Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hey, customer! Try on my apron, and then complain.

Any one who has worked in the service industry gets it: It’s tough waiting tables. But if you have common sense, or any compassion, as a customer, you should realize that as well.

Not only do servers make minimum wage (and that’s minimum wage for servers, a whopping $4.85 here in Chicago), we don’t get benefits. We completely rely on gratuity.

I’ve heard people say that any idiot can wait on a table, but I’ve worked side-by-side with otherwise smart, competent people who can’t do it. They get overwhelmed. They forget who needed another Bud Light and who asked for a side of ranch. Or they crumble when an angry customer yells at them because his burger wasn’t cooked exactly right, or her vodka tonic doesn’t have an extra lime in it. And people do yell at you. People will be mean. They won’t say please or thank you. They won’t make eye contact with you. Even worse, they’ll look right through you.

As a server, I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, and treated like a complete piece of crap. I’ve had to jump out of the way of a drunken woman vomiting. I’ve been grabbed by a stranger and kissed on the mouth. (And those two incidents happened during the same shift.) I’ve been asked inappropriate questions, ogled, and hit on the ass. I’ve been warned to “be careful walking to my car” after my shift. I’ve mopped up a kid’s vomit without so much as a “thank you” from his parents.

And when many nights, you head home with your feet and back aching, and less than 100 bucks in your pocket, this is quite a lot to take. I think it would be a lot to take if I made $1,000 every night.

Yet, still, I work my ass off to keep a smile on my face, to say “thank you,” to get people’s food and drinks ordered correctly and quickly, and to bite my tongue when I’m insulted or mistreated. Don’t forget: the customer is always right.

So when I read an article like this one, a piece by David Sax in the New York Times, it makes me furious. An excerpt:

“Do you need change?”

Funny you should ask, because I just gave you a $10 bill, and my latte and raspberry scone came to $5.75. As much as I think you’re pleasing to look at, and you do magical things with frothy milk, I just don’t see your services commanding a 70-plus percent premium over the market rate for my breakfast.

And you, my dear bartender, who cracked open a $4 beer bottle, and handed me back my change entirely in a stack of one-dollar notes. Very subtle. As though the sheer bulk of that paper would deter me from putting it back in my wallet, and, defeated, I’d simply leave it there for you like a burnt offering on your sticky altar.

At least you two left me a choice, unlike the menu last night, whose fine print stated how “parties of six or more will be charged a 20 percent gratuity.” Because there’s simply no way that six adults can gauge the service of a meal (one of hundreds in their lives) with any degree of accuracy. Better to just slap us with a perfunctory tax and screw up our orders anyway. Once that tip is locked in, who cares if the fish is cold?

Yes, I know you’re all underpaid. But guess what? So am I. When I get $500 for an article that I think is worth $1,000, you won’t see me e-mail the editor, saying, “Just so you know, service isn’t included.” Do I ask you to come into my workplace and supplement my meager income? No, I don’t.

First off, the author’s sarcastic tone grates me. What’s with the attitude? Maybe the bartender handed you a stack of one-dollar notes because that’s all he had in his drawer at the moment. We’re not all out to get you.

Second, as a server, I never, ever, ask if a customer needs change—instead, I say, “I’ll be right back with your change.” I do agree with him that that question can be irritating. However, put yourself in the server’s apron. I am constantly handed black books back to me, without any acknowledgement from the customers if they want change, if they’re all set, or if they’ve tucked their credit cards inside, wanting me to split the bill three ways. Sometimes, a server asking you if you need change simply means: “Communicate with me. Tell me what you need next so we can make this transaction go as quickly as possible, and you can get out of here.” So calm down, David Sax. No server expects a $4.25 tip from your $5.75 bill.

But you know what? Were you to actually leave that, it would probably make the server’s day. You’ve already bought an overpriced coffee and scone, so I bet it’s not going to break you to spend 10 bucks instead of 7. I’m just saying.

Because there are customers who will be kind, treat you with respect, and tip you well. They’ll understand that you’re only human, and if their fish is cold, well, maybe that wasn’t necessarily your fault. I’m serving you the food, not cooking it, sir. And those people that treat servers with a little bit of kindness, or randomly leave you 10 bucks on a $5.75 bill, are the ones that make it possible to get through each shift. It makes it a little easier to smile when someone yells at you because her iced tea doesn’t have enough ice cubes in it.

As for the included gratuity with a party of six or more: No one is saying that as an adult, you can’t gauge your service accurately or figure out how much you owe when you’re with a group. Why are you complaining? Because you only wanted to leave the server 15 percent instead of 20? Wow. Have a dinner party at home then.

Now, I’ve had crappy servers before. I understand that it’s annoying. It’s also annoying when you don’t get your food as quickly as you want, or your drink doesn’t get refilled right when you need it. Waiting tables, you have to master the art of timing. And when you’re waiting on groups of six, 10, or 15 people, it gets a lot harder to do that. Especially when you’re also thinking about your other customers’ needs at the same time.

Also: Have you ever carried a tray with six full glasses on it across a room, dodging chairs, customers, and other fast-moving servers and bussers while doing so?

Try it. Now complain about the included gratuity charge.

Today I went out to brunch with three friends who also happen to be fellow servers. Our server was polite and sweet, took our orders, brought our food, and pretty much left us alone. Did she do anything over the top? No, not really. But we still left her more than 20 percent. Apparently David Sax wouldn’t though, since he always tips 15 percent.

What frustrates me most about Sax’s piece is the inklings of sympathy for the underpaid waitress or bartender, coupled with his apparent annoyance for having to pay gratuity:

Oh, sure, I’m cheap. But not as cheap as your boss, apparently, who figures he can pay you the minimum wage of $4.65 for servers, and the customer will just pick up the rest of your living expenses.

I don’t expect you to pick up the rest of my living expenses. What I do expect, though, is for you to recognize that waiting tables is not comparable to getting paid $500 for a magazine article when you think you deserve $1,000. At least you know you’ll make that 500 bucks. For me, every table is a gamble. Maybe I’ll leave with $200 tomorrow. Maybe I’ll leave with $15. I have no idea.

You say you could elect not to tip—well, some people do that. You say that you’ll keep forking over your change as long as I keep smiling. Thanks, I appreciate that. So yes, let’s both lobby for an increase in the minimum wage.

But do me a favor, customer, and remember that even though I keep smiling, not everyone keeps tipping. And I bet you didn’t have to worry about your editor pinching your ass after he gave you that $500 check.


  1. I agree with you on this almost 100%. In my line of work I pretty much eat out every single meal, and I've had all extremes of servers. I've even had one walk up to our table, start crying, turn around and walk away (without ever saying a word). Funny thing is with all the scary looking, crazy hair tattooed people that usually accompany me we know the drill and understand that we're all out to make a living. Hopefully we contribute to those that make your day a little easier because what you forgot to mention is... when you haven't been home in 6 months, a nice meal with good service makes our days much better as well. That's all.


  2. I love that Sax seems perfectly fine paying $5.75 for a cup of coffee and some sugar. The real problem are those damn servers.

    I wish that Mr. Sax would have tackled a more difficult issue: the decision whether to tip at places like Jimmy Johns that are essentially fast food but print out a receipt with a line for a tip at the counter.

    Good post!

  3. @Ryan: thanks for your comment! I completely agree... One of the great aspects of waiting tables that I didn't mention is meeting new people. When I first moved to Chicago, had I not been waiting tables, I don't know how I would have made a lot of my friends. Yeah, most of them are fellow servers, but plenty of them are people who were first my customers. When you're willing to treat each other like fellow humans, and not just server/customer, everything is much more pleasant. Above all, we should all just be kind to one another. Here's hoping your next server is a cool one! And I promise not walk up and cry if you sit at my table.

    @Jay: So, do you tip at Jimmy Johns? :)

    Mostly I just hope David Sax doesn't come through Chicago on his book tour. I don't want to wait on him.

  4. I do not tip at Jimmy Johns. However, I have been known to tip at Northside News, where the individual is doing exactly the same thing as the person at Jimmy Johns. Consistency!

  5. But you only tip at Northside News as a way of thanking them for giving you a hipper place to eat a sandwich than Jimmy Johns. I'm on to you!

  6. Oh my god... That man has no idea what he's talking about. Yeah, David Sax, you might not get paid much either - but you get to sit behind your desk all day! Try dealing with crazy people at work! Tips are the only thing that keep us from snapping. Seriously, I do NOT miss being a waitress. Nobody knows what it's like unless they've actually done it.

  7. From my point of view, if you like a local business, tip generously and pay cash.

    People who can't see the value and sense of that don't understand tipping or community business.

    If you are lucky enough to have a locally-owned butcher or bakery or cafe or newsstand, pay cash. If there's a tip jar, tip 'em generously. If you've got a restaurant or bar you like, tip the servers well, every time. At the local ethnic restaurant with great prices? Tip more! Pay cash.

    It pays dividends.

    That money stays in your community, the merchants don't have to give the banks 3% and the waitrons appreciate the dollars in their pocket.

    Put into context, some uptight yuppie complaining about tipping someone at Starbucks doesn't understand that his buck twenty five tip at Starbucks is ONLY part of his money that will truly go back 100% into his community.

    Finally, reading all the East Coasters complaining about tipping in that NYT thread, give me a break.

  8. Dude basically showed his true colors (insecure yuppie with an entitlement and persecution complex) when he started yapping about the mean old bartender giving him one dollar bills back.

    That was...certainly not something worth throwing a hissy about, Mr. Sax.

  9. Just last night a bartender did that to me, so I gave him an extra dollar. Take THAT, David Sax!

  10. Getting ones back is de rigeur when I pay cash. Of course that might have something to do with the kinds of bars I go to

  11. @Ryan or anyone else wondering about those tip lines on the receipt. Generally, any place where you order at the counter (Panera, Jimmy Johns, what have you) the people who work there are paid actual minimum wage, not servers wages, regardless if there is also a person who brings the food to your table/takes it away. Tip lines print on the receipt anyway because noone cares about varieties of receipt software. Places like that also probably do tip sharing regardless of whether or not the tip jar is visible to the customers, and while it's always nice to get a little something extra (cus people throw up in Go Roma too...) we're not dependent upon it like servers who still have to tip out to the bartender and the host if you decide to be cheap.

  12. Awesome! Thanks for writing this Alison. That guy sounds like a prick. I was once an aspiring writer in theory - but my reality is that I have small children who need me home with them during the day, and also need groceries and clothing; therefore I am a server (in Massachusetts where we get "paid" $2.63/hr.). I would be thrilled to sit at a desk and write something in a day for $500, which is often more than I make in a week. Hell, I'd do it for $75.
    One more thing: the only people who tip less than 20% at my restaurant are the octogenarian crowd, so either Mr. Sax is ancient or he's an idiot/asshole.
    P.S. I too always say, "I'll be right back with your change"; I agree it's rude to assume that any of the change is a tip.

  13. Alison,

    I LOVE this post. I'm doing a commentary for National Public Radio on tipping, and I'm looking for a voice like yours. Please shoot me an e-mail if you're interested.

    Thanks so much!


  14. America is behind the times. Get rid of the tips system already. Service is dire in this country and tips don't help. Let the employer, not the customer, deal with bad workers.

  15. one time I was working a show and the bar was double time slammed,.Loud and thirsty,the crowd was,as we called them Scottie Pippens,legendary no tippin Pippen.
    I finally yelled over the HEY HEY HEY's!! this was a tipping bar and there were three other bars in the venue for other ideas in action.I felt gracious in volunteering that I was willing to make myself a drink,and sit on the floor.60 percent of the crowd went to bug one of my unsuspecting cohorts at another staion instantly.
    I had a girlfriend who used to give me shit about heavy tipping.Then she briefly worked as a waitress.I couldnt keep up with her tipping percentage after that

  16. Alison,
    Thank you for your post, it made my day! I am also a server in Utah, where we get paid a whopping $2.13 an hour! If anyone has ever been to Utah you will know that everywhere you go, minus the bar, there are children everywhere! Not that I mind children, but I do mind when parents are incapable teaching their children proper restaurant etiquette. Everyday I wait on families consisting of 4 or more small children, often times screaming or crying. More often than not, by the end of the meal, the floor is plastered with food, broken crayons and napkins, and there are dirty wet wipes, empty baby-food containers, and sometimes even dirty diapers left behind along with a 10% tip. And the restaurant I work at at considered a "nice" restaurant! A lot of people in Utah (not everyone of course) seem to take on the idea that this is ok, because everyone else does it too. This is not the case. For those of you parents out there who have well behaved children and tip 20%, or even those of you who have ill-behaved children but tip extra to compensate for it, THANK YOU!! You really make such a difference and keep us servers going. Serving really isn't easy; it is hard to stay positive and friendly when people aren't tipping. You start to take it personally.
    As for David Sax, sounds like he has some growing up to do himself. Anyone who expects to be "serviced" should understand what that means: You need to tip! As for it being rude to ask someone if they need change, I don't think it is. I ask people if they need change because I am not a mind reader. When I see that black book sitting on the table closed I have no idea if it has cash and needs change, doesn't need change, or if there is a credit card sitting inside. Like David Sax, if you are the type of person who thinks it is rude when you are asked if you need change, follow these general rules to avoid the question:
    1) If you need change, leave the book on the edge of the table with the cash peeping out a bit.
    2) If you are paying with a card, put the card in the card slot, not inside the sleeve, so that it is visible when the book is closed.

    Both of these serve as a little flag to your server saying "hey, I need change" or "hey, I'm a card and need to be ran."

  17. Thanks, everyone, for your feedback on this post! And to my fellow servers/bartenders/bussers: I feel your pain. I'm glad this post gave you an opportunity to share your experiences!

  18. Hold on a minute. What about living wage states where everyone makes at least the state minimum wage of $8-9/hr. Prices are no more there than anywhere else in the country. But servers there also want there 10, no 15, wait, 20% because of the hard work they do. I’m sorry, but if I order a hamburger and a beer for say $12, why do I need to give you another 20% ($2.40) to do what you were hired to do? Yes, exceptional service should be rewarded, but this is crazy.
    As for the people that say if I can’t afford or don’t want to tip that I should stay home or go to the grocery store, well, how exactly will that help the servers? Less business means less need for help.
    I used to be in the service industry, but now have an office job. When I do exceptional work, or put in 70+ hours while getting paid for 40, I still don't get a tip. Why, because I was hired to do a job.

  19. A tip is just that... a tip. If you want a good tip, provide good service. It is not required at all. That's the system. Don't blame me if you don't like it. You chose to be a player in the game. I was a server for many years and made a very good living because I did not expect a tip...I knew I had to earn it. I reward good service with great tips, and I show my dissatisfaction with poor tips... as it should be.

    Why should you be rewarded for poor service? Why should you be over compensated for just adequate service? It is not an entitlement, it is a tip.

  20. they make enough from pass-around tips (people in the same shoes). I also don't agree with 20%, inflation takes care of the standard 15% with price increases

  21. @the 3rd to last "Anonymous" here,for lack of a better identifier: It's admirable to put in 70+ hours when you're only getting paid for 40. That, however, is not comparable with my reliance on tips when I'm making $4.85 an hour and living in Chicago. And if I were you, I'd make your employer compensate you for the insane amount of overtime!

    @the 2nd to last "Anonymous" here, for lack of a better identifier: I'm not sure if you understood the point I was trying to make in this post. I'm not expecting to be "rewarded" for poor service. I'm saying I'm HOPING to get treated with respect, while being compensated for good service. I don't think getting a tip is an entitlement. I certainly don't think anyone should leave me a tip if I give terrible service. My point in this post was that when I'm at a restaurant and am getting poor service, I think it's kind to give the person waiting on you the benefit of the doubt before simply leaving him or her a crappy tip.

    My view is that I think that those in a position to tip need to fully understand WHY I'm relying on those tips for my income. Many, many times, when servers have worked incredibly hard to earn money, they are still not tipped accordingly, and are often "rewarded" with rudeness and disrespect from the people to whom they're providing a service.

    Above all, y'all, I just think we should treat servers with the kindness and respect we hope to get when we're at work! That's all I'm saying. :)

  22. I worked in restaurants as a hostess, then a waitress and then a bartender. This is how I put myself through college.

    It bothers me that he was annoyed about being given singles, because I thought it more polite. I thought it would be rude to hand someone, say, a $10 and a single, because that (in some cases) would not leave the customer the option to tip me less than the $10 (unless they left me $1 ugh!). Also, it would be more time consuming and annoying if I then had to break that $10 for the customer after the transaction so they could leave a tip they felt comfortable with.