weather icon Drizzle

In Las Vegas, restaurant server is serious, well-paying career

“If it doesn’t work out, I can always wait tables.”

Chances are, you or someone you know has uttered those words at some point. Long before Uber became America’s side hustle of choice, restaurant server was the favorite fallback for several generations of Americans.

“It was just something you kind of fell into because you didn’t have anywhere else to go,” says Mark Steele, who began busing tables at his family’s restaurant, the former Aristocrat, when he was 10, and became a server at Spanish Trail Country Club on his 21st birthday.

The workforce has changed over the past few decades, however. And this Labor Day, many who labor taking orders in restaurants don’t look at it as a dead-end job. In Las Vegas, it’s evolved into a serious career.

More money in serving

Steele now travels the world training servers through his Las Vegas-based Restaurant Hospitality Institute but he says few places offer the opportunities found in the Las Vegas Valley.

“I was talking to a server who works at Paris (Las Vegas), and he has three or four people in the restaurant who are doing about $100,000 a year and they’re not even working 30 hours a week,” he says. “There’s a server in his restaurant a semester away from getting her doctorate in psychology, and she has absolutely no plans of leaving the restaurant anytime soon.”

That unidentified server is hardly an anomaly. Over the past 16 years, Yash Gokul has risen from busboy to captain server at Charlie Palmer Steak at Four Seasons. He’s not looking to get out of the business either.

“I’m pretty happy. I went to school. I graduated UNLV. I was on track to being a teacher. And I started realizing that I was probably going to have to take a pay cut to become a teacher. I wasn’t so sure I was prepared to do that,” Gokul says.

He calculates a starting teacher’s salary at less than half of his current income. Moreover, he says a restaurant career is more conducive to family life.

“I have a wife. I have a child. I have great insurance. And I’m able to raise my own kid,” Gokul says. “I have my kid all day while my wife works, and then we’re able to do the switch and she has her at night. So we don’t have to pay for day care and we don’t have someone else raising our kid. That’s really important to me.”

As with any career, salaries and benefits vary. Hourly wage, check averages, whether a job is union or not, and what percentage of tips are shared with support staff factor heavily into determining take-home pay.

Many servers speak of their pay in terms of what they take home per shift rather than annual figures. But most people interviewed for this story calculate a career server in the valley can easily earn between $50,000 and $75,000 per year. More casual “order takers,” as one career server calls those less serious about their craft, have no problem making $40,000 or more.

“If you choose the top one or two restaurants in each of the properties on the Strip, and you’re a server working the premium shifts, you can absolutely make six figures,” says Todd Uglow, an assistant professor in residence at UNLV’s College of Hospitality.

Dedication to the craft

The salary and perks have not gone unnoticed.

“The restaurant business is now something people want to get into,” Steele says. “It’s a little bit harder for entry levels to get into a real nice casino nowadays.”

Exactly how hard has it become?

“Those (top) positions are requiring a degree now, because they’re being very selective at these restaurants,” Uglow says, adding that hospitality degrees are preferred.

Once you land a good job, Gokul says, keeping up with trends is essential.

“It’s very important to take it seriously. At our restaurant it’s not mandatory, but we have our sommelier teaching us about wine (with) classes once a week. And the chefs are very open and do cooking demonstrations. It’s important for you to know everything, especially at a restaurant at a high caliber.”

While not unique to Las Vegas, such dedication to their craft is far from typical in the rest of the country.

“It’s different in other cities,” says Paul Argier, a server/wine consultant at Esther’s Kitchen in the Arts District, who waited tables and worked as a manager in Las Vegas, New York and Singapore. “In Manhattan, everybody was an artist, a musician, an actor. And it was really hard to get people incentivized to do anything — to do a favor, to pick up a shift. But in Vegas, this is our craft. This city is hospitality. And I think our people really are some of the best in the world.”

Increasing opportunities

So when did things start to change?

“I think that the sea change occurred about 15 years ago,” says Uglow, “when Las Vegas was going through kind of an identity crisis where they were trying to find a way to enhance the brand or reposition the brand as a high-end destination. These properties began investing heavily in upgrading their food-and-beverage programs.”

Celebrity chef Michael Mina was part of the all-star team of chefs who opened Bellagio in 1998. At the time, he says, there was a concern that it would be difficult to staff the resort’s numerous world-class restaurants.

“What I learned right away was, while there weren’t a lot of really high-end restaurants (in Las Vegas) at the time, there were many restaurants that were serving hundreds of people every service. So there were people who technically knew how to function, and understood hospitality.”

While the first generation of fine-dining chefs were rarities tasked with introducing the concept to the rest of the workforce, today’s market offers far more opportunities. Servers, like chefs, can move from one acclaimed restaurant to another in Las Vegas to learn new skills, often staying within the same corporate or union structure, and retaining seniority.

“At some point if you’re really good at what you’re doing you get invited to be a manager,” Argier adds. “(Restaurants) always need good managers, because they’re underpaid and overworked. And once you figure that out, maybe you quit and go back into serving.”

Whichever path you take, there seems to be plenty of opportunity for those who take this labor seriously.

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
Heavier traffic expected from EDC festival attendees
Electric Daisy Carnival attendees began to vacate the Las Vegas Motor Speedway starting before 5 a.m., the majority heading south on Interstate 15.
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
DJ Steve Aoki visits Las Vegas comic book store
DJ Steve Aoki visits Torpedo Comics in Las Vegas Friday, May 17, 2019, for a signing for his new comic book series "Neon Future." (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas Smith & Wollensky opens at The Venetian
After 18 years, the Smith & Wollensky location on Las Vegas’ south Strip closed in 2017, to be re-born two years later with a rib-cutting — instead of a ribbon-cutting — in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Colin Cantwell, Creator Of Iconic Star Wars Ships Visits Vegas
Colin Cantwell, who created and designed such "Star Wars" ships as the X-Wing fighter, and Death Star, met fans at Rogue Toys in Las Vegas today. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas makes an EDC Wonder Wheel
In honor of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas makes its Wonder Wheel party-worthy. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Giada talks Vegas Uncork’d
Giada De Laurentiis talks during Aperitivo Hour, a Vegas Uncork'd event, at her Caesars Palace restaurant, Pronto, May 10, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Scenes from Vegas Uncork’d 2019 on the Las Vegas Strip
The 13th edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit brought four days of food, wine, celebrity chefs and parties to town, May 9-12. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Three ingredients Gordon Ramsay can’t live without
Bon Appetit's Andy Baraghani interviews the "Hell's Kitchen" chef during a Vegas Uncork'd event at Caesars Palace, May 11, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Uncork’d launches wiith bubbles and a blade
Dozens of chefs representing some of the Strip’s top restaurants gathered Thursday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to launch the 2019 edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bunky the Clown at the clown convention
Bob "Bunky the Clown" Gretton talks about his life as a clown and the Clown Convention which was in Las Vegas at Texas Station this week. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Frying soft-shell crab at Lola’s in Las Vegas
At Lola’s: A Louisiana Kitchen in Las Vegas, soft-shell crab is breaded and fried and served either as an appetizer, po’boy or platter. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
The Stove in Henderson makes Pecan Pie Pancakes
At The Stove in Henderson, chef/partner Antonio Nunez stacks buttermilk pancakes with pecans and dulce de leche and tops them pie crust crumbs. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vinnie Paul remembered at Count's Vamp'd
The late rocker's favorite table at one of his favorite clubs in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
4DX movie experience at Red Rock
4DX movie experience during a demo reel at Red Rock. (Christopher Lawrence/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What To Do On May The 4th
There are plenty of events going on May the 4th this year around Las Vegas. Celebrate Star Wars and Comic Book Day all at once. The Rogue Toys, the 501st, Rebel Legion and Millennium Fandom Bar are all hosting fun events to help celebrate your geek-dom. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Water Sports Introduces New Attraction At Lake Las Vegas
Las Vegas Water Sports will debut its new aqua park attraction at Lake Las Vegas Days this weekend. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Making the Space Invader at Greene St. Kitchen in Las Vegas
Lysa Huerta, pastry cook at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms in Las Vegas, starts with angel food cake, Fruity Pebbles ice cream and strawberry sorbet to create a space creature engulfed in flashing lights and swirling mists. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Pools
The M, Park MGM and NoMad are just a few great pools in Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jose Andres explains Iberico pork
(Al Mancini/Las Vega Review-Journal)
Inside Life is Beautiful
Craig Asher Nyman explains how Life is Beautiful festival is booked and talks about this year's line-up. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America Pops Up In Vegas
Tattoo'd America, a new pop-up attraction on the Linq Promenade, had their grand opening Friday. The attraction is dedicate to the culture of tattoos. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jose Andres gets key to the Strip
Chef Jose Andres was presented with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip and a proclamation declaring April 26 Jose Andres Day in Clark County by County Commissioner Tick Segerblom on Friday. The ceremony took place at his restaurant Bazaar Meat in the SLS Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prime rib is carved tableside at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Las Vegas
Dave Simmons, executive chef of Lawry’s The Prime in Las Vegas, which plans special cuts for National Prime Rib Day, demonstrates the restaurant’s service from rolling tableside carving carts. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Coca-Cola to bring back New Coke drink from 1985

Coca-Cola drinkers will get a chance to relive one of the company’s darker chapters as New Coke makes a comeback under a partnership with the Netflix drama “Stranger Things,” the companies announced Tuesday.