Making cents: Tips dip as economy falters
Thousands of employees in the Tahoe Basin bank on gratuities for much of their income and many are saying the sagging economy has tipped their wages downward.
Rachel Baines, a server at the West Shore’s Fire Sign Cafe, can calculate the troubled economy in the wad of cash she walks away with at the end of her eight-hour shift.
“My tips were consistently between 18 and 20 percent over the winter, but over the last several months, they’ve gone down to 12 to 15 percent on average,” Baines said.
What used to be a lucrative business now has Baines mulling over the possibility of a second job, she said.
“So many people I know up here work two jobs because the cost of living is so high,” Baines said. “I feel the need to get a second job too, but I also want to take advantage of the summer.”
Despite Tahoe’s economic reliance on seasonal travelers, Baines said she counts on the local clientele who frequent the restaurant regularly to bolster her bank account.
“The restaurant has a consistent, local-client base and they’re always generous, so that makes it easier,” Baines said. “It’s busier with the tourists, but they don’t always tip as well.”
Not all tip-reliant workers in the Truckee-Tahoe region say they can lean on the locals. Golf course employees say a large chunk of their change comes from out-of-towners who have cut back on trips to Tahoe, or at least have curtailed tee times.
“The tips are down, but I think it’s in reflection to less players coming out to play golf,” said outside services employee Scott Horn at Old Greenwood in Truckee.
Bartenders at Old Greenwood’s Terrace Grill agree that the head count is dwindling and so are the tips as customers pinch pennies in the midst of dramatic oil inflation, soaring food prices and other economic woes.
“I used to be a bartender at a college bar and I got much better tips than I do here, and people here obviously have more money than college students,” said bartender Mary Garrison.
Garrison’s co-worker Katie Quintero said her gratuities have trimmed from dollars to cents on more than one occasion this summer, and sometimes are omitted entirely.
“If you’re going to go somewhere and you know you’re going to accept a service, you should plan on tipping 15 to 20 percent and if you can’t afford it, don’t go out to dinner,” Quintero said.
It’s not just bartenders in the Tahoe-area feeling the economic crunch.
President David Craver of the National Bartenders Association said as customers tighten their pocketbooks, food industry employees across the U.S. are taking the brunt of the cutback in their income.
“Overall, bartenders and servers have seen a 20 percent drop in their monthly income,” Craver said. “There’s less customers, food prices are going through the roof, restaurants are trying to resist raising prices and everyone is cutting costs in every way they can.”
As hazy days start to give way to bluebird skies, golf course workers say they hope their wages will rise with the ascending smoky atmosphere.
“I haven’t been making as much in tips as I did last year,” said Ashley Mendoza, a Northstar-at-Tahoe golf course employee. “I’m hoping it picks up now that the smoke is gone.”
But not all customer service employees in the North Lake Tahoe-Truckee area say gratuities are suffering with the troubled economy.
Hair stylists and massage therapists reported steady business and generous tips this summer, for the most part.
“I feel like we’ve been pretty lucky with the way the economy is,” said Gale Schjelderup, a stylist at Mane Attraction in Truckee. “Most of our clients are regulars and they continue to tip what they normally would.”
Although Schjelderup and her co-workers say they haven’t seen a decline in individual tips, they have noticed clients taking more time in between cuts.
“I’ve just recently started seeing summer clients that I would have normally seen weeks ago,” said Mane Attraction stylist Lynette Hopkins. “But people are still going to get their hair cut so even if it slows down, it’s not going to come to a screeching halt.”
There’s no denying that financial woes can generate stress, and massage therapist Saskia Lontz said the economic hardships may be drawing in more customers who need the tension release.
“People are stressed out about money, that’s what I’m hearing,” Lontz said in between clients at Truckee Massage on Thursday. “Someone might bow out of getting massages because of financial stress, but someone might replace them because of financial stress.”
Massage therapists at the lake said they agree that the economic climate isn’t taking a toll on tips, but did admit to a sluggish summer.
“We’re not getting as many new clients, which I think is indicative of the economy,” said Massage on the Lake practitioner Megan Mickel. “But people who get massages are fairly affluent and are not as affected by the market.”