Best Cities for Waiters and Waitresses

March 20, 2017 by Evan Comen

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Waiting tables is one of the most common occupations in the United States. There are 2.5 million waiters and waitresses nationwide, often working for low wages and customer tips. Earning $11.07 per hour, the average waitperson takes home $23,020 a year.

In large metropolitan areas and popular tourist towns, waiters can earn far more. To find where servers in the United States earn the most, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and determined the 10 best cities for waiters and waitresses.

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Many food service professionals are paid minimum wage. In some states, employers can be on the hook for as little as the $2.13 an hour minimum wage for tipped employees. If tipped workers do not receive enough in tips to meet the normal $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, employers are held responsible to make up the difference.

Click here to see the best cities for waiters and waitresses.

Almost all of the 10 best cities for waiters and waitresses are in Washington and California, where businesses must pay their tipped employees at least $11 an hour and $10.50 an hour, respectively — the two highest minimum wages of any state. Waiters in the Seattle metro area, which in 2014 became the first major U.S. city to pass a $15 minimum wage into law, earn more on average than waiters in all but three cities.

Because waiters and waitresses earn part of their wages through gratuity, they tend to earn the most in cities where goods and services cost more in general. In eight of the 10 cities with the highest wages for waiters and waitresses, the average cost of living is at least 5% higher than it is nationwide. While the high cost of goods and services means waiters will earn larger tips on more expensive meals, it also means their own earnings will be worth less.

For example, in the New York metro area, the mean annual wage for waiters and waitresses of $29,290 is higher than the $23,020 national average. The price of goods and services in the city is 22% higher than it is nationwide, however, and waiters therefore may be able to afford less than those in other parts of the country. Adjusted for the city’s high cost of living, the real annual wage of New York waiters and waitresses is just $22,758, lower than the national figure.

Servers also earn the most in cities where residents are wealthy and restaurants see a lot of business. In seven of the 10 best cities for waiters and waitresses, the average accommodation and food services establishment generates roughly $70,000 per employee or more, far more than the $58,974 average national figure. When restaurants generate more revenue per employee, the waitstaff likely earns more in tips.

To determine the 10 best cities for waiters and waitresses, 24/7 Wall St. analyzed wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2015. Annual wages are calculated as the product of hourly mean wage and the year-round, full-time figure of 2,080 hours. For cost of living, we considered regional price parity for 2014. We also reviewed GDP by industry for 2015 from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and median household income from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. Average business revenue also came from the U.S. Census Bureau and is for 2012. All data are for the latest year available.

These are the 10 best cities for waiters and waitresses.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

10. Modesto, CA
> Avg. annual wage: $30,670
> Avg. hourly wage: $14.74
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 33.2%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 13.7

Waiters and waitresses in Modesto are paid some of the highest wages of any servers nationwide. This is the case in several other cities in California. Waiters and waitresses in Modesto earn an average of $14.74 an hour, $3.67 more than the national figure. In a number of cities where waiters and waitresses tend to earn more, the cost of living is much higher as well, offsetting some of these high incomes. However, the cost of goods and services in Modesto is actually slightly below the average cost of living nationwide.

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9. Olympia-Tumwater, WA
> Avg. annual wage: $31,600
> Avg. hourly wage: $15.19
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 37.3%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 15.2

Olympia is one of many cities on this list located in either California or Washington state, the two states with the highest minimum wage. All businesses in Washington are required to pay their employees at least $11.00 an hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Waiters and waitresses in Olympia earn an average of $15.19 annually, 37.3% more than the $11.07 national figure.

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8. Anchorage, AK
> Avg. annual wage: $31,870
> Avg. hourly wage: $15.32
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 38.4%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 15.9

Waiters and waitresses earn $31,870 a year on average in Anchorage, roughly $9,000 more than the national median earnings for servers. One reason for the large paychecks may be the high cost of living in the Anchorage metro area. Goods and services in the city cost roughly 10 cents more on the dollar, which means larger tips on more expensive meals for Anchorage waitstaff. However, it also means the earnings for waiters and waitresses are lower when adjusted for the city’s high living expenses. Earnings for Anchorage servers are roughly $3,000 less on average when adjusted for the city’s high cost of living.

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7. San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA
> Avg. annual wage: $32,040
> Avg. hourly wage: $15.41
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 39.2%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 19.6

Tipped employees often earn the most in high-end restaurants and hotels. The typical household in the San Francisco metro area earns $88,518 a year, the third most in the country. High area incomes likely help keep some of the nation’s nicest restaurants afloat. Waiters and waitresses earn $32,040 a year on average in San Francisco, roughly $9,000 more than they do nationwide. Food service workers in San Francisco also benefit from the city’s high minimum wage. In November 2014, San Francisco enacted legislation that will gradually increase the citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018. The city’s current minimum wage is $13 an hour, and will increase to $14 in 2017.

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6. Napa, CA
> Avg. annual wage: $32,290
> Avg. hourly wage: $15.53
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 40.3%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 35.4

Restaurants are big business in the Napa, California metro area. The accommodations and food services industry accounts for 7.9% of the Napa GDP, one of the largest shares of any city. The average accommodation and food services establishment earns $73,968 per employee in Napa, far more than the $58,974 national average. The high restaurant and hotel revenue translates to high wages for employees. The average waitperson earns $32,290 a year in Napa, over $9,000 more than the $23,020 average for all waiters and waitresses nationwide.

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5. San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
> Avg. annual wage: $32,300
> Avg. hourly wage: $15.53
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 40.3%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 22.0

In California, the high cost of living and high minimum wage translate to high earnings for waiters and waitresses throughout the state. In the San Diego metro area, the minimum wage of $11.50 an hour is even higher than California’s $10.50 statewide minimum wage. The average waitperson in San Diego earns $32,300 annually, nearly the highest salary among foodservice workers throughout the country. While San Diego is one of the most expensive cities to live in — goods and services cost 16% more than they do nationwide — real wages for waiters and waitresses in the metro area are still far higher than across the country.

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4. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA
> Avg. annual wage: $32,720
> Avg. hourly wage: $15.73
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 42.1%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 15.9

In 2014, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to pass a $15 minimum wage law. The minimum wage will gradually increase to $15 an hour over the next few years, and it has already likely had a major impact on traditionally low-paying foodservice jobs. The average waitperson in Seattle earns $32,720 annually, roughly $9,000 more than the average for all waiters and waitresses nationwide.

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3. Salinas, CA
> Avg. annual wage: $34,360
> Avg. hourly wage: $16.52
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 49.3%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 21.7

The restaurant industry in the Salinas, California metro area is more lucrative than that of nearly any other U.S. city. The average establishment in the accommodation and food services industry in Salinas brings in $74,709 per employee annually, far more revenue than the $58,974 national average. Waiters and waitresses in Salinas are paid just 25% less on average than the typical worker in the area, the smallest such earnings gap of any city. At $16.52 an hour, the average waitperson in Salinas makes $34,360 a year, the third most of any metro area.

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2. Mount Vernon-Anacortes, WA
> Avg. annual wage: $34,700
> Avg. hourly wage: $16.68
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 50.7%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 17.0

Many waiters and waitresses work for minimum wage, which in Washington is the highest of any state. Businesses in Washington are required to pay employees a minimum of $11.00 an hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In Mount Vernon, a town within the popular tourist destination of Skagit Valley, waiters and waitresses earn $34,700 a year on average, far more than the national figure. Goods and services in Mount Vernon cost less on average than they do in most cities where waiters and waitresses earn the largest salaries. Adjusted for the city’s lower cost of living, the real wage of Mount Vernon wait staff is the highest of any metro area.

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1. Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, HI
> Avg. annual wage: $36,430
> Avg. hourly wage: $17.52
> Wage exceeds national avg.: 58.3%
> Waitstaff jobs per 1K: 40.8

Nowhere is the restaurant industry a larger part of the economy than in the Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina metro area. Accommodation and food services account for 21.6% of the Kahului area GDP, and the average accommodation and food services establishment earns $115,705 per employee annually, the highest and second highest such figures of any metro area nationwide. Food service workers benefit from the thriving restaurant economy. The average waitperson earns $36,430 annually, roughly $13,400 more than the U.S. average for all waiters and waitresses nationwide.