A waitress wearing wrist braces and a traditional Bavarian dirndl slams 20 kilos of beer onto a wooden table at Munich’s annual Oktoberfest. Her customers scramble for coins, debating how much to pay.
In past years, a 10-euro note would cover the cost of beer plus a roughly 10 percent tip. This year, the cost of a liter (slightly less than 34 U.S. ounces) of Oktoberfest beer increased to between 9.70 and 10.10 euros (about $13), depending on the tent. Without a practical default tip, many waitresses fear customers will skimp.
The price of beer at Oktoberfest has increased every year in the past decade, edging further away from the cost of brew anywhere else in Munich.
Susanne Hoffman, 47, works daily 15-hour shifts under grueling conditions to sell food and beer in the Bräurosl tent. She works on commission, earning 9 percent of each 9.95 euro beer she sells and whatever extra customers tip. This is Hoffman’s 15th year working at Oktoberfest, and she says the rising price of beer could cut into a main source of income.
“Maybe this year will be worse, ” Hoffman said.
As the base price hovers around 10 euros, the math becomes more complex, requiring revelers to fumble with small change. Waitresses say evenings are worse as the tents become more crowded and the patrons become more inebriated.
Hoffman says 11 euros would provide a reasonable tip, but not all customers share her opinion.
Lisa Power, 27, was visiting Oktoberfest from Brisbane, Australia. She plans to leave 11 euros for 10.10-euro liter of Löwenbräu, but in tents where the price is closer to 9.70 euros, she says an even 10 euros makes more sense.
“Being a backpacker I’ve got to be a bit stingy, ” she said.
Hoffman says visitors from some foreign countries are less likely to leave tips and may not understand that waitresses do not earn wages.
“The Munich people know we only work for tips, ” she said.
Oktoberfest is an endurance test. Hoffman shares tables with two colleagues who take breaks to circumvent labor laws mandating 10-hour work days. During the long shifts, servers navigate massive crowds and carry up to 12 liters of beer long distances, often while enduring sexual harassment. Several waitresses spoke of their colleagues taking drugs to stay alert.
“You need a strong nerve, ” said Miri Kocevski, who has worked at Oktoberfest for five years.
But the work is lucrative. Hoffman expects to earn 5, 000 to 10, 000 euros for working 220 hours over the course of the event.
Last year 6.4 million Oktoberfest visitors drank 6.7 million liters of beer, and festival organizers say about 1 million people attended this year’s opening weekend.
Despite the working conditions, server jobs for the world’s largest beer festival are coveted.
Kocevski and her mother came from Cologne, about 280 miles across the country, to stay with her aunt and work in the Löwenbräu tent.
Like many waitresses, Hoffman takes time off from her usual job each year. At the end of the festival, she will return to running a juice shop in Munich.
Even if the price of beer cuts into profits, other factors affect how much waitresses earn.
“It depends on the weather, ” she said. “You make good money if the sun is shining.”
Kocevski says the money is not as important as the experience.
“For me, it’s more important that the people are friendly.”
Clare Richardson is reporting from Germany on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.
PHOTO (INSERT 1): A waitress carries mugs of beer during the opening day of the 181st Oktoberfest in Munich September 20, 2014. REUTERS/Michael Dalder