Atlantic City cocktail waitresses warn local servers: Don’t allow bosses to replace you with iPads

Career Cocktail Waitresses

June Drao serves cocktails on the casino floor at Sam's Town in Las Vegas on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Drao has worked as a cocktail server at Sam's Town for 27 years. Launch slideshow »

Eve Davis hopped on a March flight from Atlantic City to Las Vegas with a warning for Culinary Union cocktail waitresses here.

The drink server — 29 years of experience at the Showboat, a Caesars Entertainment Corp. property in Atlantic City — prided herself on stellar work and her talent for talking the cheapest of the cheap into forking over decent tips. But in recent years, Davis lost much of what she loved about her job.

In 2009, Caesars rolled out a new position at the Showboat — the beverage ambassador. Young and good looking, the ambassadors arm themselves with iPads and take drink orders from guests. The orders are blasted electronically to bartenders, who mix up the concoctions.

Caesars has since rolled out the program at all four of its Atlantic City casinos. When the program began at the Showboat, company executives said it was only a test. But it never left.

Now, rather than initiating conversations with customers and taking orders, cocktail waitresses simply deliver drinks.

And they have only 6 1/2 minutes to do it. Waitresses must activate a timer to ensure they meet their deadline. Sometimes they have to travel the length of a football field to get a customer his drink.

The new system leaves practically no time for interaction, the part of a cocktail waitress's job that’s most vital to making money, they say.

“I loved my job,” Davis said. “It’s not the same job anymore.”

“We don’t want to be reduced to running drinks to the customer,” said Aretha Wilder, a third-generation cocktail waitress who has worked for 20 years at the Flamingo.

Caesars now hopes to bring beverage ambassadors to all of its Las Vegas properties, according to Culinary Union officials. For now, they are only at the Quad, where workers aren’t represented by the union.

Caesars executives say the ambassador job is about “enhancing service to guests” and making beverage service more efficient. The process is faster than traditional service, Caesars spokeswoman Michelle Monson said.

Cocktail waitresses “prefer utilizing the iPad system through a beverage ambassador over traditional beverage service,” Monson added.

But grumbling among waitresses in Atlantic City prompted union officials there to petition Gaming Enforcement, claiming the beverage ambassador program violates state liquor laws. Union officials hope their petition, delivered Sept. 12, will prompt Caesars to eliminate the program.

Cocktail waitresses complain that beverage ambassadors cost them tips. Local union officials say servers’ tips have plummeted 40 percent since the program began, from about $150 a night to $90.

Beverage ambassadors don’t receive tips from customers or cocktail waitresses, but they do cut down on the time cocktail waitresses spend with guests, which tends to make the customers tip less, the servers say.

Caesars, however, contends that beverage ambassadors boost cocktail waitresses’ pay.

“Tips have increased for casino beverage servers as a result of employing beverage ambassadors, due to more beverages being served on the casino floor, creating more tipping opportunities,” Monson said.

Gary Thompson, Caesars’ president of public affairs, said tip data is anecdotal.

“Some girls claim they make more money,” Davis said. “That’s not true for me and a majority of the girls.”

Another concern among waitresses is losing track of customers. Because servers don’t greet guests under the beverage ambassador model, they don’t know what they look like. If customers move after ordering, cocktail waitresses often can’t find them. Davis said the confusion leads to lots of wasted beverages.

Davis and other waitresses say it’s also impossible to keep tabs on guests to make sure they don’t get too drunk, an important role cocktail waitresses play.

Serving drinks now feels like a race, Davis said.

If a cocktail waitress at the Showboat fails to deliver drinks in the allotted time frame, she is disciplined with a warning. Some worry about getting fired. At the end of every week, casino bosses post the average run times of waitresses on a board.

“I was always one who was a hustler,” Davis said. “That’s what I wanted to be. I could talk $5 out of a guy who would give me 50 cents. Now when my customers stop me, I’m like, ‘Oh, really sorry. I have to get back to the bar.’”

Davis and three other cocktail servers came to Las Vegas in spring to let cocktail waitresses here know what’s coming down the pike.

In Las Vegas, Culinary officials have been negotiating with Caesars and MGM Resorts International to carve out new contracts. Their previous contracts expired June 1, but both casino companies signed extensions so that discussions can continue without the threat of a strike.

The Culinary has two committees of cocktail waitresses working on the beverage ambassador issue.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary, said the union has listened to Caesars proposals and countered with proposals of their own. But negotiations are confidential, so she declined to comment on specifics.

At the Quad on a recent afternoon, a lone beverage ambassador wearing a black outfit that resembled a flight attendant’s uniform walked from table to table, taking drink orders on an iPad. Cocktail waitresses waited at a beverage station down a hallway.

Dressed in low-cut shirts and armed with trays, they filed out at different times with drinks in hand, following coordinates to find thirsty guests.

There was little chatter when they arrived. The waitresses handed the guests their drinks and collected a tip.

The beverage ambassadors, on the other hand, were much more animated. They lingered to talk with customers, joking and laughing.

At least some customers noticed the new approach.

"It's different," one man said.

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