It's been a while since someone has threatened my phantom serving job in an upscale Dallas restaurant, so it's time for another service post. Now that I've secured another job and have enough money to occasionally be on the other end of the dining experience, I'm starting to see what people mean when they say, "OK, but this is your job." I've stopped inventing wild scenarios that excuse my server for leaving my water glass empty for 10 minutes. My server got nipped by a rabid crawfish and had to be rushed to hospital so they could save her arm from rampant gangrene? Probably not. She may just be texting in the back, or writing a blog post.
Rabid crawfish or no, I still have trouble leaving a skimpy tip. My boss can't yank away my paycheck just because I messed up, so why should I have that power? Unless someone at the table literally died at the hands of the server, I can't justify leaving no tip (and even then, I consider how much I cared for that someone). But here are five game-changing events that could cause the server to lose the game in the final seconds. Things that, if a guest slashes a tip, no one should blame them. Leaving nothing means you're heartless, but 20 percent is a lot if you leave thinking, "Man, that was uncomfortable. I should have just made a sandwich at home."
1. Commenting on the payment Unless I'm telling a guest that his or her card had been declined (which, trust me, was just as swallow-hard-and-smile-awkward difficult for me as it was for the guest), or complimenting the picture of a puppy in a bumblebee costume on the card, I avoid saying anything at all about payment. Talking about money is uncomfortable, and you don't want an uncomfortable patron trying to decide how much your service was worth. As I've mentioned before, even asking if he or she wants change is the same as saying, "So...you need all that?"
A few weeks ago, I took some friends to dinner. Our server, who had dropped things and yelled at us all night ("Do! You! Want! Any more! Bread! No! OK!" and aw, how cute, she's new) took my payment and examined the card. My card has a picture of my university on it, which set off panic in our server. "Wait! A second!" she exclaimed. "You're not using your financial aid, are you? This looks like the card they put your loan money on!"
And no, it wasn't my financial aid money. It was the money I earned, left over from bills and other necessary expenditures. It was the money I decided to spend at her restaurant, out of the hundreds of other restaurants I could have gone to.
Slouched and red-faced, I said, "No, it's, uh, that's just my card. With my money and, um." To which she look relieved and tucked it in her apron. "Oh, OK. I thought you were going to give me school money. That's OK." Which was funny, because I thought I was going to leave her $10, but $5 is OK.
2. Giving any sign at all that you know your guests have an appetite If I buy toilet paper, I will only bring it into my apartment at night, and only if nobody is in the parking lot. I don't want people to suspect that I'm human and have human functions. Not me, not Brooke, no sir. These groceries here? This isn't even for me. I don't eat food. I feel the same anxiety when I eat out. I think it's cheesy if a server lays down a plate and says, "Who's hungry!" But it's not a big deal. Here's your tip, please don't ask any more redundant questions.
Such comments force me to deal with my inner turmoil, but I've seen them offend some of my dinner mates. I was out with a group once, and as our server cleared our plates, he said, "Whoa! Look who was hungry! Somebody was hungry! I bet someone's ready for the dessert menu now too! Yum!" I still left him a solid tip, but I don't know what my dining mate did. If your paycheck is at someone's mercy, it might be better to not act like they're a diabetic Tyrannosaurus rex.
3. Obviously lying, or making excuses I used to think that since a lot of people don't work in restaurants, I could be sly. What I forgot is that a lot of people aren't stupid. So when a server says something like, "Oh! Have you been helped yet? No? Twenty minutes? Good Lord, here, I will be your server! Let me serve you!" I know it's because that server messed up and didn't see our table in his or her section. I especially know this because the server is waiting on all the tables around us. And know I know she thinks we're dumb. She should have said, "I'm so sorry to keep you waiting," or something similarly honest and understandable. But don't tell say we were waiting because you were in the bathroom. Gross.
Dishes get messed up despite the server's best efforts, and I get that. Really, I do. But it's usually hard to believe that a chef "just didn't make" something, or got a wild idea to make an entirely different dish, or "is having a rough night" and that's why service is so scattered. If a server messes up, I like it when they admit it. "I'm sorry, let me fix it." And then I respect them for being a good person. I might even leave a few extra dollars on top of the tip, because that's all being a good person will get you. But to blame it on the cooks or the runners or the busboys is a shitty thing to do. Just rectify the problem. And even if the chef is having a rough night, don't be an asshole and tell me about it.
4. Returning items dropped on the floor On each side of service, I've seen guests drop their napkins, and helpful servers pick them up and place them on the table. I'm not stuck up, but that was on the floor. On the floor! With people's feet and seeing-eye dogs and things! And now you want me to wipe my mouth with it! And then pay you for excellent service!
Same goes for pens when it's time to sign the check. I know that a pen on the floor is equally filthy to the one a server pulls out of their apron (and I know that organs are routinely dropped during organ transplant operations, and if my heart can be dropped, then a pen can be dropped, but still!) It's about servers maintaining a clean image.
5. Saying too much I don't like cutesy servers. I used to do it, and now I get (partly) why my tables hate me. When servers mention that they're about to get off soon, or they have a bunch of homework or plans and they hope they get off soon, or have been working all day and are "just over it," that makes me feel unnecessarily uneasy, like my server's unhappiness is my fault. I didn't mean to keep you here...I was just going to get something to eat. Geez, you're in nursing school? That's rough. You must be so tired all the time. I'm sorry. I'm unhappy, now, too. Good luck.
And that just can't be what a dining experience is supposed to be.
Even if you are in nursing school and have plans to take a rocket to the moon as soon as your section empties, don't mention it. I know that serving tables doesn't overwhelm your soul with joy, but if we're both miserable, then I'm not inclined to leave a tip. Or maybe I will, because you're trying to put yourself through school. But I'm not happy, and I don't think I'll return to hear more of your sad monologue.
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