Photo by Frederic Ballell
Waiter on Rambla
A waiter working on La Rambla sometime before 1910. Image courtesy of Arxiu Historic de la Ciutat de Barcelona, Arxiu Fotogràfic
Back in the first half of the 20th century, waiters in American and European cities were known to pay for the right to work at restaurants. As recounted by Kerry Segrave in his book, Tipping, after handing over a weekly or monthly fee, waiters then made a living from customers’ tips. At finer establishments this arrangement was sometimes taken a step further: when the position of head waiter became vacant, it was auctioned off to the highest bidder. To win, a bidder usually needed a financial backer who then also received a percentage of the new head waiter’s earnings from tips.
This system, in Europe at least, disappeared in the years following the Second World War. Unlike in the US, where waiters still earn the bulk of their income from tips, waiters in Europe survive first and foremost on a fixed salary. Tipping is now mostly symbolic, a vestige of another time.
Pep Martínez, who requested that his real name not be used, has worked for the past 20 years as a maitre d’ at one of Barcelona’s finer restaurants. When asked if he’d heard of how waiters once paid to work, he chuckled. “Believe me,” he said with a wink, “I know places where waiters still pay their quotas.”
Now in his late 50s, Martínez has worked in restaurants for over 40 years. “I began waiting tables at the age of 13 in Madrid and have been working in restaurants ever since,” he told Metropolitan. “I have to say there’s been a progressive degeneration of the profession. The service, in Barcelona at least, is a disaster.”
Martínez put the blame on restaurant owners. “Except for top-end restaurants, most places in Barcelona will hire just about anybody,” he said. “No one has any training. In my opinion, restaurant owners don’t pay good waiters enough. In the end, if you have to work weekends and mealtimes, and you’re not well paid, most people will look for other work. The good waiters end up leaving.”
Martínez, at the pinnacle of his profession, earns €2,000 a month, plus tips, which in his case amount to over €1,000 a month. Most waiters, however, don’t make anywhere near that. The going rate is between six and seven euros an hour. After working a 40-hour week, an average waiter thus goes home with about €1,000 a month. And, perhaps, an additional €100 in tips.
“It’s not great pay, but that’s the going rate,” said Tessy Enrietti, a 24-year-old waitress from Grenoble, France. She works at the Resolis, a relaxed, mildly trendy restaurant in the Raval. Despite the low wage, Tessy is happy with her job.
“I was offered eight euros an hour to work at place in the Born, but you had to wear a uniform and the atmosphere was uptight,” she explained. “I prefer to work somewhere that has a good vibe, where the people who run it are cool, even if I get paid less.”
Like many young people attracted by Barcelona’s fame as an ‘in’ city, Enrietti found it easy to get work waiting tables. The city is home to almost 11,000 bars, restaurants and cafés, a sum considerably higher than the city’s total number of streets, according to the Ajuntament’s most recent statistics. Enrietti’s boss at the Resolis, Sebastian, who is also French, said that his criteria for hiring waiters was, first and foremost, personality. “I don’t even look at the curriculum. Anybody can learn to serve food. What I look for is sincerity, motivation and the ability to get on well with others. People come by every week looking for work. Most are from other countries in southern Europe or Latin America. Waiting is the first job they look for because it’s the easiest to do and to get. If the person is a good worker, we help them get a work permit.”
Barbara, who asked not to use her real name, is 28 and from Brazil. She has worked illegally as a waitress at a restaurant here for the past two and a half years, while also studying at design school. “I don’t understand this country,” she said. “The Spanish government gave legal work status to 700,000 illegal immigrants in 2005, but non-Europeans with student visas were excluded. We’re educated, we have skills, but for us to study and legally work, we have to get a work permit, which you can only get if someone offers you a job. The restaurant where I work tried to get me a permit, but because they had unpaid fines with the Ajuntament, the Ajuntament refused to grant the permit.”
Barbara’s is by no means an isolated case. Many waiters, particularly non-Europeans, work illegally. This arrangement, truth be told, is good for restaurant owners, because it keeps their money in the black and, hence, free of taxes. Hiring undocumented staff, however, can lead to abusive wages and hours. For restaurant owners, this tactic also has its risks. Fines for illegally employing European Union members begin at €300; for non-European Union members, the first-time fine is €6,000 and subsequent fines can run as high as €60,000.
Miguel Soreno (not his real name), a 24-year-old Argentine, has worked illegally as a waiter since his arrival in Spain four years ago. Two days after leaving his last job at a bar-restaurant in Badalona, city inspectors arrived at the bar and busted his replacement, an illegally employed Colombian. “In a few weeks, I’m getting married to a Spanish woman,” Soreno said. “Then I’ll have papers and can find some other work. I don’t want to be a waiter all my life; the work is intense and exhausting, it takes me a few hours just to wind down after working. You’d be surprised by the amount of drugs restaurant workers take to get through the day.”
Where he currently works, at a fashionable restaurant in Ciutat Vella, Soreno earns €1,300 a month for working five days a week, eight to ten hours a day. He and his fellow waiters share equally all of their tips with the rest of the restaurant staff, excluding the owners. “The best customers are the Americans and English,” Soreno said. “They’re the most polite and considerate, and they also show their gratitude in tips. The worst are the Catalans, Portuguese and Italians; they treat you as an inferior and, let’s face it, people here don’t leave tips.”
Down at the Port Olímpic, head waiter Bilal Ahmed gets to keep for himself all the tips he earns. This compensates for the fact that he is paid €1,200 a month for working 10-hour days, six days a week at the Cangrejo Loco, one of the best and busiest seafood restaurants along the row of such eateries at the port.
“We have a lot of international customers and I make a minimum of €50 a day in tips, so it adds up,” Ahmed said. The 35-year-old Pakistani, who studied electronic engineering in the US and the UK, said he was content with his job. Along with the tips, there are sometimes other highlights. “Last summer, I had the pleasure of serving Leonardo di Caprio and his new girlfriend,” he said.
Di Caprio ordered a lobster casserole and left a good tip.
First published June 2007.