Here's a tip: Don't count on gratuities

Tips have dipped severely for some of the thousands of workers in the Reno-Sparks area who make most of their annual incomes from gratuities.

Other workers, however, say regular customers remain generous with tipping and have softened the blow of the recession.

Bartenders who see the same faces on a weekly basis say tips have held steady despite the significant economic woes in the region.

Dave Lektorich, 32, a bartender at Pizza Baron in Reno since 2001, says the restaurant and bar might not be the best economic bellwether since so many locals call the place home.

"We have got a ton of regulars that when they walk in door we know they will tip well," he says. "That hasn't changed whatsoever."

Stephanie Short, a nine-year bartender at Coach's Grill and Sports Bar on South Virginia Street, says that stability and an ample supply of comely faces working behind the bar keeps regulars coming through the doors. Short, 31, says the high volume of good-tipping regular customers is one of the main reasons she and other employees have such long tenures at Coach's.

"We have busy days and slow days like any restaurant, but we are lucky to have people that come in on a daily basis," says Short.

Both bartenders say gaming helps tipping immensely. Lektorich says the general workforce that comes in for a slice of pie for lunch, or after-work beers, has scaled back on tipping volume, but lucky gamblers more than make up for it. But tips constantly fluctuate depending on a gambler's luck.

"Reno is such a unique area anything can happen any day in Reno," Lektorich says. "One guy can win a $1,000, or $10,000, or another guy can lose $1,000 or $10,000. You never know what to expect. If people are winning they are throwing money around, and if they are losing they are not."

Service-industry employees that don't have gaming at their establishments haven't been as lucky in weathering the recession.

Amber Deffner, 29, has worked at Jacks Cafe on Victorian Avenue in Sparks for the past three years. She says the popular coffee shop has seen a decline in customers over the past few years, as well as a steep dip in gratuities.

Earnings from tips for servers at Jacks far exceed earnings from hourly wages, she says. Although Deffner didn't notice a drastic decline in her 2009 gross revenue, that's mostly because she's working more hours.

Declining earnings from tips have led to large-scale changes in Deffner's home life. Her husband, an electrician, has been out of work for 14 months, so the couple and their three children moved into a smaller house and refinanced auto loans for lower payments. They also closed credit card accounts.

"I have been living on hope for so long that it has pretty much diminished my hope supply," Deffner says. "We are just trying to live on what we have in the now versus being able to plan for the future."

Don Robarts, a cab driver in Reno and Sparks for 10 years, says daytime shifts almost aren't worth driving anymore because so many regular customers have scaled back on tipping.

"They are having their hours cut or losing their jobs, but they still need a ride to go to interviews or to pay bills," he says. "When they started getting their income cut, they didn't have any surplus, and they cut back on anything they could. That has definitely impacted tipping big time."

Robarts says nighttime shifts have always been much more lucrative and remain so today. Inebriated partygoers who call cabs to avoid a DUI have always been generous, he says. However, the overall volume of fares is down by such a large percentage that money has become tight for many area cabbies.

"We don't have the tourism, the people attending conventions is down, and not as many people are coming in for special events," Robarts says. "There just is not enough demand for cabs."

Elizabeth Ward, a Reno hairstylist for the past nine years, says regulars have saved the day she reported more income to the IRS in 2009 than in 2008. About 80 percent of customers in any given day are repeats, she says, and they routinely tip well. But most walk-in customers don't feel as obligated to leave an extra $5 or $10.

"Things are a little tighter for people, and they are just saving where they can," Ward says. "The extra money isn't available for people to give."

Jacks Cafe's Deffner takes reduced tipping with aplomb, though.

"Everyone is doing what they can, and I am in the same boat as everyone else. We are all paddling with one paddle and making big circles in the pond."


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