Best Cities for Waiters, Waitresses

Best Cities for Waiters, Waitresses

There is a debate in this country about raising the minimum wage, and it only seems to be ramping up, not down. Since 2009, the federal Fair Labor Standards Acts has allowed for businesses to pay their part-timers a lowest possible hourly rate of $7.25. Governments at the state, county and city levels, however, can act independently – and have – to increase this number to double digits.

This is a national conversation that waiters and waitresses, a giant group of professionals long dependent on tipping, are interested in joining, and we are, too. At ValuePenguin, we considered three data points – median salary, cost of living and location quotient – to determine what U.S. cities are the best places for these service industry professionals to call home, in advance of potential sweeping changes to their salary structure.

Best Five Cities for Waiters

Of the 396 cities reporting data, these five earned our best score, comprising the factors of median salary, cost of living and location quotient. Speaking of salary, the 2.45 million servers employed in the U.S. in 2014 earned $21,640 on average, or an hourly wage of $10.40, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More on our methodology below.

1. Naples, Fla.

The Naples-Marco Island metro statistical area claims the best location quotient among the top five, meaning it’s more likely to have a higher demand for a server’s… uh, services. Many employed waiters and waitresses work at one of Naples’ 500-plus-employees hotels, the local Ritz-Carlton and the Naples Grande Beach Resort. One Naples waiter made news last winter for scoring a $1,500 tip.

2. Napa, Calif.

It’s 65 percent more expensive to live in this Northern California city than it is a given city anywhere else in the U.S., but servers here are compensated accordingly. They earn the highest annual average salary of any of our top five, with a $27,790 mark that is 35 percent higher than the nation’s average. The line between server and bartender is blurred here, where wine trumps food until everyone realizes one is better when paired with the other.

3. North Port, Fla.

On the opposite side of the spectrum from Napa, the North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota metro statistical area is the most livable financially for employees of all kinds. In fact, it’s 8 % less expensive to live in one of these three Florida cities, which are all on the state’s west coast and within 200 miles of each other. Although job listings for these three places won’t usually be lumped together, the food service industry is obviously one that has skewed toward online listings and away from old-fashioned “help needed” signs taped to windows.

4. Las Vegas, Nev.

As one might expect, there are many opportunities for servers in Las Vegas, 30,160 in fact, according to our data. Still, this is the 13th-highest total employment, trailing larger cities like New York (87,120) and Los Angeles (67,410), among others. Vegas beats those places to finish in the top five because it’s also much more affordable to live there, 6 % cheaper in fact than the average American city. Also the third-best city for chefs, Vegas has its fair share of fine dining geared to tourists.

5. Flagstaff, Ariz.

The Northern Arizona city rounds out the top five with strong marks across the board, despite a list-low of just 2,160 server positions held. Used to its fair share of tourists – Flagstaff is our No. 1 city for tour guides (link) – waiters and waitresses here are used to catering to every kind of customer. And like every other career in every American town, from Naples to Napa and, yes, Flagstaff, versatility is prized. This is particularly the case at the well-known Black Bart’s Steakhouse, where the wait staff takes the stage and sings on a nightly basis.

Population Breakdown

Although we adjusted for population in our rankings, it is still difficult to compare a small city to a large one. To account for this fact, we separated the safest cities into three categories: cities with populations less than 100,000 people, midsize cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000, and larger cities with populations greater than 500,000. Here are our findings:

Top 30 Cities for Waiters

Average Salary
Location Quotient
Cost of Living


Naples, FL$26,9105,4102.3914840


Napa, CA$27,7902,6602.1716550


North Port, FL$24,5607,7101.659261


Las Vegas, NV$23,56030,1601.919465


Flagstaff, AZ$25,0902,1602.0711471


Atlantic City, NJ$22,8205,9002.4710289


San Diego, CA$25,87029,6301.2415289


West Palm Beach, FL$23,15016,4501.6710289


Santa Barbara, CA$24,9804,4601.3920596


Sante Fe, NM$23,8901,9501.7911899


Barnstable Town, MA$23,7302,8301.58161106


Fort Lauderdale, FL$23,38018,1201.3297112
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Quick Q&A

Richard Cosh of Toronto “shotgun-blasted” his resume out to the world and was surprised that only McDonald’s would offer him a job. “So in a panic I applied to a few restaurants and one hired me as a dishwasher,” said Cosh, who is the author of The Million Dollar Server, which follows his journey of working in seven restaurants over seven years. “I was so friendly with the service staff (that) they eventually stuck me in the front of the restaurant.” Now Cosh is an entrepreneur, which leads him to this misconception about being a waiter, no matter where you’re working in North America. “That it’s not a viable career path – or that it’s easy,” he said. “Actually some of the most successful people once used to wait tables… Becoming a great server is about understanding social dynamics. If you can master this, you will learn skills that will last you your entire life.”

Q: What was your training like?

A: My training as a server was mediocre at best. I did most of my learning on my own by trial and error.

Q: What types of restaurants did you work in?

A: I worked in large corporate franchises, and each one of them were diverse. Each restaurant has its own culture like a living organism; no two are identical. But each one of them have many similarities like customers and staff archetypes.

Q: How would you describe the rigors of serving?

A: We take a real beating during the rush. I think we really see the worst of people sometimes.

Q: How would you describe the rewards of serving?

A: The rewards of being a server are a true diamond in the rough. Not many people realize how much you can learn about the world from being a server. It’s often said that we should have a required two-year conscription as a server.

Q: How has technology affected the in-restaurant service industry?

A:It hasn’t. We’ve been using the same old dinosaur for years, and it’s time to change that.

Q: How exactly?

A: We need standardization across our industry. Servers need to come together and decide for themselves what is OK in our industry and what needs to change. Personally, I help servers and restaurants make more money through the training of front-of-house staff.

Q: And you’ve built an online community for waiters and waitresses to interact…

A: We’re building the community into a great place where servers share stories about serving, tips about what works and what doesn’t, and talk about issues surrounding our industry.


These were the three key questions we asked in coming up with the list.

1. What can waiters earn in the city?

We ranked the best cities for waiters based on the median annual pay. Income is likely the most important factor people consider when starting their career or relocating elsewhere. A high salary in an expensive city, however, may be less attractive than a lower salary in an affordable town. Our next metric takes affordability into consideration.

2. How affordable is it to live in this city?

Now that we have the median salary, we’ll look next at the cost of living. The cost of living is a measure of how far earnings can be stretched. Cities with lower cost of living index numbers ranked higher in our study. For example, the average city is benchmarked at 100. A city with a cost of living index of 188, such as Honolulu, would mean that generally speaking, living expenses are 88 percent more expensive compared to the average city.

3. What is the location quotient for waiters in the city?

A place with a high median salary and low cost of living may seem perfect, but job opportunities may be limited. Our third factor accounts for this by favoring cities with high location quotients. Location quotient measures the concentration of waiters in an area as a percentage of all occupations, and then compares that to the national average. We interpret a higher location quotient to mean a relatively higher demand for a waiter’s services.

Ting is a ValuePenguin Co-Founder. She previously evaluated corporate mergers and acquisitions as a Financial Analyst at Citigroup.