Served: Restaurant etiquette in the land of shitty tippers

About a year after I’d started waiting tables, my mother took me out to lunch. We went to a small Vietnamese restaurant that was a family favorite. The service was awesome and my mother even commented on how much she liked our waiter. She went on about how she went there all the time, that he was her favorite and that they had the best food in town. When the bill came, she paid and we left. I snuck a peek at the tip line on her credit card slip and was horrified that she had only left $1.50 on our 20-something dollar lunch. I tried to keep my mouth shut on the way home, but it was beyond me how a woman who used to be a waitress (granted that was over 30 years ago) could leave such a terrible tip. Things have changed in foodservice since my parents’ day. As the daughter of some bad tippers and generally annoying customers, I felt it my responsibility to fill the old folks in. My parents were horrified to learn that servers pay taxes on their tips (duh!) and, in most states, are paid a special reduced hourly wage. They were also embarrassed to hear that 12% is no longer every server’s dream (a REALLY great tip back in the day, or so I’m told). Later at a family dinner with a friend of my father’s, the topic of tipping reared its head again. My dad’s old-fart friend already had the updated etiquette and my surprised dad demanded: “how did you find all of this out? How was I supposed to know that 10% is no good?” John replied that he had “sensed a tension in [his] waitresses shoulders” and “a very strained smile” when they came to get the bill. It seemed obvious that the tip had been sub-par. It appears that for most people, the couple bucks that were left at the end of a meal thirty years ago are the same few dollars that make it to the table now. A previous coworker of mine that has waited tables nearly all of her life (only the past 35 years) told me that “the money’s the same.” Back in the late 1970s, she would make $150 on a good Friday night. Now in 2011, she makes the same amount. Either inflation is some strange conspiracy and dinner out always cost about $15, or people used to tip really well and now they don’t. I realize that some people these days are out of the loop and, with no good guidance, can appear to be a poor customer (in your server’s eyes). So I’m going to give you the scoop on what it’s like to wait tables in this decade, and let you in on what us servers like, and what we don’t (for the most part.) It’s pretty simple: Servers work for tips. This is true even in states where we make a normal hourly wage. Waiting tables is hard work (harder than most minimum wage jobs) and we’re in it for the money. Other aspects of our jobs are important too, but money is number one. I don’t care how nice a person you are, or how politely you ordered. If you don’t tip, I won’t like you. Servers talk too. If you stiff a server once, everyone they work with knows who you are and that you don’t tip well, or at all. You will get poor service in the future. I know that talking about money is a touchy subject. Proper tip percentage can get pretty hairy, but let me explain: servers in Texas do not make an hourly wage. The $2.13/hr that they do make, barely covers what they pay in taxes (if even). A bi-weekly paycheck is likely to come out to less than one dollar. (I was shocked upon my arrival to this state to see a coworker’s whopping $0.13 paycheck.) Try to keep in mind when the bill comes that you are paying your server’s wages. I don’t think it’s fair for the customer to be directly responsible for paying the restaurant’s staff, but that’s another story. Keep in mind that 20% is the new 15%. To figure out 20%, figure out 10% (easy enough to do) and double it. Anything less than 20%, to me, indicates bad service. If everything was good, always leave 20%. Going out to eat can be expensive, if you can’t afford 20% you should just get take-out. Next, be nice! It’s okay to send food back, to have a problem or to ask questions. Your server is there to help you, but it’s never okay to be rude. If your service sucks, ask for a manager, politely. I’ve never been angry because a customer was too needy or I screwed up their dinner, but I’m always pissed if someone is rude. There should never be any reason to raise your voice at your server and absolutely no reason to use foul language. This seems obvious, but people can get pretty irritable when they’re hungry. Remember that your server is the person who takes your order and brings your food and bill, but that your server relies on a lot of other people to do their job. If your food is wrong, it could have been the kitchen’s fault. If your bill is wrong, it could be the computer system. Try to give your server the benefit of the doubt and if everything is wrong and your server is rude, just ask for a manager. If you are polite and nice, this will happen close to never. Dining out and small children… If your child is rude, we don’t think it’s cute. If your child is bothering other tables, or wandering unsupervised throughout the restaurant, it’s really not cute (and can be dangerous, we are carrying heavy trays). If your small child is throwing food or screaming or crying, it’s probably time for a time-out, outside. If the restaurant is family friendly and welcomes small children, they will have an abundance of highchairs and crayons. This doesn’t mean that the staff are professional babysitters too. Complaints are only welcomed when constructive. Restaurants and their employees always want to know if anything wrong with your experience if feedback will help them keep you as a customer in the future. We can tell when a customer is only complaining because they want something free or because they like to complain. Nobody appreciates this. If you go somewhere and it’s not that good, just cut your losses and don’t go back. Unfortunately being an underpaid and underappreciated server can make us cranky. We are only human and we’re just trying to do our jobs. Some of us are really good at it and others not so much. The better the employer, the better the service will be. It’s hardly realistic to expect great service from people being mistreated by their employers anytime soon, but by being a good customer you’ll be part of the solution. Once servers earn your respect, maybe they’ll have a chance at their boss’s too.


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