FOOD WISE: Respect wait staff by tipping appropriately

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

A few weeks ago, adorable hubby and I were out to dinner with a big group of folks. It promised to be a fun and relaxing evening in the company of good friends. Lots of laughs, good food, a night off from cooking, maybe even an adult beverage or two since I had my appointed “D.D.” with me. It wasn’t a big, involved, planned thing so you can imagine the flurry of activity amongst the waitstaff when about 20 of us showed up.

If you’ve ever worked as a waiter, or front of the house, as we refer to it in the culinary industry, you know that when a large group like that shows up with no advance notice, it takes a bit of logistical coordination. A big group of people simply isn’t going to be seated as quickly as, say, a couple or small family. First of all, a whole section of the restaurant has to be cleared in order to accommodate the whole group together. Then the restaurant has to be rearranged to pull tables together. What about waitstaff? Since they didn’t know they were about to get slammed with a large group, the restaurant probably only scheduled one waiter for that whole section, while a group of 20 could probably use at least a couple of waiters assigned to them. Under those circumstances, it might take a little longer for the drinks to arrive at the table.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is, unfortunately and much to my dismay, the group of people I was with that evening seemed to not take any of this into account. I mean, these were people I’ve known for some time. People who are generally very kind and generous folks. And yet, here they were, complaining loudly about how long it took to be seated, picking up their coffee cups and shaking them in the air at the poor waitress who was already running her hiney off trying to take care of everyone by herself, barking orders all at once faster than anyone could possibly write them down, and just generally being obnoxious. The waitress had no sooner set down one person’s plate before they were fussin’ at her about needing extra jalapeños, drink refills or some other such nonsense. Couldn’t they even let her get all the plates out first? Waiters usually always ask if there is anything else they can get you once they’ve handed out all the orders. I’ve got to hand to the waitress, though. She really kept her cool and remained pleasant throughout. This is why I’m a chef and do not work front of the house. If I’d been in her place, I’m afraid I’d have been tempted to thump a few people on their pointed little heads.

I found myself becoming embarrassed and irritated at my friends’ behavior. So much so that I think I may have been as relieved as the waitress when the evening was over.

Just to top it all off, as the meal came to an end and folks began to pay their checks, I began to notice something else that was troubling. Many of these folks weren’t tipping correctly. Some were even only tipping a couple of bucks. Really? I quietly motioned to my husband to make him aware. Wise man that he is, John let the whole thing play out, let all the checks be closed out and as we all began to say our goodbyes, he leaned in to his best buddy and whispered something in his ear. John and friend remained behind and between the two of them pulled out enough cash to more than compensate the waitress for what was lacking. I’m so proud to be married to such a man. He made sure this hard-working woman was appropriately compensated while refraining from embarrassing or infuriating the group of people we were with. A delicate balance, to be sure. You may have even had this same kind of experience with other folks’ ideas of appropriate tipping, too.

Where did this idea of tipping come from anyway? A tip is a gratuity paid to certain kinds of workers in thanks or anticipation of a service performed. Certainly, in some countries or social settings tips are frowned upon, insulting or even illegal. The practice of tipping actually began in the time of King Henry VIII. As nobles traveled, they would stay in other nobles’ homes and provide a tip, which was known as a vail, to the host’s servants in gratitude for caring for them during their stay. The modern tip became prevalent in the 1700’s in taverns, where the customer would pay their server a tip. T.I.P. stood for “to insure promptitude”. In other words, it was paid in advance and was to give the server motivation to provide courteous and prompt service. The practice gradually began to extend to other services, such as hotel maids, delivery people, manicurists and hair stylists. Traditionally, the tip was paid prior to the service to help insure good service. Nowadays, tips are usually paid at the end of the service, so long as the recipient feels they received good service, although some folks become afraid or embarrassed not to tip, even when the service is bad, for fear of some sort of retaliation the next time they come in.

Later, I was mulling the evening over in my mind. I tried to make sense of why these normally generous people, many of whom give regularly to charity, would treat this perfectly nice and competent waitress so shabbily and then add insult to injury by so grievously shorting her tip. The only thing I could come up with is that perhaps they’ve never waited tables and don’t realize what it takes to wait on any group of people, much less one that large all at one table.

Maybe they don’t realize that the wage that is paid to waitstaff by the establishment is only $2.13 per hour, that restaurants are allowed to pay that kind of wage because the majority of the waitperson’s income comes from tips. Maybe they also don’t realize that in most modern day restaurants, all the tips from all the waiters goes into one big pool and is shared among waiters, bussers, bartenders and sometimes bar backs and greeters, so even though they may have worked really hard and earned good tips, the other waiters may not have worked as hard but still get to share in their tip money. Under federal law, employees who don’t regularly receive tips, such as cooks, chefs and dishwashers are disqualified from participating in the tip pool.

Perhaps they don’t even realize that the IRS requires the tip money to be reported as income and taxes paid on it and since the tips are going into a tip pool, there is virtually no way to not report it. As a result, many times the waitstaff employee’s actual paycheck ends up being $0 because the $2.13 per hour goes to pay those taxes. It may even be that they don’t realize that waitstaff are typically tipped 15-20 percent of the total bill and this applies to the non-discounted price. In other words, tipping should be done based on what the bill would be at full-price, not what it may be after any discounts, such as “kids eat free” or coupons.

Certainly, as a chef and caterer, I would advise that it’s completely appropriate to lower or eliminate a tip in the case of truly poor service. Just make sure it wasn’t something beyond the waitress’ control. On the rare, and I mean rare occasion that I feel I need to reduce a tip due to poor service, I usually also either leave a note explaining why or speak with a manager to explain why. I’ve owned or managed several businesses in my time, and I can tell you, I wanted to know and so will the manager of whatever restaurant you’re at. The thing is, those situations are extremely rare. Most of the time, your waiter is simply a hard working professional trying to make a living in a really tough industry. It is hard, back-breaking, messy, frustrating work in which, many times, waiters end up taking a pay cut in the way of tips due to situations that are not their fault.

Next time you eat out, take a moment and put yourself in your waiter’s place. Would you want to be treated the way you are treating them? A little courtesy goes a long way. Most waiters really want to bend over backwards to serve you well. Let’s make sure we do what we can to treat them with the respect they deserve and tip them appropriately for the hard work they do to make your dining out experience an enjoyable one.