Cash tips add up to Tahoe wages |

Cash tips add up to Tahoe wages

Amanda Fehd
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / With her tip in the foreground, Melanie Fontana clears the bar at Steamers Bar & Grill on Wednesday afternoon. Fontana is a Lake Tahoe Community College student who depends on tips as part of her income.

From the casino to the restaurant, at almost every turn, there is someone working for tips in this town, often to support a lifestyle or aspiration that can’t quite pay the bills on its own.

Behind the faces of the many servers, dealers, bellhops, and bartenders are artists, musicians, students, snow addicts or social activists. Their income remains at the whim of their customers, who will only know them through a short interaction.

At least one waiter says there are a couple of customers each night who want to know more about him.

“That’s the biggest question you get is how you ended up here in Tahoe, because everyone’s got a story,” said Tony Busalacchi, 28, a native of New Orleans who is a classically trained guitarist and a waiter at a seafood restaurant.

“I see myself as a musician first, and I see waiting tables as a way to make money,” said Busalacchi. He plays at local bars, open-mic nights and with bands passing through town.

Elyse Neimann said earning tips is a way to enjoy the Tahoe lifestyle, and that many people work several part-time jobs to make it work.

“I’ve been doing the typical Tahoe thing of piecing together jobs,” said Neimann, who waited tables at a sushi restaurant through last summer and fall. It added to her income from working part time for a social service nonprofit agency, her main passion.

Neimann said it was hard when people assumed she didn’t have a college degree.

“There is – in society at large – a stigma against waitresses,” she said. “But in Tahoe, locals definitely understand that it’s one of the ways you can make a decent living and support your outdoor lifestyle.”

Melanie Fontana has been waiting tables in Tahoe for five years. She enjoys it because it’s sociable, gives her free time, and pays the bills.

“(Tips) are pretty much what keep us afloat, most of us are making minimum wage,” said Fontana.

Recently pregnant, she’s decided to go back to school full time to work toward a nursing or nutrition degree. In her free time, she enjoys mountain biking, snowboarding and cross country skiing. With two day shifts and two night shifts, she has three days off in a row.

“We play a lot up here, we acquire more sports as the years go by,” Fontana joked.

When and how much

The debate on when, where and whether or not to tip is eternal. The amount changes for each job. A skycap at the airport should earn $1 a bag, while a bellhop should get about $10 for helping customers with their bags, according to, which provides suggestions for tipping.

Restaurant wait staff are sometimes accused of feeling “entitled” to at least a 15 percent tip, but remain at the mercy of their customers, sometimes harsh judges of their service abilities.

Neimann said she was surprised to learn people have different standards.

“I’ve discovered that not everybody tips 15 percent, and some don’t even tip 10 percent. Even really experienced waitresses get stiffed,” she said.

Europeans who visit Tahoe are notorious for leaving only the change from their bill. Things work differently on the other side of the Atlantic, said Scott Lukas, professor of anthropology and sociology at Lake Tahoe Community College.

“I’ve just come back from the UK and the tipping system is different there,” Lukas said. “It’s included in the bill, and when you tip outside of that, people are shocked.”

Anyone who has worked for tips in the past is more likely to be generous, said Shauna Cozad, a frequent visitor to Tahoe who is now a graduate student at UC Davis. She once earned tips herself.

“I always tip at least 20 percent unless the service is awful,” said Cozad. She’s also been influenced by her brother, a screenplay writer and bartender in Los Angeles who gets “furious” if he sees his friends or family tip less than 20 percent.

Fontana agreed that people in the industry tend to “overtip,” but even when service is bad, do not “undertip.”

Depending on the job, from bus boy to dealer, a person can take home $30 to $400 a night here. During a holiday rush, that amount can grow exponentially.

While the majority of his income is from tips, Busalacchi said he’s never felt entitled, it just usually works out well for him.

“I don’t really play by that game, I just do the best job I can, and it usually plays in my favor,” he said. “I feel really fortunate to have the job I have and work with the people I work with. I can say that everbody’s heart is in the right place, and as long as you have that you’re going to make your money.”

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