When I go to an upscale restaurant, I assume my server makes more money than I do.
That's not something I resent—when I go to a doctor or dentist, I also assume they're making more money than I do. I work in the media, so pretty much everyone my age, and with my experience and education, makes more money than I do.
But that server might also make more than you do—even if you work at Nike or Intel or for the city. This is a town where food and drink dominate the economy. Bartenders and servers are Portland's middle class every bit as much as the much-touted creatives of the tech economy.
Last week, this issue was trending locally after we made an offhand Facebook comment to a reader who didn't think anyone working in a bar or restaurant could possibly afford a $1,500-per-month apartment, explaining that, yes, some servers do actually make $60,000 a year or more. The Portland Mercury seized on this, calling Willamette Week "out of touch."
To make the point, The Mercury cited a May 2015 survey by the U.S. Department of Labor called the Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, which showed Oregon servers make only $23,690 a year with an average hourly wage of $11.39—that's minimum wage plus an average of $2.14 per hour in tips. Bartenders statewide made minimum wage plus $2.17 per hour in tips, according to the statistics. Put another way: According to the official statistics, repeated by The Mercury, for every bartender who closes $80 in tabs over the course of an hour netting $16 in tips, there are seven other bartenders working who don't get a penny in tips. Hmmm.
We've done a lot of reporting on this subject, especially as restaurants adapt to new wage and labor laws. We've previously reported that Kurt Huffman, whose ChefStable operates 10 restaurants, said some servers at one of his group's spots are making upward of $100,000. They're not alone—he's seen numbers for a steakhouse that has a Portland location, where the average server makes $85,000 a year.
"There's no server out there that makes less than $20 per hour," Huffman says. "If you're a server and you're working a six- to eight-hour shift, and you're doing only $600 [in business] for the night—that's a very low number, if you have a night where your server is only doing $600, you're probably overstaffed—you're keeping $120. You're going to tip out a third of it. You're going to walk with $80, plus your wages. And that would be a very not-busy restaurant.
"It's hard for me to imagine the economics of a restaurant working—just working at all—if a server is making less than $20 per hour. So you extrapolate that out to the full employment, and you're at $40,000."
Servers and bartender do not like to talk publicly about what they make. Few of us do. But I talked to a dozen people and got a few to dish—anonymously, given the sensitivity of the subject. Even anonymously, those interviewed went off the record at points. (Others offered to talk, but only in person, which my deadline did not allow.)
A partner at one of Portland's consensus best restaurants says servers at local fine-dining spots make $50,000 to $100,000 a year.
"Admittedly, that's a pretty big range—but it's definitely far above the menial-wage work people associate with it," he says. "I think a lot of people might be surprised to learn that. Maybe they're making $100,000 working in an office, but they're making less per hour than the server waiting on them at a fine-dining restaurant."
OK, let's go through the obvious caveats: Many, many restaurant jobs suck. Back-of-the-house staff gets hosed almost everywhere. No one in the restaurant industry needs a pay cut or should be blamed for this nation's unfair economy. It's tough work and the money is well-earned. No matter how much you think anybody makes, you should tip $1 per drink or 20 percent if you're patronizing a bar, tavern, pub, brewpub, food cart, taco stand or restaurant in America.
Now that we have all that out of the way, let's talk more about the actual numbers.
The owner of a well-regarded cocktail bar, who has been in the business for almost 30 years and worked at an upscale restaurant bar and a music venue, among other places, estimates the average bartender and server in the Portland area makes "probably, like, $40,000 to $50,000, if you adjust for untaxed income." And, he says, "They're working 30- to 35-hour weeks."
Those hours are hard—dealing with picky and difficult people, cleaning up barf and cutting off drunks. They also have a tough time getting health care. But it's also a lifestyle many people enjoy.
"People that work in a more traditional 9-to-5 job where they're in a cubicle or whatever might have a misconception about how great of a blue-collar job serving is," he says. "This is a career where people have houses, jobs, retirement accounts."
Our source says when he tended bar in the '90s, he often made $600 to $700 a week in tips, and only paid taxes on 10 percent of that.
"Then, I worked at a nightclub where I was making $800 to $1,000 per week," he says.
That's double the most recent statistics, which say an average bartender or server in Oregon makes less than $500 per week if he works a full 40 hours. (According to the 1999 statistics, he should have made less than $16,000 a year.)
"The Mercury posts this thing, 'This is what the average server gets paid.' But at many, many places, the servers are not required to declare very much," the source says. "At most neighborhood bars, they're required to declare 10 percent of their tips. There's so much gray income. People say you can't get a house on undeclared income. Well, I bought a house on undeclared income. I bought a bar on undeclared income. There are ways to show unreported income."
And, he says, the best places for tips aren't necessarily the ones you'd guess.
"Neighborhood bars—those are probably the best service jobs of all," he says. "If you work at Bonfire or Sandy Hut, you're taking home $300 and probably declaring $50."
A bartender, who left her dive-bar job for a place that pools tips, confirmed this.
"When I was bartending at a dive bar, four nights a week, my average was about $350 a shift, cash," she says. "So what's that? Just under $70,000? Average for servers in this town is probably about $100 a shift—you don't want to walk with less—and for bartenders probably $200 a shift, on average. I'd say take-home wage is around $40,000 to $60,000, depending on the gig."
Our source who is a partner at one of the city's best restaurants, agrees that busy dive bars are the best gigs. And he says those servers are the only ones who still get away with not claiming income in the age of credit cards.
Skilled service workers are in huge demand, they say, though they could be forgiven for avoiding the subject.
"The appearance of not making a lot is part of the tip economy, but the truth is that servers make a lot of money, and as an employer you have to offer competitive compensation to get the best," the source says. "The misconception is based off all service jobs being grouped together: a teenager who's waiting tables at an ice cream shop to someone in a diner to someone who's waiting tables at a restaurant that focuses on tasting menus. There's a huge scale of training that goes into the latter that doesn't go into the former. People think this is unskilled labor, a thing they could do, when it's really not."