Just a Tip: Tipping, Empathy, and Eating Shit.

In Japan, I’m told, it’s considered insulting to tip your waiter. Apparently, so the story goes, since the waitstaff are paid a real wage, to attempt to pay them more than the price on the menu is both unnecessary and presumptuous.

I don’t necessarily agree with the custom of tipping, to be quite honest. If I weren’t a waiter myself, I can tell you that I wouldn’t be too keen on it. Every other week lately, there’s some new restaurant out in New York or here in Toronto that’s decided to follow the international model and do away with tipping altogether, raising both the wages for their staff and the prices on their menus accordingly. On the one hand, I applaud that. As a restauranteur, concerned with the overall experience of your guests, to do away with the often-uncomfortable and sometimes-mysterious convention of tipping is probably a good idea. Make dining in your restaurant more fluid and straightforward, less stressful in some small way by removing the awkward, socially-mandated hiccup at the end of the meal.

As someone who has paid for his rent, his bar tabs, and his vacations over the past three years largely with tips, though, my first thought upon hearing that is: It would be sorta nice to have benefits and stuff. A regular, solid paycheque would be…weird. Great, but weird.

My second thought, however, is more along the lines of: …the job would be total bullshit, though. Honestly.

I’m going to go on the record and say this: waiting tables isn’t a hard gig. Smile, keep the drinks upright, know how to answer questions about the menu, and how to sound like you know the answers to questions about the menu even if you have no idea. That doesn’t mean that I think everybody could do it, though. In fact, I can guarantee that plenty of people out there wouldn’t last two hours—and if you’re the type of self-important ponce who’s ever snidely told your waiter that you could do their job, you’re extra wrong. I’d give you fifteen minutes tops.

Because here’s the thing: the core skills an employer might list as what they are looking for in a waiter are qualities like patience, time management, politeness, eloquence, and a positive attitude. And you need those things—it’s a fast-paced way to make a living, and it requires all sorts of intangible skills. But the real quality you need as a waiter—the one that above all else will determine someone’s success in the restaurant industry, and the one through which waiters honestly earn the privilege of tips—is: you need to be able to eat shit. Like, a lot of shit.

You need to be able to swallow your pride and smile when someone decides to treat you like garbage in an attempt to impress their date. You need to be able to explain to someone, without offending them, why the kitchen can’t just whip up the food they’ve decided they want—the one that isn’t even close to being on your menu. You need to have the grace to listen quietly to someone tell you that you’re incompetent, while they wax nonsensical on a subject that you can with one hundred percent certainty say they know nothing about.

It is not a job for the proud.

The tips, though—the tips are what take waiting from “sometimes fun” to exciting. I worked retail for a while as a poor, misguided teenager. I got a straight wage, nothing on top, no bonuses. I was a shift supervisor at a video rental store in a sleepy suburb. Usually there wasn’t even anyone whose shift I could supervise—just me and a thousand shelves to dust. It was boring. Mind-atrophyingly so. Day in, day out, I showed up at a predetermined time, did menial tasks for an infinity of an eight hour shift, and then went home and tried to pretend that I still had the time and energy to enjoy what was left of my evening. My paycheque showed up every two weeks, and every second Friday without fail I opened the pay envelope to a disappointing figure and a sinking feeling where my ambition should have been.

When I left that job, I didn’t miss it for a second. The closest I ever got to having fun while working there was a day shift in mid-November where it was so slow that I spent an hour using DVD cases as ninja stars to knock signs off of the shelves. Waiting tables was a totally different world. A lot of things about the job were already better right off the bat: the pace was downright frenetic, for example. Darting between tables, slinging drinks and plates and quick rib-ticklers to keep everyone happy was something I instantly enjoyed. The hours were shorter, too—I can, and often have, come away with more money in a four-or-five hour shift waiting as I would in twice that time at a regular wage. (It is worth noting that the hours are never predictable, though: I have also worked ten or eleven hour days in restaurants, which are about as fun as they sound.) As a writer, the ability to have my mornings and afternoons to myself without having to work an overnight shift in a factory or something to keep my phone bill paid is one that I am always thankful for.

You still had to deal with jerks and whackos, the same idiots I’d had at the video store, but it was just a challenge now; there was a monetary incentive to helping everyone leave happy. There’s a rush you get when the tips are really good. Checking the bottom of receipts to see a juicy number tacked on for you to keep is like seeing your number come up in roulette. Bad tips happen—and sometimes they’re deserved—but they just make the good ones that much more exciting.

Plus, at the end of the night, your tips are cash in hand. Do you know what it’s like to be in your early twenties and have pockets full of cash and a full night ahead of you? I didn’t. Turns out that it’s a great excuse to let loose, get drunk, get laid, get in fights—and then wake up the following afternoon, pop two Advil right into the gaping maw of your hangover, and report to work all over again. Working as a waiter makes you feel like a pirate. You’re an outsider, a rogue, a scoundrel, skating by on a smile and your last few bucks before raking in the night’s bounty and finding new ways to get yourself in trouble.

I can’t wait tables forever. One day I’ll be old enough that it’ll be weird. And while there are a lot of us who stay in the industry for a long while, eventually you start to feel like either a creep or a fossil hanging out with all the fresh meat teenagers. If I could, though? If I could stay as a waiter until I one day retired without it ever getting uncomfortable? If the money wasn’t just good enough for a twenty-something with an apartment and cheap tastes, but good enough for a real adult with a home and a kid and a dog? Well, still no, probably not. (But I’d at least give it some serious thought.)

***

There are, as a rule, two schools of thought among my industry peers so far as tipping goes. The first stipulates that you always tip well. (Which, for the record, means twenty percent or above. Fifteen percent is considered the standard these days, at least for good service and a decently-priced dinner, and ten percent makes you look like you just took a DeLorean straight out of the year nineteen thirty-five.) Since we are ourselves waiters, students of this first school say, we have a fraternal obligation to pay the tips forward—a minimum of twenty percent, regardless of how we felt the service was.

The second school of thought is similar to the first in that it thinks good service should be rewarded well. It differs in that it states that bad service shouldn’t be rewarded with much, and really bad service might not deserve to be rewarded at all. I’m staunchly a member of this second school—if service is good, damn right I’ll tip well. Unreasonably well if it’s exceptional. And if it’s bad? Well, tough luck, bucko.

I extend this philosophy to myself, lest I seem harsh—tipping is not an obligation. Nobody should feel like there is an invisible extra fifteen percent hovering over the bill at the end of the night. We get into this job knowing that we will sometimes not come out on top. If, as a waiter, you can’t be bothered to at least smile, be friendly, and be helpful… find a new job. I’m not giving you free money for you to be surly and holier-than-thou. We all have bad days, that much is true. But literally our entire job as servers is to leave our lives at the door and eat shit for a while, whether or not we like the taste. We are there to facilitate and enhance a night out, not to complain about our lives to strangers. So if your (or my) service is lacklustre, don’t expect a whole lot when the bill comes.

But.

(And there’s always a but.)

Something to keep in mind: one thing that a lot of non-industry folk don’t realize is that service staff “tip out”—meaning that we give a portion of all the money we make to the kitchen staff, bussers, bartenders, and hostesses. Every restaurant has their own system, but they tend to follow the same general rule: waiters tip out a predetermined percentage of the total dollar amount of food and beverages that they sell, regardless of how much they make in tips. The restaurant I work at, for example, has the tip-out set at four percent. (I know of other restaurants with tip-outs as high as ten percent, or as low as one and a half.) If I were to sell a thousand dollars of food and drinks, I would therefore tip out forty dollars. If for some reason I don’t make forty dollars in tips, then that comes out of my pocket. That means that if you tip poorly enough, I actually pay to serve you. And if you, like the table of five my coworker served a few weeks ago, rack up a five hundred dollar bill and tip a fat goose egg, then I pay over twice my hourly wage to have the privilege of getting screwed over.

Service staff don’t actually make minimum wage in many provinces and states, either. There are some places where they do—my birth province of Manitoba, for example—but here in Ontario, where the minimum wage is eleven twenty-five an hour, service staff only make nine eighty. Not a huge difference maybe, but we also rarely work forty hours a week. Half of that would not be unusual. Some restaurants even offer benefits if you can hit a forty-hour workweek, but that’s a big “if”—on top of the lower wages, to keep labour costs low in an industry with already-tight margins, there are places out there where even the hours you do get are cut down as much as possible.

Again, though there are always exceptions depending on both provincial regulations and the restaurants themselves (Manitoba mandates that staff be paid for at least three hours if they show up for a scheduled shift, no matter how little time they’re actually kept there for), I have worked for or known people working for restaurants that will “sit” you. If you show up for your five o’clock shift and it isn’t busy? Take a seat and don’t clock in. If it doesn’t get busy until seven? Well, that’s two hours of your night spent sitting on a bar stool in uniform, completely unpaid. And if people only come in for two and a half hours, then the pace dies right off? You might spend two hours sitting to work for less than than three, at a wage that doesn’t hit double digits. Better hope the people at your tables are looking to blow some cash.

These things aren’t the case everywhere. The restaurant I work for, I’m happy to say, treats its service staff exceptionally well. And things like sitting staff until it gets busy convenes labour laws in at least most provinces. But they do happen. One of the practical downsides to waiting tables is that restaurants rarely have an HR department. Some big chains do, sure, but if you’re working for an independent joint and you’re being screwed out of wages, or you’re fired without notice because the owner wants to hire his nephew for your job? Tough luck. This ain’t a union gig. Go to the labour board if you’re feeling especially outraged, but those of us who’ve been in the industry for long enough know better. Just hope you’ve got enough in your bank account to print off some new copies of your resume.

So, while tipping is not an obligation, you can’t just choose not to tip because you don’t feel like it. That’s not how it works. If you’re against tipping, get take-out, or have a nice family dinner at Wendy’s. Whether you agree with it or not, that’s the way the industry runs, and people do depend on that money. I don’t like that I have to wait for the internet installation guy to come on Wednesday, sometime between ten and four-thirty. That seems ridiculously vague and irritating, even while I understand the unpredictable nature and length of service calls. But I can’t just force him to come to my house at two-fifteen on the nose because that’s what’s convenient for me. The industry doesn’t work like that, for better or worse.

If you don’t like it, either learn to live without, or do it yourself. Cooking at home is cheap, after all. And you can spend the money you would’ve used to tip on a nice bottle of wine. Light a candle, throw a tablecloth down—the only real downside is that you’ll have to do the dishes yourself. 

***

The restaurant I work at won’t autograt anyone. I can’t tell you where I work—they have a particularly draconian social media policy—but I wish I could, because I honestly have nothing but great things to say about the place.

“Autograt” is a portmanteau, short for “automatic gratuity.” Lots of restaurants will put an autograt on larger groups, just to ensure that the waiter gets a reasonable tip. If you’re the poor nineteen year-old busting your hump on a Sunday afternoon at East Side Mario’s, smile cracking under the weight of a thirty five-person church group’s incessant demands for pop refills and yet another order of free breadsticks, getting a handful of small change as a tip on a two-hundred dollar bill can be enough to make you cry. An autograt might be fifteen or eighteen percent, already added onto the bill when it is presented. To tip above that is optional, but certainly not required.

As you’ve likely inferred from earlier sections, I’m not crazy about autograts. They go against the spirit of tipping, as far as I’m concerned. Just because I’m eating in a group of eight, doesn’t necessarily mean I think I should have to tip eighteen percent. What if the service sucks? What if my waiter is rude? What if—and this is one of my biggest pet peeves—the person who takes my order decides not to write it down at all, and then screws it up because they forgot what I wanted? (Boy, do I ever hate that. Notepads, people.)

With that said, there are situations where I can’t pretend I don’t think it would be justified to autograt the living hell out of people. Lest I sound like I’m contradicting myself, there’s a difference between getting bad service and treating your waiter like garbage. I went out for a nice meal for a friend’s birthday last year on the east coast, for example. The restaurant came highly recommended, and it was one of the most respected establishments in the city. The food was good, the ambiance was elegant, but the waiter seemed like he had a Steelers game and a cold sixer of Labatt Blue calling his name, and we had been foisted on him like a testicular cyst. He bore an uncanny resemblance to a chubbier version of comedian Jim Jeffries, and he was curt, disinterested, and aggressively unhelpful no matter how basic the question we asked him. It was bad service, plain and simple, and the tip I gave him reflected that.

On the flip side of that coin, if you go to a restaurant and you can’t wrap your head around the most rudimentary concepts of common social courtesies or basic human kindness, you treat your waiter like an indentured servant, and you then have the gall to tip two dollars and fifteen cents on your three hundred dollar bill? For people like that, maybe we shouldn’t think of it as an “autograt” so much as a “shape up or ship out tax.” Yes, you’re out for dinner. Yes, I want you to have a good time. No, that does not give you the right to act like Scrooge McDuck and treat everyone around you like dirt. And if you can’t handle acting like a decent human being, you get to pay for the opportunity to be an asshole.

Working in service, as much as I enjoy it, is the quickest way to understand that humanity is essentially doomed. There are some great people out there. Some kind people. But there are a hell of a lot of borderline-psychopathic assholes out there raising little turds to be exactly like them. Empathy is a delicate quality that can take years of focused effort to develop. The notion that maybe other people are just human beings doing their best, not mentally inferior ape-people who harbour an opaque personal vendetta against you specifically, should not be as hard to grasp. 

Remember four score and many paragraphs ago, back up at the top, when I gave you a couple examples to illustrate what it meant to “eat shit” as a waiter? All of those are things that have happened to me. The guy who sucked back a bottle of white wine while sitting across from his girlfriend, then literally screamed at me for trying to refill his water/not bringing him the bill fast enough/bringing him the bill/generally being a waste of oxygen.

The dad who demanded that we prepare his daughter an order of spaghetti—an item we did not serve, did not have in house, and have never even considered cooking—and then, when told that we couldn’t do that for him, told us that it “wasn’t hard to just boil some water and toss some noodles in” and that “he’d just go back there and do it himself,” while he played five-finger fillet on the tabletop with his steak knife.

The woman who came in with her family on one of the busiest nights of the year for our dining room, and then was outraged that her meal was taking longer than usual, apparently unable to turn her head and look around her to figure out why. She insisted on speaking to our general manager, and told him that it takes “eight minutes to cook a steak medium-rare,” as though he had instructed the kitchen to slow-cook it over a candle flame and hadn’t known that. If you have one steak to cook and your own grill, maybe it would take you eight minutes, I guess. When you have a queue of hundreds of meals to prepare, the amount of time it takes to prepare just yours is irrelevant. Restaurants do not send food out based on who wants it most—and we don’t just stand in front of the grill texting for twenty minutes before we bother starting your food. We want you to be happy, and we know that part of your being happy is eating within a reasonable amount of time. If your meals are taking a while, odds are that we’re just as pissed off about it as you are.

Really, forget just tipping—we should extend the shape up or ship out tax theory to any and all customer service positions. Yelling at the kid manning the cash register because Aldo doesn’t have the shoes you want in your size? Get ready to pay ten percent more.

Letting your shitty little toddlers run wild at Red Lobster, causing a mess and disturbing everyone else’s night out while you ignore them? Guess what: you think they’re cute because they’re yours. Nobody else agrees. Honestly. Kids are allowed to be kids, but when they’re at home. I can’t stay mad at my family dog when she makes a mess of the living room because I think she’s “adorable” and that’s “just what dogs do.” That doesn’t mean I take her to dinner and expect everyone else in the restaurant to agree with me while they’re trying to eat. If your kids can’t sit down and behave themselves, they’re not ready to go out for dinner. Splurge on a babysitter or order pizza—otherwise, fifteen percent is getting tacked on your bill.

Yelling at the woman on the other end of the phone because you’re frustrated at charges on your phone bill, even though you know very well that she’s just the one on the phone and had nothing personally to do with that? Your next bill is going to be even higher! Next time, maybe you’ll try to be reasonable and kind before crapping all over a stranger’s day. It’s not their fault that you don’t know how to deal with your anger like an adult.

You can’t go a day in a restaurant without one of your coworkers saying that “everyone should have to work a year in the service industry.” That’s the collective wet dream for waiters. It would be like mandatory military service in Israel or South Korea, except instead of instilling patriotism and a sense of duty, it would just help people understand that yelling at your server/cashier/barista because you’re not getting what you want makes you a bad person. We may not be aerospace engineers, but we’re human—so there’s no reason to treat us like trained chimps.

Is your coffee taking a few extra minutes worth yelling at some fifteen year-old over? Is a serving of not-quite-warm mashed potatoes worth making a scene about? I’ve been in this industry for longer than I care to admit, and I often think that I’m too sensitive for it. If someone’s meal isn’t the way the like it, I really do take that to heart. And if someone chews me out over their salad being overdressed or their food taking too long, I have to work hard to shake that off. It really wrecks my night. I don’t think I’m alone in it, though. Most people in any form of customer service genuinely want you to be happy when you leave—or at least they do when they start the job. You burn out quickly when you start to realize that many people are too self-centred and wrapped up in their own lives to bother with basic respect and courtesy. 

Really, all I want is for people to be nice to each other, and I think most of my peers would agree with me. To respect that everyone has something going on, and that we all make mistakes. And to understand that people in customer service are not getting paid a whole lot—not that any amount would be enough to deal with the attitudes some people bring to the table.

If anything, I’m lucky I work in the one big corner of the customer service industry where tipping is normal. At the end of my day, even if it’s been a rough one, I can take my money and grab a beer with the rest of the staff, commiserating and complaining and recharging my emotional batteries to do it all again the next day. If I was behind a cash register, though? And the only reward I got for being exceptionally nice to difficult people was that I didn’t get fired?

I would have long since lost my ever-loving marbles.

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3 thoughts on “Just a Tip: Tipping, Empathy, and Eating Shit.

  1. Fantastic! I hope everyone reads this. I’m not in the food-service business myself, but most of my life is spent either in a restaurant or planning which one to visit next. So I have a deep and abiding love and appreciation for the wonderful people who wait my tables, and I try to tip accordingly. (I am, by the way, one of the people who should NOT do this job, as it requires an amount of dexterity and balance that I will never possess.)

    I’m also completely on board with the 10% ass tax. Bring it on!

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m thinking about reblogging this…

    Like

    1. Wouldn’t mind the re-blog at all – that would be very flattering in fact! Thanks very much for reading. As someone who is similarly in love with restaurants (especially when I’m on the “being served” side rather than the “serving” side), I’m happy you enjoyed it!

      Like

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