Myth list: Unicorns, Big Foot, rich waiters

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2010 - 9:40 PM

When I read in Tuesday's paper that Tom Emmer, the GOP-endorsed candidate for governor, claimed that three servers at the Eagle Street Grill in St. Paul "take home over $100,000 a year," I high-tailed it over to the restaurant to get a piece of the action.

Emmer chose Eagle Street for a campaign stop to argue that the state should drop minimum wages for workers who earn tips, which he claims would help small businesses.

I wasn't the first one in the door, but I was close. A guy with "Kevin" stitched on his shirt waited on me.

"Can I have an application for one of those $100,000 jobs?" I asked. Kevin looked like I'd just done a dine-and-dash on him, and I sensed it had not been a good day on Eagle Street.

"I'm a columnist at the newspaper across the river, and I could use a pay upgrade," I said. "When can I start?"

I came prepared for a job interview, just in case. Even though I had no experience waiting tables, as a columnist I have plenty of experience being insulted by drunks late at night. I did tend bar for about three weeks at a place called the Goosetown Lounge, in New Ulm, to augment my paltry salary as a cub reporter, and I am known to mix a pretty good margarita.

But my waiter, who turned out to be co-owner Kevin Geisen, wouldn't even give me an application. He had just fielded a call from an angry woman.

"She called me the effenheimer and said we had disgraced St. Paul by lying about how much our servers make," said Geisen. "She said she'd never come back again."

The caller probably did the same spit-take I did when I read Emmer's quote.

Let's see, according to state data, the median wage for a waiter or waitress is $9.36 per hour. If they work 40 hours a week, with no vacations, that comes to $19,468 per year, including tips. So, a super server would need to make $80,000 more in tips to make up the difference. That comes to $1,538 for a five-day week, or $307 a day in tips, every day. For a year.

I shared my math with Geisen and Joe Kasel, the other owner.

At first, Kasel said Emmer's quote was "manipulated" by the media, then changed that to "misquoted."

"He didn't say anything wrong," said Kasel.

(Star Tribune reporter Jackie Crosby stands by the quote, which was recorded.)

"I don't want people thinking we have people making $100,000 a year here, because we don't," said Kasel, who had to call his 29 employees that morning to prevent a mutiny. "No way, shape or form did I [tell Emmer] anyone made $100,000."

Kasel said rather he told Emmer that a couple of his employees do well, and that "If all the pieces fell in the right place" they could make $100,000. But not a server, he said.

"But don't put any numbers in your story," said Kasel. "I don't even make that much."

The owners said they have loyal employees who earn a good living, but that the tip credit change would save them more than $30,000.

One longtime bartender familiar with Eagle Street said that based on prices and clientele, he'd be surprised if anyone who relies on tips at Eagle Street makes much more than $50,000.

Wade Luneburg, secretary-treasurer for Local 17 UNITE HERE, said such a cut would hurt many workers who barely get by.

Some servers and bartenders earn a decent living, he said, "but if you are talking about someone at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Slayton, they are usually women making very little in tips who have no health insurance," said Luneburg.

"What Representative Emmer is saying is really reprehensible."

While I ate lunch at Eagle Street, two people tried to apply for jobs. By noon, the owners had already fielded numerous angry calls. In fact, Geisen said, "lobbyists" who set up the Emmer appearance were on their way down to smooth things over and correct his quote, something that seems to be a full-time job these days.

Geisen never brought me an application, but he did a decent job waiting on me. I normally tip at least 20 percent, but the possibility of $100,000 servers made me balk. My bill came to just over $11, so I threw two bucks on the table.

Geisen ran off to fight another fire, and I had to feel for the guy. So I threw down another buck.

"That's for Tom Emmer," I said.

I was just trying to do my part, the poor giving back just a little bit to help out the rich.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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