, and generally support each other except when it comes to exclusion or worse: active hate. I think of Orthodox Jewish communities, Korean-American support organizations, Italian-American and Greek-American clubs and other ethnic organizations as generally positive – except when – again – they cross the line into preventing outside interests from succeeding in various disciplines (like trying to rent an apartment).
I also don’t think “equal opportunity” should mean equal opportunity in every respect. For example, I have a very hard time swallowing what the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Police Department did years ago. That is, lowering physical standards. I cringe knowing that there may be 120 pound Firefighters called upon to carry my unconscious body down 3 flights of stairs in an emergency. I bemoan the fact that there are 300 pound cops who couldn’t run more than 100 feet in trying to apprehend a perp, or that there are 4’10″ cops who would require their radioing in for a swath of assistance or deploying their service pistols as the only way to subdue a 6′ 190 pound intoxicated attacker. Despite what the law says in terms of non-discrimination, you can’t hire a paraplegic to bartend in your nightclub. You cannot expect an overweight retiree to wait tables at Hooters and stay in business. I’m sorry. Recruiting minority lifeguards, simply to meet quotas and promote Equal Opportunity, puts peoples’ lives at risk.
This brings us to Guests (previously known as Customers – before large-scale corporate Hospitality flipped the script). Associates (previously known as Employees), are expected – and required by law – to treat every guest fairly, with complete disregard to their race, creed, blaa, blaa, blaa.
What’s the reality?
The truth of the matter is that this is simply not the case. Based on decades of personal, retail experience, as well as observations and engagement of co-workers, I will tell you that in this town (and likely many others), Front of House staff have painted pictures of both “ideal guests” as well as prejudices against “non-ideal guests,” long before a guest has ever opened his/her mouth. Despite what the mainstream wants everyone to believe, stereotypes are not completely without basis. I realize this is a highly devisive issue. That doesn’t mean it needs to be ignored. Stereotypical behaviors often reach cartoonish heights in bars/restaurants as folks are generally far less inhibited as they may be – say in an office environment. Furthermore, people’s “true colors” tend to bleed out in direct proportion to how much alcohol they’ve consumed.
So what’s the “ideal” guest from a Front-of-the-House perspective?
The answer to the question is that bartenders in particular, internally rejoice upon the arrival of middle-aged (late twenties to early fifties), suit-sporting, button-shirt-loving, businessmen with American Express cards who happen to be mostly white. Despite a myriad of efforts at writing this in a non-discriminatory fashion, the problem is that there is absolutely zero way of stating my observations and experiences without sounding racist. Sorry. I’m not a racist. I’m an equal-opportunity hater. Actually, that’s just sarcasm.
I must re-iterate that I’m extremely tolerant and treat everyone fairly all the time. My opinions on race, despite knowing they’re shared by many service industry staff, are herein officially mine alone and are based on nearly 25 years of serving. In spite of having an open mind/heart and having been burned for more times than I can possibly count – often reinforcing stereotypes – I continue to welcome all guests with a smile, kindness, generosity and grandiose expectations of those encouraging behaviors being reciprocated; albeit with a Law Enforcement Officer’s back-of mental defensive posture (seemingly insane events are all to common at bars).
Forget the fact that you’ve walked in looking, pacing, loudly talking, questioning, ordering like a problematic, non-greeting, non-thanking, indecisive and broke asshole. And that, my friends, has nothing to do with race or financial status. It has everything to do with upbringing. Many of New York’s inhabitants who frequent bars are simply lacking adequate class – period.
I’m no expert on Social Economics, nor am I a History or Psychology major. But, I’ve sometimes surmised that since a large percentage of minority groups tend to be reared in low-income NYC neighborhoods, and often have to fight like hell to get out of there, there may be somewhat of a correlation (gulp) in terms of education, environment and behavior. I also suspect that this is one of those unfortunate facets and remnants of hundreds of years, of discrimination. Though vastly improved in recent decades, the playing field in many respects is sadly, not level. In a large sense, minorities are still being victimized from that perspective – something Caucasians simply never have to think about or experience.
Europeans: I know. They’re not a race. But they might as well from the Service Industry perspective. The fact of the matter is that most American Front-of-House staff have recurring nightmares and seek professional therapy over the thought of off-the-boat French and Italian tourists strolling into their establishments and sitting at their tables or barstools. Again, this is not the case for all French, Italian and European guests. But, it applies to an overwhelmingly large group of tourists. They don’t tip. Or, they’ll tip one or two dollars on an $80 tab having occupied prime real-estate, sipping Panna, espresso and Ricard for two hours. Enough said.
The exception to this generalization may be a nightclub or tourist-infested location (think Miami Beach) where servers and bartenders are lucky enough to be able to “Auto-Grat” every transaction. Gratuizing checks is not the convention in NYC.
Black Folks: I’m a mutt. I’m part Black. And, I’m telling you that Black people in NYC are cheap. No one in the industry wants to go on record telling you that for obvious reasons, but it’s the unfortunate truth. To a large degree, this issue can be exacerbated by the clientele your particular venue caters to. In all my years of serving and tending bar all over Manhattan, never have I been witness to one particular group, who consistently tip poorly more than black folks. I can’t explain the reasons but this is simply a known, egregious, and self-deprecating phenomenon. There is no lack of studies on the topic: Why Black People Don’t Tip: Just Another Stereotype Or Ugly Truth? and Why We Tip: Survey Shows Racial Divide come to mind first.
Coworkers over the years have mostly the same experience and internally hang their heads in despair in certain instances. Now look: I can hear the flames already. There are obviously many, many black folks who tip normally and a whole lot who tip extraordinarily well. I’m simply relaying the fact that the non-tipping and poor-tipping problem occurs with a consistently higher frequency among this particular race. That’s all. It hurts to think about and it hurts to write. But, that pain in my heart doesn’t change the facts. Unlike some, as noted in a report published by The Consumerist, my service standards are never anything less than stellar no matter what race you happen to be and no matter how many times I’ve been stiffed.
This situation is really, really unfortunate as it leads to alarming levels of distrust and bitterness. Being repeatedly burned leads F.O.H. staff to harbor prejudices. It’s a viscous circle. Some servers and bartenders become noticeably nasty via body language, audible grumbling, delays, poor service, etc. It’s disgusting really. What that all leads to is – you guessed it – bad tips. One behavior feeds the other. The issue is so prevalent, it prompted a Cornell study.
As previously mentioned, and with like with every single one of these groups, there are obviously many exceptions to the stereotype. For those reasons, particularly with guests I haven’t seen before, I hang my head down with horrible shame when that person bucks the trend and is nothing but gracious, patient, engaging and generous. This is especially true when said guest (White, Hispanic, Black, Asian or whatever) is dressed like a complete thug.
White Folks: Right or wrong, there’s a far less-heightened sense of hopelessness when a group of white guys (not women or college aged bros) walks in and plops down a credit card followed by an unsolicited “…please run a tab for me.” The ringmaster promptly orders for the group without hesitation or missing any drink modifiers. In those cases, you can often see a visual sign of relief (and joy) on the bartenders mug.
The reason is that the bartender knows that this group is comprised of somewhat more tolerant, experienced, financially able drinkers on which he/she can normally expect a very healthy gratuity. Attractive and engaging female bartenders in this scenario can often receive relatively obscene gratuities.
Women: I’ll state it outright. Female drinkers are often problematic (regardless of race). Even female barstaff will tell you that, in general, they’d much rather serve a group men given the choice. There is no distinction between a group of four, 23 year old college grads sitting at your bar and a group of 45 year old professional women boozing it up. The problems are the same.
A fair percentage of them are frequently indecisive, scrutinize the bill, and are plain-old poorer tippers when compared to men. If there’s one clearly identifiable group of folks who want to consistently split bills four ways and pay with individual credit cards more than others, it’s women more than any other.
If you see a mixed (men and women) group of professionals out for happy hour drinks, and a couple of the executives offer to pick up the groups tab, notice that the bartender will always gravitate towards one of the male’s credit card or try to hand the check to a male in the group. Men, in that circumstance will often over-tip while women will frequently under-tip. Go figure.
Remember, these are generalizations, not necessarily “the way it is” with every single. Neither am I a hater. These are simply observations and unfortunately, harsh realities. Folks often don’t want to hear the truth. I didn’t enter the Hospitality business with any preconceived notions about race whatsoever. The race situation herein described, in terms of tipping, is purely a result of experience
These observations don’t necessarily represent the majority of specified groups on every occasion but rather, a significant enough percentage where the stereotypes are glaringly obvious. There are many other factors attributed to behavior. One of them is the bar’s “social status.” That is, given the same percentage of different races (or sex), these issues tend to blur and the decrease in conjunction with “classier” restaurants and bars (i.e., dress code and price). Conversely, the stereotypes are blown greatly out of proportion in dive bars (read: cheap).
My son likes to refer to bad days as “Sneaky Hate Spirals.” If you ask me, it’s a brilliant term. Basically, it’s a day when nothing monumentally terrible has happened. But, a series of minor issues and indirect negativity have piled up to bring down his mood. Racial profiling and stereotypes aren’t much different. Writing about here in this article is painful. Witnessing these goings-on, and pointing them out, is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wrote this post long ago yet struggled to hit the “publish” button. I don’t want things to be “the way they are” and as they’re described but they are. Nor do I want to come of as one of those douchebag bartenders because, honestly, I’m not. I hold a deep, innate love for all my fellow brothers and sisters of all walks and hate being reminded that folks often behave badly. You can’t always blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol.
Regardless, I continue to try to “kill people with kindness” and inspire even the most hardened, irreverent, unkind, demanding, non-tipping guest of any race to kick-up his/her game just a notch.
Spend any significant amount of time as an F.O.H.’er in a high-volume bar or restaurant in this town, and I’d expect that your experiences would not be much different.