Treating Others with Respect Is Highly Profitable

A lesson from a bartender

Image by user1496066589 from Pixabay

Earlier this week, I told the story of a banker who learned never to judge people and treat them one way or another based on their appearance. Instead, he treated every customer and in fact every person he met with the utmost dignity and respect, and it paid off handsomely.

Today, we will examine “never judge” from the perspective of a completely different industry.

Bartending is a profession that allows you to earn a handsome living without a college education. Mainly, you need to have

  • A skill for mixing drinks
  • A good memory for people’s orders, and for remembering what your regulars like to drink
  • Most of all, personality and likability, so your customers feel a connection to you, tip you appropriately, and come back to see you again

Although it’s not a job that requires a degree, bartending can pay very nice money. At the peak of my career as a software engineer/web developer, I had 18 years’ experience and a Master’s degree in the field. Yet, as I befriended bartenders in my neighborhood’s restaurants, I was rather surprised to learn some of them earned more than I did!

That kind of earnings is by no means typical of bartending gigs in the United States — in fact, very little is guaranteed. Most bartenders and servers make a minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, and the rest of their earnings are expected to come from tips from customers.

20% of your total bill is considered a standard amount to tip here in the U.S., although tip percentages vary wildly. You’d be surprised how many people are stingy tippers. Many leave a dash on the tip line on their credit card receipt to zero out the tip. Others will round up a very tiny amount; for example, rounding up a $72.14 check to $75.

On the other hand, many people go above the customary 20%. For bartenders I know and visit regularly, I like to leave 30%. Other regulars have been known to tip even bigger, leaving half the amount of the check or more.

Because most of their earnings come from tips, the amount bartenders can earn in the U.S. varies widely. The most successful bartenders usually work in venues where the following are true:

  • High average ticket price — since tips are usually based on a percentage of the entire check, the higher the check, the higher the tip
  • It’s a place that stays busy — a restaurant or bar in a well-traveled location generally pays better than one that is off the beaten path

To a large extent, these factors are beyond a bartender’s control. However, they do control two other factors:

  • Attitude — a customer who feels they were attentively and courteously taken care of will often leave a bigger tip
  • Regulars — it’s highly desirable to cultivate regular customers since they tend to tip better than random ones

Several years ago, I discovered a podcast interviewing local bartenders in my city. The first episode featured a bartender known as Spike who happens to be a friend of mine. He is one of the most successful bartenders in my city, both in earning and in terms of attracting a regular following to wherever he works.

The host asked him, “More than anything else, what is your one secret to success? What’s the one thing you do that makes you stand out from the herd?”

It’s funny — although he’s in a completely different industry, Spike’s answer was not terribly different from the banker I profiled earlier this week.

“Never judge by appearances,” he said. “Never assume.”

The podcast host asked Spike to elaborate. “Well, let’s say somebody comes in dressed like they don’t have the money to be in your restaurant. You might be tempted to assume he’s not going to leave you a good tip, or any tip at all, and pay less attention to him than the other customers seated at your bar.”

He continued, “Or maybe a customer appears to fit a profile not known for tipping well. Take college students, for example. Many of them have never held full-time jobs before. Also, many of them don’t understand we make $2.13 an hour. So college students as a group tip less than average.”

“But you never want to assume that because someone looks like a member of a group that doesn’t tip so well, that they individually can be judged by that,” explained Spike.

“You want to bring your A-game to every last customer who sits at your bar, every last person you wait on. Treat them with respect and dignity and treat them like they’re the customer who’s going to tip you $1000 for serving them two drinks. You never know. They just might be.”

“If you start judging based on looks, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Spike said. “If you give people a B-minus level of service based on what you think they’re going to tip, you’re probably limiting yourself to a ceiling of a B-minus tip.”

“But if you assume the best of every customer, and give everybody your best level of service, sometimes people will surprise you. The man who looked like he couldn’t afford a bag of popcorn will leave a $100 bill under his empty beer bottle.”

Spike explained that even if a customer seems indifferent or rude, he still gives them his best level of service. “I don’t pretend to know what’s on the customer’s mind,” he said. “Perhaps they’re from out of the country and their terseness is just a cultural thing. Or maybe they’re just having a bad day as we all do from time to time.”


You may not be in a profession in which your earnings are so directly determined by your personality and your attitude, but this is a lesson you can still take with you.

In fact, it’s a lesson that’s applicable far beyond your work life. It applies in every social setting, to everyone you meet.

It costs nothing to bring your best attitude, your A-game, to every person you meet. If you judge someone by superficial appearances, you’ll put a ceiling on your interactions, as Spike pointed out. You’ll deny people the chance to get to know the best version of you. Why would you want to do that, when your best version takes so little extra effort to put out there?

Do you find that you make your own luck when you put your best version forward consistently? Let me know in the comments.

Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here’s a link to that earlier story about why you should never judge:

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn

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