Monday, August 07, 2006

Tipping Is Not A City In China

The title of this post comes from a makeshift sign in a hole-in-the-wall beer joint I used to frequent as an acting student at the University of Minnesota. It's a great bar sign, in that it conveys very serious information in a way that's almost completly painless.

My friend Mouth has been posting recently about her various experiences in customer service, and while I may disagree with her on a few arcane philosophical points related to those experiences, I really can't argue with her basic premise: a business that treats its customers as something other than mobile wallets tends to be a business that earns repeat customers.

I want to talk about something tangential to her point: tipping practices, especially when you don't like the service you've gotten at whatever restaurant you've visited.

For starters, let me establish my bona fides:

  • My mother worked as a waitress throughout my childhood and adolescence; when she became a 'single parent household', she worked two waitressing jobs to get us all by.
  • My best friend in college worked as a waiter in an airport hotel, and while he wasn't necessarily any more comfortable than those who worked their way through college in bookstores or as parking lot attendents, the perks were better. (The broccoli-cheese soup he used to bring back to the apartment every so often was, in my mind, the best of these.)
  • I worked as a waiter myself (albeit at Pizza Hut, admittedly not the highest-class establishment out there) when I finally decided to get serious about finishing my degree and ended up in Yuma, of all places.
I'm not going to bore you with the traditional talk of 'oh, waitstaff and such are all hard-working folks who depend on your tips to get by'; you're probably sick to death of that kind of talk, anyway. Instead, I'll clue you in to two things that you probably didn't know about tipping.

First, it's simply not true that stiffing your waiter or waitress is considered expected behavior when you get bad service. Consider the following anecdote from City Pages' food critic Dara Moskowitz:

Are people really not tipping out there? I almost can't believe it. Let me tell you about the worst service I ever had. It was in a small Italian restaurant in south Minneapolis, and Dude was coked out of his gourd. After describing dishes so quickly I couldn't keep up, and after working a glorious up-sell of a wine that the restaurant ultimately didn't even have, Dude proceeded to hallucinate imaginary objects beneath my table, dove down after them, and passed out. Acting as if this happened every day, which it well might have, the rest of the staff gathered round and carried Dude off, one server at each shoulder, and the server's assistant, who might better have been called the server's enabler, carrying his feet. The server's enabler then brought the dessert tray, and, soon enough, the check. I tipped, in a flummoxed, giggly sort of way, 20 percent—though why was not entirely clear. For the widows and Hazelden, I suppose. I just kind of assumed everyone was as goofy as I. No?

No, Dara, not everyone is as goofy as you. I've even met people who consider it a point of pride not to tip if they believe they've gotten bad service. Regardless of my personal feelings on the subject, consider what a professional restaurant manager has to say about such behavior:

Stiffing somebody? That's the biggest insult in the world...It's just classless. Honestly. I would never suggest not tipping. If you're not going to tip you just shouldn't pay the bill, it's that bad.

The manager quoted above suggests that, if you have a problem with the service at a restaurant, you have a problem with the restaurant, not with the server, and you should call over a manager, explain the problem, and see what they do about it. If the manager doesn't handle things to your satisfaction, leave and don't go back.

Some other things you may not have known about tipping and restaurants:

If you're dining in a place that's fancy enough to offer you wine, the default tip is twenty percent of the bill. Not fifteen percent, not two bucks per person. This isn't my rule - it's the IRS's rule: restaurants apply withholding on thirteen percent of a server's net sales, on the presumption that the server is getting 18-20% herself, then tipping her buspeople, bartenders, etc., at the end of the night. If you're dining in a place that has a clown in the lobby entertaining the kids, or where the strongest alcohol served is 3.2 beer, fifteen percent isn't considered an insult, but should be the absolute minimum.

The larger the party you're dining with, the harder it is to come up with a good tip. I have no idea why this is, but it's true - at Pizza Hut, nothing irritated the waitstaff more than spending over an hour serving a party of twelve with a bill of over a hundred dollars and ending up with an eight-dollar tip. I've even had the distinct displeasure of being on the other side of this problem: when dining out with a large group to celebrate a friend's birthday, our table ended up tipping 12% on an over $400 tab, despite me and everyone else adjacent to me tipping well over 20% on our individual portions of the bill. Something happens with large parties that messes up peoples' math skills - don't let this happen to your server.

Finally, the best way to view a good tip is as an investment in future service, not as a reward for current service. It's just common sense: if you tip well at a place you're not likely to go again, the folks there may think of you fondly for a night or two, but you'll ultimately be forgotten. But if you're a regular and you tip well, you'd be amazed what your server becomes willing to do for you. As an example, let me point out my experiences with the local Papa John's. From my perspective, twenty percent is the minimum tip to a pizza guy (my aforementioned college roommate/best friend was a pizza delivery guy before he became a waiter, so I know he'd approve). I always round the tip up to the nearest whole dollar when charging my order to a credit card, otherwise if I'm paying cash I hand over a round amount of cash money when accepting the pies: nothing torques off a pizza man more than having to deal with nickels and pennies while he's trying to make deliveries.

And you know what? If I call up during a football game or some other ridiculously busy period, I'll often end up with my pie before the stated wait period ("it'll be 45 minutes to an hour", yet I'm munching on Hawaiian Chicken and Bacon in 35 minutes). If the store's new guy ends up delivering my pie, he'll usually be just as happy to see me (and just as quick) as the regular drivers, because the regular drivers have tipped him off that he's delivering to a good customer.

Now I don't expect this kind of treatment; sometimes I do have to wait for a pie, and sometimes I do end up with a guy who's clueless. But you know what? That's the price you pay sometimes for doing business in this great country of ours. I have friends who, as one of their apparent philosophies of life, walk away from any business that screws up their request once. They're on their fourth Chinese place, fifth pizza joint, and the husband doesn't even bother going to a barber anymore - he just has the wife trim him up with a set of clippers. And it isn't even that they're a couple of jerks: when I needed money recently, the husband not only loaned it to me, but took me out to dinner to give me the loan, then never asked about it again until I paid him back two months later. It's not that they're bad people; they're damned good people.

They just haven't figured out that life's a lot better when you tip.

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