$3.75 and worth every penny.

Today’s post is directed at my waiter brethren, should there be any reading. The rest of you, of course, are most welcome to read.

The other night, I waited on a rather handsome European couple. Spanish. First time in San Francisco. They were youngish, well-dressed, and very polite. They ordered wine, three courses of food, and bottled water. So far, so good. When I checked in with them at each course, they seemed happy. The temperature of their wine? Excellent– they even thanked me for asking. My dessert suggestions? They took them and loved them. These were not menu-pointers, miming their way through a meal because they lacked the local language skills.

When I brought them their check, they examined the bill, slipped in some cash and said, “Thank you, that’s fine,” indicating that they would not need change.

I examined the cash inside the bill folder. $130. Their meal was $126.25. I rushed to the bar and rather hurriedly asked one of our bartenders to make me some change, and quickly, because “I’m about to get “f—ed by table 10,” I said. In front of my boss.

I received the change and gently placed the remaining $3.75 back in the bill folder with the three little bills neatly peaking out of the corner back on their table. Perhaps, I thought, there had been a mistake in their calculation. They might examine the contents and increase the 2.97% tip they were unwittingly leaving me. During the next half hour, during which I refilled their waters, folded their napkins, and asked if they had suitable transportation home, they never re-examined the contents of the folder. As they stood up to leave, I felt the anger swelling up behind my eyes. But I smiled, tilted my head and knitted my brow in such a way that would indicate that I was slightly perplexed to the marginally perceptive, and said, “Good night,” with such a subtle questioning at the end of it I am uncertain as to whether typing a question mark is deserved.

They didn’t so much ignore me as act oblivious to my words. I thought the best thing for me to do was walk away before I did something foolish, like stick my foot out as they approached the steps to the exit.

I stood by the hostess stand at the front door as they approached, giving them one more chance. I tried to obtain eye contact with the man, but he would not meet my eye. Instead, he held out his coat check. Fortunately, the hostess on duty took it before I had the opportunity to ignore his gesture or reply to it with one of my own. I followed her to the coat closet.

“Spit in it,” I said. “I think you should spit in his coat.” I’m sure she thought I was joking. “Or, at least, drop-kick it when you hand it to him.” The sad thing is, I wasn’t joking– not totally, anyway.

Well, that moment at the coat check served as a little reality check for me.

At our shift meeting earlier in the evening, my boss had warned us that summer was approaching. Our regular customers would be crowded out by out-of-towners, both of the American and foreign variety. Cranky travelers and people for whom American-style tipping was, well, a foreign concept. The announcement brought down the mood of the staff, but he was speaking the truth, and the point of his little speech was that we needed to basically suck it up and treat these new guests with the same warmth we treat our regulars. We needed to kill them with kindness, regardless of what kind of tips a Spaniard, German, or Canadian might leave. I briefly wondered which type of insecticide added to coffee would be considered kind.

He was right, of course. So what was I angry about?:

1. The money. My service merited at least another $20 in gratuity.

2. I let these two people get under my skin on the very night my boss had warned us, as though he had somehow jinxed me.

3. The fact that I let any guest get under my skin.

I consider myself fortunate in terms of my experience as a professional waiter. I work at a wonderful restaurant. It’s upscale without being over-the-top, has a fun vibe, and is always packed with people– it’s not easy to get a last minute reservation, though we will bend over backwards to try to accommodate. The guests, by and large, are either affluent and willing to spend money or, at the very least, enthusiastic about dining with us. I almost never just wait on people, but act more like the host of a dinner party at every table in my station– offering my suggestions, painting verbal pictures yet-to-be-seen food items, getting people to relax and open up. I work in a place where a handshake normally accompanies the “good nights”, and a hug or even a kiss from the women is not at all uncommon. “Goodbye” is almost never said, but rather “see you again, soon.”

And, normally, my tips reflect my service. Twenty percent is the norm, but twenty-five or thirty is not unusual, either. Am I spoiled? I don’t think so. I work hard at what I do, and I am frankly very good at it.

But I allowed the two idiots who gave me a 2.97% tip to get to me. I had tied my own sense of worth to money. $3.75, to be exact. It colored my outlook for the rest of the evening. Fortunately, they were my last table, so I brought no thundercloud to my other guests.

I sometimes find working exclusively for tips a bit harrowing. There is a vagueness of income that is frustrating– never knowing exactly how much one is going to earn in a month makes budgeting difficult. Waiters have nights when they’re on fire and making money hand-over-fist, others when their sections are populated by women who bring photo albums with them and haven’t seen each other in years– splitting salads and making two hundred substitutions.

The fact that my income is wholly dependent upon how much a stranger feels I am worth is rather frightening if I stop to think about it for long. So I don’t.

The fact that I sometimes allow my own sense of worth to be determined by strangers is even worse. I feel validated when a group of business guys leaves an extra hundred dollars on top of an automatic 20% tip. I feel utterly deflated when Spaniards screw me.

It’s crazy-making. I do the same thing every night with mostly rave reviews. Sometimes, I get the shaft. And in my calmer moments, I can shake it off easily.

But the summer season is upon us, complete with the usual unprepared tourist who freeze their asses off in their shorts and hastily- Wharf-bought San Francisco sweatshirts in the middle of July. As a member of the hospitality industry, I need to remind myself that I cannot give lessons in tipping etiquette to the ignorant, but merely accept them as they are. I’m not a bad waiter if I receive a %2.97 tip, I’m a bad waiter if I am, well, inhospitable. In the meantime, I’ll have to accept the occasional bad tip along with all the good ones and dream of the day after Labor Day, when our summer really begins and the tourists go back to the non-tipping lands from which they came.

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22 Responses to $3.75 and worth every penny.

  1. missginsu says:

    Good for you for realizing (mentally, if not emotionally) that you are more than the sum of your tips.

    I’ve always had very mixed feelings about the way our culture rewards wait staff. On the one hand, it feels a little demeaning. On the other hand, the tipping system allows a lot of folks to work part-time and make enough for school, the arts, etc.

  2. Nicky Dunbar says:

    Canadian?????????
    What DO you mean?

    PS I empathize. Try placing your self-worth in the hands of a theatre critic. (And yes, that’s how theatre is spelt.)

    Canadian . . . really(!).

  3. khaeotixs says:

    I attempt to tip 10% at all times. That is what i deem my server’s worth at, if he/she is worthy of a tip. If they are particularly attractive, i might give a bit more. Over in Europe things are a lot different. They will tip you any amount and expect you to be thankful for it.

  4. emalyse says:

    Not a great experience though restaurant tipping isn’t common in Europe (it’s assumed that the service charge is included with the bill) but rudeness, language problems aside, is never acceptable.

  5. While I am European, I lived in U.S. many years so I know both “worlds”‘ tipping rule.

    The main problem is that Europe has different tipping habits than U.S.

    In Europe waiter’s salary is much higher than U.S. (and the prices reflect that) so tipping has all the reasons to be felt as an extra.

    Calculating the tipping on a simple round up (like your case) is very common; in some place (like north-east Italy, where I live), customers leave the tip only in medium-high and high quality restaurant (where the waiters offer the same customer-car you did in that dinner) while they don’t in medium quality restaurant (like Pizzerias – restaurants where the main course is the Pizza).

    Regarding the restaurant prices, here in north-east Italy we pay a Pizza, 1 pint of beer, and a coffee, about 20 Euro (more than $31); I am referring to a medium quality Pizzeria (where the waiters’ service is very offhanded, due to the amount of costumers) and the price is per person. With the average percentage 20% for the tip, this kind of dinner would cost about $38.

  6. ssmilin says:

    Hi, I’m wondering why you don’t get a salary. When I worked as a waitress in the States I was paid both. Just curious. ssmilin

  7. michaelprocopio says:

    Hi all…

    I think some of you see what I was trying to relate– a simple example of allowing others to calculate one’s own sense of worth and what happens when one let’s that happen. It was simply an experience I wanted to share.

    This was not a “poor me– look what these mean foreigners did to me” post. Quite the contrary, it was about realizing how I am allowing others to calibrate my worth, both professionally and personally. I think it happens to everyone. I am just grateful that I caught myself doing it.

    I don’t really think the Spaniards were hateful, just inexcusably ignorant. I say inexcusably because this wasn’t their first visit to the U.S.– they should be aware of the basic tipping standards. Whenever I travel outside the U.S., I like to read up on where I’m visiting– finding out what is considered taboo, how I am expected to behave, etc., and I attempt to act accordingly.

    Of course, it’s always possible that they just didn’t like me.

    And, no, I don’t think all Europeans are lousy tippers, just as I don’t think for one moment that all Americans are great ones. One of the biggest tips I have ever received was from an Italian man with two cranky non-English-speaking children.

    And some of the worst I’ve had have been from locals.

    What is often difficult is that I generally spend a lot of time with people– chatting, getting to know them at their own invitation. Sometimes, the line of professionalism and just plain friendliness is blurred, so when I later receive their monetary tip, it could feel like an assessment of my self, not my service. If I allow it, which is exactly what I did in this story.

    Which was the whole point. I apologize for not making that crystal clear.

    Oh, and ssmilin– I do in fact, receive minimum wage as well as tips, but I never receive a paycheck for it because that all goes to paying taxes for Social Security, etc.

    Nicky– Now, now… You know how fond I have always been of Canadians, having been raised among them. As a boy, Margaret Trudeau came to my home to present me with a key to the country, which I have since lost, and a pair of her underwear, which was odd, since she never wore them. In public, at least.

    Miss Ginsu– thanks for getting the essence of the piece. And, yes, a lot of us are waiting tables as a means to pursue other interests, but some of us take our restaurant jobs very seriously. Like me. Sometimes too seriously.

  8. ncarnes says:

    As an American, I do not agree with the generalization of American style tipping, because I as well as everyone I pretty much know minus two or three are very good tippers. Maybe a lot of tourist are this way, but here in America what you have described is considered rude. I understand your boss has his opinion, but I would not say he is accurate, maybe 5% of normal customers in America would match what this couple did.

    However, I understand your feelings towards these customers because as I have been a waiter and experienced those who are tight with their money. However, this usually only came from certain types of guests and not the average. It sounds like you gave them superb service for which you deserved better.

  9. Rita says:

    This post had me doing head scratching. I guess here are my first gut feelings and reactions:

    1. If you don’t want tips, get a real job and quit bitching.
    2. ANYTHING I leave should be good enough. A tip translated is “To Insure Promptness”. If I want something done well, I give the money first. I HATE that we have to tip anyone in the U.S. The owners of restaurants and the like should pay people enough and leave it at that.
    3. When I’ve gone out with my mother who is from Europe, she always asks me, “Did you leave him/her “drink” money?” That’s what it’s interpreted to be. For “extras”. I tip 20%, but I can tell you that most times I do not feel that I received the kind of service you describe.
    4. Guess this is why my husband and I don’t eat much at all. Maybe once or twice a year. I’m a better chef than most of the places we’ve eaten and I don’t appreciate the fact that all the prices are going to get bumped because a waitperson delivered an overpriced drink.

    Go sell real estate. You’ll do the same kissing up and get better rewards….

  10. Great post. Sad to say “low class”
    knows no borders…

  11. pipspeak says:

    As a waitress at a country club, we generally do not receive tips because our clientele have accounts, they don’t carry around cash (with the exception of their golf money). Therefore, we normally don’t receive anything extra. When we do, even if it’s an extra dollar or two, my mood escalates.

    I think it goes with the idea of tipping a breakfast waitress more than usual. While I agree that waiters can’t expect aything from customers, customers need to realize that they have as much power to affect our moods for the remainder of the day as we have to affect their restaurant experience.

  12. Siobhan says:

    Having spent the first 25 years of my life growing up in Britain – Scotland to be exact – I was accustomed to tipping in restaurants and cafes, but as a supplement to the overall tariff I was incurring. Like Marco said before me, it’s included in the meal, so anything above and beyond that amount given in tip is because the waiting staff were exceptional.

    Having been exposed to a lot of American culture in the UK, I was blissfully unaware of the tipping trends in the US. I think I can safely assume that people outside North America have the same mindset: that the waiting staff aren’t underpaid and don’t rely on the extra gratuity to meet their needs in life and basically, survive.

    I don’t think the Spaniards were being rude, they just didn’t know. And as a rule, there is nothing on the menus to indicate otherwise. It wasn’t until an American friend mentioned how things are done here that I understood. Having been here 8.5 years now, I still think Americans are shafted when it comes to restaurant wages. And to add insult to injury, you get to pay taxes on it too. Separately.

  13. robinmadrid says:

    “usual unprepared tourist who freeze their asses off in their shorts and hastily- Wharf-bought San Francisco sweatshirts in the middle of July”

    I was a bit shocked to hear San Francisco is cold in the summer!!! What gives!

  14. Johnny says:

    Well, you know: I agree with Siobhan, I guess they just didn’t know.

    If your restaurant usually cater for tourists in the summer AND does not clearly state on the bill (or at least on the menu) “Prices NOT including service”, you should complain with your boss.

    At least where I live service is usually calculated as a fixed amount + 10% percentage of the bill, clearly stated in the bill.
    We don’t humiliate people treating them as slaves that we pay at our liking, your wage is only negotiated with your boss, a waiter is not a lawyer.

    BTW, would you rather reiceve a 10% fixed amount, or a 0% to 25% percentage ?

    I guess in the end (doing the math) it’s better this way for you, so don’t be angry😉 and if you can’t live with that system, than as someone said you’d better change job.

  15. nix says:

    No one can make you feel like sh*t unless you choose to let them! paraphrased elanor Roosevelt quote.
    Plus think about why you are “hospitable” – if there were no tips would you still be a good waiter? (I suspect yes, simply because you actually thought about all of this)

    In my limited experience I hate how American waitstaff expect me to pay them for being pleasant. In Australia we give tips for going above and beyond the call of duty (but yeah, we’re crap tippers on the whole)

  16. poorasgold says:

    As an owner of a staffing/temp firm, I am very familiar with your plight. We have many students coming here for the summer, spending $3000-$4000 for their tickets and sponsorship package, only to get stuck making $3.75 an hour plus tips. Normally, this is okay. For these kids, English is not their primary language. Many patrons, for some reason, feel that because they are from another country, they do not deserve a tip. Even if they work as hard as they can, they will still only average about 5% per night in tips. Especially when you take in mind that we are in the tourist capital of the East Coast (Orlando). Foreign tourists, as a rule, do not tip nearly as well as U.S. patrons, expecting that the price includes gratuity.

  17. In response to Rita, who said:

    1. If you don’t want tips, get a real job and quit bitching.
    2. ANYTHING I leave should be good enough. … The owners of restaurants and the like should pay people enough and leave it at that.

    1. If you don’t want to give an appropriate tip for your locale, quit bitching and stay out of restaurants.
    2. Perhaps anything should be good enough, but it isn’t. The US minimum wage for waiters and waitresses is about $4 an hour less than the national minimum wage because wait staffers rely on tips to pay the rent – not just for luxuries, like going out drinking.

    If you have any more questions, see Reservoir Dogs:

  18. RC says:

    I understand how you feel, truly. Although I didn’t stay in the profession, I’ve always been very proud of the time I spent waitressing…

    I worked for a dinner theatre which not only catered to the locals, but to tour groups coming through the area.

    We were blessed to have owners/employers, who believed in paying us well (well, compared to other waiter/waitressing positions), but like you, relied on tips to make my budget.

    What I found was that sadly the more money a person made, the less likely they were to be generous in tips. (And the tour bus folks – they didn’t tip well, either…) The best tips I received were from folks who didn’t seem that well-off, they had saved for this special night out.

    I gave everyone my best anyhow, and always worked to never let a tip determine my worth as a person.

    I hope the tips get better for you…

  19. Dani says:

    The ironic thing about this post is that I think you are a fabulous writer and have been concerned that you would get discouraged by a low number of responses.
    Then this one gets a huge reaction.
    Do you place any value on that or is it just another $3.75?

  20. I worked part time at a high end wine bar for a couple of years; I was very very good at it, and consistently got 25% tips for doing nothing more than pronouncing the wine list correctly in five different languages, and decanting Barolo with a reverent air.

    However, I noticed that I felt a lot better about myself on good tip nights. I was on top of the world. It was as though people were paying me just to be myself. Which was, to some extent, exactly true.

    Food service, especially high end food service, is a highly specialized form of performance art. People who don’t do it, and those who don’t do it well, will never realize that. It’s hard not to take a low tip personally. Artists though we may be, we still calculate the worth of our art by the tangible reassurance of money. Otherwise … we’re just the waiterly equivalent of van Gogh.

    And we all know what happened to him.

  21. Vanessa says:

    Michael, while I completely understand your point about being inexcusably ignorant, I will retort by saying that many Americans who visit my country do exactly the same thing- expect to be able to “pay off” better service (which we consider offensive) or order a cappuccino after a meal (which we consider barbarian).
    I am, like Marco, from the North East of Italy. I grew up in a restaurant family waiting tables, longing for September and the time when customers would not be expecting me to be extra nice to them because they thought they could buy me.
    I hence second completely your point- allowing others to calculate one’s own sense of worth is a terrible thing, and while coming from a diametrically opposite perspective I completely share your frustration with the topic.
    I don’t agree with letting ourselves using two weights and two measures (we are better than them, we leave more money which is always better? Is that the next step?) when it comes to respecting other people customs. Although your Spaniard customers where ignorant about tipping habits, they are just like all visitors in all parts of the world: just visitors, guilty of the same crimes we are going to be guilty of when traveling ourselves, no matter where in the world.

    Great post in all ways, thanks for sharing!

  22. kimberley d. says:

    i’m in seattle. here many restaurants including fine dining/fancy places include a tip calculator on the bill. underneath the place where you sign, it’ll include something like “gratuity not included. 15% – $19.50, 20% – $26.”

    i consider this very useful. i’m a habitual 20% tipper, and i’ve been out with friends where they handed me their share of the bill and i said “okay, were you planning on tipping?” they replied “i already did.” and i say “that’s less than 10%.” and they say “ack! sorry!” and recalculate it and hand me more money.

    it’s possible that all my friends are just cheapskates😉 but several times they’ve given a convincing impression of just being really drunk and/or not having paid enough attention to calculate correctly.

    i think having the appropriate tip on the receipt is awesome. it reminds people what a considerate tip would be, takes all the guesswork out of the equation in the event that they don’t have a cellphone with a calculator and are bad at math, and is a great way to remind tourists what’s considered an appropriate amount to tip in the states.

    honestly, if i were a waiter and got a tip that small and the customers were tourists, i wouldn’t hesitate to politely mention “oh, did you guys want to include a tip?” or something. in all likelihood if they were nice people they were just clueless and it was entirely unintentional, and somewhere on down the line they’ll learn about it and feel like jerks. plus you’d be doing a good deed for every other waiter/waitress they might encounter since you surely don’t work at the only restaurant they’ll eat at in the states.

    i doubt receipt calculators that include mention of a tip automatically are significantly more expensive since so many places here are using them. i definitely think it’d be worth requesting it from your management, esp. if you researched it online and could present them with exactly how much it’d cost them to change systems.

    i’m not such an optimist that i think that all terrible tips are accidental, but at least the bad tippers can be reminded in print that they’re cheap and their dates can get a clear idea of how cheap they are too😉

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