Some service sector workers see tips slowly returning

Waitress Sarah Breckenridge, right, hustles back to the kitchen with a pile of dirty plates as she cleans off a table at Lois’ Place, 241 Grand Ave., while fellow server Sandy Talbert takes a customer’ order.

Dining out, or even ordering in, usually entails tipping.

Waiters, pizza delivery drivers and bartenders say tips are down. The slide began at the start of the year, many of them say, but some said business appears to be picking up again, evidenced in a boost in tips since the start of the traditional Memorial Day travel weekend. Others simply continue to mire along.

Cheri Trice, who has waited tables at Village Inn, 757 Horizon Drive, for the past 6 1/2 years, said after months of slow days, business is starting to perk up, in large part because of the return of the travel season.

From November to February, her tips were cut in half, she said. From a usual take-home of around $130 a day, she found herself walking out the door with just $60. On Sundays, the busiest day of the week for this 42-year-old who works the morning and lunch shift, restaurant sales fell from around $6,000 per day to $3,000, she said.

The trend slowly has been reversing itself, and on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Trice and the rest of the wait staff saw their busiest Sunday in a long time, with sales of $5,800, she said.

Folded inside a small strip mall off Grand Avenue downtown is Lois’ Place, a country-style diner, where there has been a steady uptick in business since midwinter. But, like many other businesses in the Grand Valley, it is climbing out of a hole that was plowed late last year when the world economy did a nose dive.

“We are doing OK,” said Lois McGary, who has owned Lois’ Place for the past 19 years.

“But I have to say business is down from last year.”

When business dropped off late last year, sales fell a couple hundred dollars a week for each waitress, which has translated into fewer tips. It is symptomatic of the situation across the Grand Valley. People who work for tips are seeing fewer dollars at the end of the day. For some, though, things are starting to improve. People seem to be loosening up a bit with their money, choosing to indulge and to tip.

Two Rivers Convention Center experienced a decrease in its food-service business, but the numbers have not been devastating.

From January to April in 2008, there were 315 events, compared to 282 in the same four months this year; revenue fell $22,893 to $869,026; and meals served dropped by 4,367 plates to 31,228, said Tim Seeberg, general manager of Two Rivers.

People are still eating out and tipping, just not as much as they used to a year ago.

“I still try to maintain the same good tipping,” said Kathryn Bahlmann, 43. “They are the same good people, and they do the same good job.”

She made the comment while enjoying lunch with a friend in nice weather as they dined outside at the Main Street Cafe, 504 Main St. It was a treat for themselves.

Like many diners, Bahlmann said she goes out less these days and pays more attention to menu price.

People are also more selective and looking for value.

Traveler Brian Keller, 38, in town from St. Louis to visit friends and cycle around the Moab area, said he makes conscious choices every time he dines out.

“The mom-and-pop operations like this do so much more for the economy,” Keller said while chomping on a couple slices of Pizza from Enzo’s Pizzeria, 759 Horizon Drive. “It’s people. It’s not a corporation.”

Many of Enzo’s former customers have left town.

“With the (oil and gas field workers) moving out of here, we lost some of our regulars,” said Chris VanDoozer, 48, the former owner and the current manager of Enzo’s.

Other than that, it has been a typical seasonal drop in patronage, he said. It is not a worry to him, he said, because his regular customers are still here.

“The businesses that were open two years ago,” he said referring to the offices along Horizon Drive, “are still here.”

Some people in the bar business say they have seen a big slump in business since early this year when energy workers were being laid off.

“It’s right at almost a 40 percent decrease (in sales),” said Paul Ruth, 46, owner of the Stadium Sports Bar and Grill, 3210 Interstate 70 Business Loop.

He said he saw the writing on the wall late last year when the economy started stalling and the state debated new rules for energy companies. The rules have become law, and the layoffs are reality.

“It didn’t hit us until March,” Ruth said.

A majority of his customers are working men. The extravagances of their lifestyles rise and fall with the fortunes of the gas patches, he said.

“We can’t make any money,” said Russell William, 46, a regular Stadium patron who added he’s been working in the gas fields since he was 13.

William said he is one of the lucky ones. He’s employed. So when he’s at the bar, he tips just the same as he always has, he said.

“It doesn’t affect me because I still have a job,” William said. “Everyone else in here (the bar) is trying to get one.”

Danyell Morgan, 32, a bartender at Quincy Bar & Grill, 609 Main St., said the economy for her customers is a side thought to what’s on the shelves behind the bar.

There are some who will tip regardless, “even if the economy is bad,” Morgan said. But on the other hand, “There are a lot of people who don’t have the money to tip, but they do
have money to drink,” she said. “It just works that way.”

“In this type of business, it is hit and miss,” she added.

Pizza-delivery drivers, who often are paid less than $6 an hour, depend on tips for a large part of their income.

“Tips have been declining since about February,” said Chris Raft, 29, manager of Papa John’s Pizza in Clifton. “The thing that is killing them is when they get stiffed.”

For his nighttime drivers, tips have fallen off about 25 percent to 30 percent since the store opened late last year. Drivers that were accustomed to piling up the dough at a rate of $400 a week saw their earnings sliced by $100 a week, he said.

Orders have not declined, he said.

“I don’t know why people are still ordering pizza,” Raft said.

Chris Martin, 21, used to work at the Papa John’s location near Mesa State College. He transferred to the Clifton kitchen when it opened in November. He said he anticipated earning about $30,000 a year, judging by what he was making at the old store.

He was on par to better that sum until the early part of 2009. He has pared down his expectations by thousands of dollars.

He just shrugged and readied himself for the next delivery: “A three-grand cut over the course of the year,” he said.

Across the I-70 Business Loop, Martin’s competitor, Russ, a Pizza Hut delivery driver, said business across the board — tips and sales — is down 30 percent from this time last year.

“The Super Bowl was not nearly what it was last year,” said Russ, who did not want his last name printed. “We are like everyone else. We are dealing with 30 percent less.”

Despite the reduced spending habits of many, some tip earners anticipate things will turn around soon.

“We are not selling a luxury item. We are selling something that people need every day,” said Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “It has become an
essential part of people’s lifestyles.”


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