The Art of Bad Tipping

Over the holidays, some friends and I went out to dinner at a place that we have gone several times before. It was a late dinner, so although we had to wait for a table, the restaurant wasn’t full or bustling or anything. But the service was pretty terrible. We just kept waiting for things that should have appeared quicker. Things like a server, to take our orders.
Once we had our food (which was not delivered by the server, but by other food deliverers), one of us had to flag down a server (not our server) to ask for a spoon. About five minutes later, our server appeared with a spoon and said, “Oh, they already brought you one.” Then she wandered away.
My root beer mug sat empty, although the menu states in all caps, “FREE REFILLS,” through the last three-quarters of the hour we were there.
Once we were clearly finished eating, some bussers came and removed the plates…and then we sat and talked, which was nice, but that’s the appropriate point for a server to come back, ask if you’re interested in dessert or coffee or anything, and then drop off the check. We finally had to flag her down to ask for the check…and then again to pick up the check.
When it came time to write in a tip, the table was all in agreement that we should make some kind of statement with this optional dollar amount.
Which brings me to my main point – what’s the appropriate way to tip poorly, when you want to make it clear that you felt the service was below par? One person argued that we should leave a zero tip, because that leaves the clearest message. But I think that generally you should leave something so that they know that you chose to leave a small amount – and it’s not that you didn’t know about tipping, or maybe you meant to leave cash on the table or something.
I ended up leaving about 10%, which is pretty awful as far as tips go. But afterwards I was told unhesitatingly that I should have left a big fat zero. That 10% just makes it look like I am a bad tipper, but leaving no tip at all leaves the strongest message.
I’m really not sure where I stand on this. I usually tip pretty well, because I like the idea of positive reinforcement and I’m generally happy with the service. My generosity goes up if I frequent the business and if they start to recognize me. I don’t want to be the girl who never tips. And I remember working food service and how each time someone stuffed a dollar in the tip jar, it would just make my day.
I also hate to treat anyone badly if I don’t know their situation. Was our server just having an off night? Did her boyfriend just dump her? Was she up all night with some kind of home repair problem? Who knows? On the other hand, she is getting paid to do her job – that extra 20% of our table’s check isn’t guaranteed to her, and she knows that she has to work to get that optional money out of her customers.
She wasn’t overtly rude, and she didn’t make any mistakes. She didn’t blow cigarette smoke in our faces or bring us all the wrong meals. She was just absent the whole time. So what’s the best way to handle that TIP line on the credit card slip?
Retrospectively, I feel okay about that 10%. It’s not as harsh as leaving nothing, but I didn’t have to smilingly hand over a fistful of extra bills beyond what the meal cost. I hope she was just having a momentary lapse of concentration, and that today she is back in top form, slinging plates and scooping up gratuities.
I also hope that the next time we go back there, we’re seated in another section…something in the other room, perhaps? No? Well, we can just sit at the bar, thanks.



Filed under "Other people", Being a girl, Friends, Memoir, Writing

4 responses to “The Art of Bad Tipping

  1. Michelle

    As an ex waitress, it’s hard to say what was going on with your server that night. She could have just been a lazy server or the kitchen could have been REALLY fucking up, or the host stand could have been seating her with too many people at once. Not that there is an excuse for extremely poor service but I do have some insight into tipping protocol.

    Lots of restaurants are designed so that the server doesn’t necessarily run the food. Chances are it was a person that was there on an actual food runner shift where their only job is to run food to tables. So you can’t fault the server for that. Also, at the end of the night, typical protocol for tipping out your support staff (bartenders, bussers, and food runners) is 2% of your total sales, not tips, to each. So depending on the tip you left and her total sales, your server could have actually lost money based on a 10% tip assuming she tips out what’s the norm.

    Even with the worst service, I still tip at least 15% as to not short support staff. Really I think you should leave at least 15% and talk to a manager about your experience if it was that terrible. Support staff doesn’t get shafted, the manager will probably talk to the server about your experience, and you will probably get something free or a discount anyway. Servers are used to shitty tips and one shitty tip doesn’t make a statement at all. Getting called into the office by your douche bag manager does.

    /extremely long blog comment. 🙂

    • I totally get what you are saying about the bad tip affecting other people. I wish it wasn’t that way. And I know that in a lot of places, the server isn’t actually the one who brings you your food. I was just pointing out that we really never interacted with her again, or had a chance to ask her for anything.

      I read this memoir, called “Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip (Confessions of a Cynical Waiter),” which was really interesting, and also made the point that the best way to deal with bad service is to tell the manager, but tip normally. But I guess in this situation, I didn’t feel offended enough (or invested enough) to try to flag someone down, ask for the manager, and then explain the situation. All I wanted was to not leave extra money for a service that dissatisfied me.

      I think tipping is a complicated thing. They say you should tip $1 every time you go to Starbucks. But then it’s becoming something else, like a surcharge or a fee, not necessarily a tip for good service. I understand tipping for every drink at a bar, because you want the bartender to keep coming back to you. My mom was a waitress back in her 20s, and she has stories of people really using the promise of a tip (or the threat of no tip) to exact excellent service. On the other hand, she was working at an all-men’s club, so that may be a little archaic…

      I guess ultimately I think that tips are on top of your wages. And if you’re getting into a job where you know that part of your pay depends on good customer service, then you need to make that a priority. If you don’t want to deal with customers, then do data entry or something. There will always be douche bag customers who just tip badly, but I think that most of us really respond to friendly attentive service, and tip accordingly.

      Disclaimer: I’ve never been a server, or been in any position where a significant part of my pay depends on tips. So…I could be totally wrong here. =)

  2. Michelle

    And we actually have it pretty good in California where minimum wage is higher than Federal and servers are guaranteed to make at least minimum wage. In some states “tipped employees” actually make significantly less than Federal minimum wage because it’s assumed that they will make at least minimum wage, which is still not a lot of money at all. Some states even today pay servers as little as $2.13 an hour. :-/

    • Right? In New York I worked at this deli, and the guys who ran the deliveries out were all paid something like $4/hour, and expected to make it up with tips. But I saw them get tipped pretty badly, so I always feel extra for delivery guys.

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