Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Self-Fulfilling Lousy Tip Prophecies


Today I offer a cautionary tale for restaurant staff.

A few Saturdays back, Tim and I were pretty well wiped out, he from sailing, and me from babysitting. (On a related note: somebody please tell me why sitting around looking at a sleeping newborn all day is so darn exhausting.) We were too tired to cook, so we decided to walk to a fairly nice, but not super fancy restaurant near my apartment.

The hostess seated us next to two older, well-to-do couples on a double date. While neatly and appropriately dressed, we didn't ooze money like our neighbors. These were some seriously fancy people. They were so fancy, the man next to me didn't even bother to budge his suit jacket, obliging me to clamber over it to get in and out of my seat. Their (boozy and loud) conversation centered around European vacations, and the recent college graduation of a nattily-named daughter. Oh, and that the mom had "done some salary research" for the daughter prior to her job interviews. We were dining next to a case study of suburban affluence and helicopter parenting.

But this isn't a blog about envy or greed, so let's get to the heart of the story: our waiter.

Our server greeted us, took our order, then dropped us like a cheating boyfriend. Meanwhile, he absolutely fawned over the Hoities next to us. It was ridiculous and extremely obvious, as he would check in on them frequently and then walk right past us, avoiding eye contact or outreached hands, as we sat there with empty glasses and no food.

As it turns out, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we felt ignored and insulted, we left the bare minimum tip (18% in the city), down to the penny. We normally leave more than 20 percent. So, the waiter lost out on what would have been a fairly nice tip. He also dissuaded us from wanting to return to what had previously been a favorite restaurant.

I thought about bringing the issue to a manager's attention (which I usually do), but by then we were tired, cranky and just wanted to go home. So instead I decided to passive-aggressively blog about it.

Servers, I know you're busy and you live on tips. And it seems like a better bet to focus your energies on customers who look like they tip well.

But if you make snap judgments and outright ignore paying customers in favor of fancier-looking paying customers, your tips will suffer. And the reputation of your restaurant will suffer, leading to fewer of those paying customers coming by...and again, your tips will suffer. And times are tough, and people aren't eating out as often. So don't be so shallow, and if you're going to be shallow, at least don't be so obvious.

Has anyone else experienced this sort of thing, and, if so, how did it make you feel and what did you do about it? And if you're restaurant-affiliated, kindly wrangle up some excuses for such an obvious lack of professionalism.

44 comments:

Jamie said...

I was with a big group once at Guapo's (a tex mex place in DC) and we got similarly crappy service. We saw him ONCE the whole night- when he took our orders. My personal opinion is that the bare minimum is 0%, not 18%. We left him five bucks.

On the way out, the waiter ran over to us and said (with, of course, dramatic sarcasm), I think you forgot to pick up your change. One of us in the group was a restaurant manager and said to the guy straight up, "if you'd bothered to come by once after you dropped to food off to take drink orders, fill water glasses, or clear our empty plates after we had finished, you would have gotten a tip." He blew up. The manager came over, and we told him the story. Manager apologized. I hope that the waiter lost his job. Not for giving us bad service, but for actually calling us out on the crappy tip AFTER giving us bad service and having all that attitude.

If you don't earn it, you don't earn it.

Michael J. West said...

I am actually rigid: the service has to be extraordinary for me to go over 20 percent. And if service was adequate but average I stick with 15 percent. (Which, by the way, is standard - I don't know your personal rules, but in general American etiquette regards ten percent as "bare minimum.")

So depending on the details, you might actually have been far more generous in these circumstances than I would have been. You certainly were in the sense that you didn't ask for the manager.

Shannon said...

Jamie, ugh. Bad service is always bad, but what truly bugged me was that we were blatantly being discriminated against because we weren't old and fancy.

Mike, as you know from the many meals we've had together, I am an extremely generous tipper (usually 20-25 percent). I think the base tip went up from 15 to 18 percent as DC got more expensive, but your mileage may vary.

And normally, as you well know, I would have given the manager an earful. But it's a little hard to do that when you're so wiped out and frustrated you're almost in tears, and your significant other is falling asleep at the table.

Lemmonex said...

Doesn't happen quite so much anymore (I am older and frequent "nicer" places) but it would always piss me off when I would get crap service in college/post-college.

My stepfather was a BARTENDER. He now works for Starbuck's as a store manager. I understand a thing or two about living off of tips and the service industry in general. I have never tipped less than $15 unless the service was so bad it was insulting (Like the time in DC where I got zero eye contact, not one water refill, dirty plates on my table the whole meal and not even a "thanks" when the check was dropped. She got $10 on a $90 bill...)

dara said...

I get crappy service a lot. I think it's because the wait staff thinks I'm a kid, and treats me like it's my first time eating out in a grownup's restaurant. But because my brother -- and so many other people I know -- worked as a server, I have a hard time reflecting my displeasure in the tip. So, like you, I usually tip 18% even when the service is bad or indifferent, and 20% or higher when it's fantastic.

Of course, the same applies for manicures.

Carrie M said...

There was a big blow up on another blog several months ago about how someone was saying that servers shouldn't expect more than 10% if anything at all b/c they get paid an hourly wage, so what's the BFD? well, plenty of people called bullshit on that, and I called BS from behind my desk.

While I think 18% as a standard bare minimum is very generous although that's close to my own tipping practices, I'm here to say that 10% is not acceptable either on service that was just fine. Off my soapbox.

If it were me, I probably wouldn't have left him more than 10% in that instance b/c it was so blatant and to prove a point. And depending on my mood, may have said something. That server is sorely mistaken if he thinks that just b/c a party is 'rich' they'll tip him better. There are no indicators on how well people will tip, b/c everyone has such drastically different opinions on what is acceptable. I used to be a server, and you have to treat everyone the same. Naive? Maybe. But it's true. There's no excuse to treat people differently and ignore them service-wise unless you're in the weeds. And when you're in the weeds, you ask for help, or at least explain it to someone in hopes they'll understand.

Lemmonex said...

Oh, yes...I have to back up Carrie on the whole "they look rich, they will tip well" scenario. My grandma, who always did well for herself, would often treat us to dinner/lunch, as we were not so well off. At the age of about 15 my mom started handing me $10 to take with me to hand off to the server when he/she wasn't looking. She could afford it, but she was a hideous tipper. We always made up the difference.

Michael J. West said...

I do know your usual policy with managers. So I'm genuinely surprised that a waiter that had you practically in tears got anything over two bucks.

Tina said...

A friend and I eat out together often. We tip anywhere from 0 to 30%. Both end ranges are very rare but what they get depends on the service. The thing is when we go out - we are not usually particularly dressed up.

I get my tipping philosphy from my dad who once left the waiter in a very snooty restaurant $5 on a $200 meal but slipped the busboy - who actually did come by, check our table, and take care of some issues, a $50.

Marissa said...

Let me guess... neither of you were wearing Topsiders. FOR SHAME!

Shannon said...

Mike - I tend to get weepy when I'm sleepy (hey, that rhymes!), the waiter was getting the ice cold rage. Tim was ultimately the one to pay the bill. And I'm not the sort of person who can stiff a waiter, even a really bad one.

Justin said...

My dad worked as a Ferrari & Lamborghini salesman for awhile, and says the people dressed in suits weren't buying the cars. It was always the guys coming in with jeans and t-shirts.

18% as a minimum is generous. I try to round up from 15% normally, and if the sever made *any* attempt at all, 20%+ is not an issue. If it's bad service (I am easy to please and this is rare), I'll round down from 15%. If it's horrible (which is virtually never, it'll be $2-3). If I go somewhere regularly, the sky is the limit (30-40% at a local pub is normal, even on a princely bill).

Where on earth did 20% as a new minimum come from? As best I can tell, waiters and waitresses started pushing it among their friends a few years ago. I have some career waitresses in the family and *they* taught me 15% was the rough standard.

Shannon said...

From the comments, I can guess that being slighted by a waiter in favor of fancier clients is a really common thing. And that appearances don't really correlate to tip percentages - unless waiters ignore you, in which case it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

Justin - I don't know where 20% came from, either. I think it used to be 15%, but now 18% is pretty standard. I personally rarely go lower than that.

Quick poll: what are your percentages for base tip, average tip, and your ceiling tip for very good service?

Daniel said...

I am suprised you didn't call out the restaurant in this post (I would) and that you were as generous as you were. Your 18% was more than someone who has not grasped the fundamentals of service (and remember that this is a service industry) deserves. If they don't get what they did wrong (and unfortunately you didn't have a chance to mention to management) then they should learn the only way that you can tell him outside of direct confrontation. Maybe then he will learn or maybe eventually switch to a profession that he is more suited for.

charlotteharris said...

On the babysitting note, I am wondering the same thing - if I visit my nieve for over 2 hours, I need to go home and take a nap. I babysat her one night while my sis went out to dinner, and I went to bed at the exact same time as the baby.
I have been a server before and I know we make less than min wage base salary, so tips are essential. There were nights where my $2/hour wage plus bad tips didn't even equal min wage. My tip question is about Starbucks - I hear they do actually get a decent wage/salary, so why exactly do they get tips?

Shannon said...

Daniel, tempted as I am to call out the restaurant, to do so would give away where I live. As this is a non-anonymous blog, that is unwise.

Charlotte - I'm supposed to be tipping at Starbucks? Oops. I just get normal coffee, though.

Ibid said...

I spent a couple of years as a waiter and still tip 15% rounded up to the nearest dollar for basic service. 25% is for fantastic service.
For lousy service I leave just enough to be an insult. Enough to say "this is a tip" but little enough to say "and this is all you deserve".

Ibid said...

Tips are for places where the staff brings you your stuff.

Ryane said...

I normally tip 20%. If the service is extraordinarily bad, I almost always inform the manager (I don't bitch them out, but I think a simply stated fact about how bad the service was/is just pays it forward for the restaurant overall), and also leave a tip. You were really generous to leave 18%; I know I probably would've put a few bucks on the table and called it a day. I hate it when servers act like it is a bother that you (their client!?!) want service!

Shannon said...

Ibid, Ryane, et al...my estimate is that we left 18%, as my boyfriend paid the check and I'm horrible at math, it's possible we left less. Though I would have left 18, and, had I not been wiped out, spoken to the manager. As it is, I probably won't go back...sad, as it was a favorite for years.

hey pretty said...

I find it happens a lot during restaurant week, which is why I now tend to avoid restaurant week. It really pisses me off, to be honest. I know I look young for my age and that I tend to dress down, but that's no excuse. I've eaten at some of the best restaurants in the country and many of them are just as nice to you if you're a bit under-dressed. In my opinion "looking rich" is for people trying to overcompensate for something. It's far classier to be understated about things than to shove them in peoples' faces.

maryjanejeff said...

I'm usually about 20 percent of so, maybe round up a bit, unless the service is really bad. I also do what Justin does at local haunts, which for me is pretty much Murphy's Pub and almost Southside 815. Yeah I know, I'm old, tired, and can't afford to get out all that much. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if tips still means "to insure (actually, it would be ensure) prompt service, but tips start at zero and work their way up from there. It's a short trip to 10 percent and a little longer to 15, but you really gotta work to get above there.

If you work in a service industry and expect me to pay you for your service, earn it. If you don't like working for tips, find another job.

Shannon said...

HP, one of these days we ought to have a head-to-head on which one of us looks younger. And I think "looking rich" often means nouveau riche, notorious for treating the help like dirt. :)

MJJ, aw, I remember those places from when I used to work in Old Town. I loved the Irish stew from Murphy's!

Anon, I agree with the spirit of your post, but would revise your percentages up slightly - the cost of living has gone up significantly in recent years.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience at Gerald's Place on Valentine's Day. Me wearing (off the rock) suit, my wife wearing (non-desigener dress). Waiting to be seated. Older couple walks in after us, dripping with gold and coins. We both had a reservation for the same time. We are standing WAY out in front. They tried to seat this couple before us.

Fortunately, this couple has the class to note we had preceeded them.

Dave W.

Capitol Hill 20210 said...

In my college years I worked in the service industry briefly - one as a Hooter's girl - yes giggle if you will - I did it for a month - I found the richie rich business men tipped the shittiest and the college boys tipped the best and I gave equal service to both of them.
As a short stint as a bartender I treated everyone the same - again rich folks tipped crap.

I find myself to be quite the great tipper, usually almost 30 percent for exceptional service, usually 20 percent. If the service sucks big time I usually take a piece of paper and write this HERE IS YOUR TIP - you are getting nada because you need to brush up on your serving skills or some other random smartass remark.

Capitol Hill 20210 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hey pretty said...

I think you'd win the potential child bride competition over me. It's the bangs. And yes, nouveau riche is disgusting. The best part about being neither nouveau nor riche is the ability to see that. As for shitty service, it gets a 14 percent tip.

Shannon said...

Dave, I'm sure your suit was more than off the rock, it was off the hook. I don't think the older couples in this case would have intervened on our behalf, as the guy next to me was too rude to even scoot his suit jacket out of my space when we sat down.

Zipcode, the only excuse I can think of about businessmen being lousy tippers is that they're expensing the meal and they can't tip over a certain percentage. But I've never seen a business meal take place at a Hooters.

HP - yeah, the bangs do shave off a few years, don't they?

Michael said...

No service, no tip. Period. As in, nada, zero percent, no dinero.

LivitLuvit said...

Honestly, I'm baffled. Having been in the service industry for yeeeears, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that people with money generally don't tip exorbitantly. I've seen a bunch of black Amex cards, (the unlimited ones), and always get a standard 20%. Middle class is 100% the way too go... these people appreciate what you do for them, and how much that extra 5 or 10 dollars might mean to you. They also are there to have fun, to have an experience out- and a fun or interesting server or bartender is just the thing to make that happen. A stuffy foursome like you described are out to see and be seen, talk about themselves, and abuse the service. Give me a fun young couple who makes $60K combined any day over Thurston Howell the III.

LivitLuvit said...

And a sidenote to all those cheap asses out there... if you left me 15% (my service is always impeccable if you're not a jackass)... and ever came back... I can't promise your food would be sanitary. Just a thought... don't fuck with the people who handle your food.

Justin said...

If someone ever brought a check back to me and said "You didn't tip enough" (as I hear happens from time-to-time), I'd probably actively work to get them fired. Thankfully, like I said, I am easy to please and 15% rounded up is almost a minimum. And on small checks that are like $5-10, percentages don't apply, obviously.

The cost of living has gone up, including food. Which means percentage-based tips shouldn't need to be adjusted. In fact, food has inflated disproportionately to other goods.

Shannon said...

Michael, you're a far stronger person than I am. I am just too nice to leave a zero tip, unless the waiter made a racist comment or something.

LivitLuvit, I can't agree with hocking into somebody's food...statements like that kind of make people lose respect for waitstaff. And respect means nicer customers and better tips.

Justin - interesting point. I wonder, with prices going up, whether people are skimping on tips as it's a discretionary expense (of course, eating out is discretionary...but the amount of a tip isn't mandated).

maryjanejeff said...

Never had the Irish stew at Murphy's, I usually get either the nachos or the blackened chicken salad, or both. I'll need to try it.

LivitLuvit said...

I'm not saying I've ever done it or ever would, I haven't and wouldn't. But there are plenty who will, and it does happen. And when people come in and treat their waitstaff like dirt, we lose respect for humanity as a whole. Why do you think restaurant personnel are so often jaded? It goes both ways.

Matt said...

15% is getting treated like dirt now?

Shannon said...

MJJ - Trust me, it's fab.

LivitLuvit - Ah. But as I see it, leaving a 15% tip doesn't warrant a loogie. Service professions are tough, no doubt - but if a server is resorting to loogies and hostility, then they ought to start looking for a new line of work.

Matt - with all things in today's society, expenses are rising and entitlement is king. I agree that 15% is adequate for basic service. Not generous, but adequate.

maryjanejeff said...

Since I was going to do not much more but pass out and grill tomorrow, maybe I should go get some Irish Stew. Not braving the masses for the fireworks show.

Velvet said...

I remember that blog post Carrie M references...it was on Sugar and Spice I think. It got way heated.

I waited tables for 15 years. I'm glad it is in my past. I agree with a lot of the comments being made. The people who wear suits and "drip" with money, don't have any in the bank because they spent it all on the drippage. The people in sweaty t-shirts bearing the name of their HVAC company will give you 30% or more, because they understand how hard it is to work physically for your money.

What I recommend you do is this: Call the restaurant one morning before servers would be there but when managers would. I'm going to guess this is around 9:30 a.m. Ask for the manager, explain the situation: long time customer / live in neighborhood / won't ever come back b/c of service / have been thinking about it past few days and just thought you would need to know, blah blah. I think, the manager will give you some sort of restitution - prob a gift card to come back, but still. Speak up. I think it will benefit you.

Rob West said...

Shannon,

I'm not a big city guy, so I may not be quite as familiar with the rules that apply there. However, I have worked for tips, even waiting tables, at a nice-but-not-super-nice kind of place, and while you can really bust your ass working in this most underappreciated of services, true, there is nonetheless nothing *difficult* about it. It's toil, but it's not challenging.
Coming from this perspective, I have very little sympathy for someone who can't hack it as a waiter, especially at a classier gig. I have no problem whatsoever stiffing a waiter with no tip at all -- because I know there is NO EXCUSE for a stiff-worthy performance.

Granted, there are exceptional circumstances: for example, occasionally you get seated in a section of a waitress whose only other table is a 25-person baptism party for the daughter of the local mafia Don. That table is going to demand a lot of attention from your waitress, and in a case like that, a little bit of patience and understanding on your part is lovely.

However, for the most part, a waiter who does the BARE MINIMUM, ie brings my food, refills my drink, and gets my check with no smile or chatter, gets the BARE MINIMUM: 10%. Someone who can't even pull that off, who ignores me or gives me attitude, gets nothing. I'm not paying someone to treat me like crap. Often, I'll even leave a note on my credit card slip, like "Next time, complain less."

Dana said...

My date and I one were left by the waiter in the middle of our order. I don't really know what his deal was, but my date thought it was because he was obviously a soldier and Ft. Campbell guys had a bad rep (often well earned) in Nashville. But D. is actually a former server himself, a very classy guy and a huge tipper. Instead, this bozo got the "tip" of a note on the credit card receipt.

Shannon said...

MJJ - do tell, how did you like the Irish Stew?

Velvet - Thanks! I think the commenters here are more ticked about the situation than I am...which is sort of sweet. I'll probably not worry about it, and next time I go be on the lookout for a similar situation. I'm pretty scrappy, and normally would have called the manager over, but I was just way too tired at the time.

Rob - Thanks! You worked for tips - no wonder you want to be a doctor! Yikes.

Dana - Ouch. Of all the tacky things I've seen, I've never seen a server walk off mid-order before. Wow.

maryjanejeff said...

never ended up going - decided to grill stuff at home - hope I can go soon but I looked at my bank balance over the weekend and realized I need to cut as much out of my budget as possible, so even little things like $10-15 meals are getting chopped. Come football season, that's my team's bar, so I'll have some Irish Stew then!