Cutting Corners: Tipping in a Down Economy

dollar and scissors2009 was a rough year for restaurants in San Francisco and (if January is any indicator) 2010 isn't going to be a bed of truffles and lollipops either. As a 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry, I cringe.

Have you taken a look at the list of restaurants that closed their doors in the past year? It isn't pretty. Browsing through SF Weekly's SFoodie blog and looking at all of the fallen eateries the other day, I felt like Scarlett O'Hara listening to a long roster of Civil War dead, hoping that none of the old soldiers I truly loved in this city were among the dead or wounded.

Some of the casualties were no big surprise. For example, my reaction to finding out that The Carnelian Room (sorry, Dad) atop the Bank of America tower had closed was like hearing that Abe Vigoda was really, really dead this time. My only surprise was that it had held on for so long.

I am, however, wearing my widow's weeds for some of the other, smaller restaurants that have left us, like Old Krakow, The Palace Steakhouse , and Clementine, just to name a few.

Many restaurants that have survived the 21st century economy thus far have resorted to luring guests into their dining rooms with 2-for-1 specials, happy hours, and (sigh) coupons. Even the once-mighty Aqua and The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton are offering 1,000 Open Table points if you would just pretty-please come for a visit. That's pretty much the online equivalent of begging.

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In terms of restaurant workers, I'm one of the lucky ones. I work in a place that is still (author makes a hurried sigh of the cross) going strong. And there are fortunately several other venues in this city which are doing the same. That doesn't mean, however, that my fellow waiters and I are not feeling the pinch like everybody else. Like maybe you, for example.

These days, a lot of diners are cutting corners where they can. Some of those who do come into our places of business are either coming less often than they used to or are simply spending less. Often, I see couples either sharing one main course or foregoing them altogether and sticking to appetizers. If wine enters the picture, people are drinking more wines-by-the-glass than they are bottles. On the weekends, I see almost as many guests bring in their own wine as order from our wine list. And, of course, those wines aren't usually the ones listed on the reserve menu. As a result, our sales our down. Just like everyone else's, with the possible exception of pharmaceutical companies, undertakers, and bank executives.

Yesterday, for example, I overheard a very well-dressed business woman who works for a high-profile company mention to her lunch partners, "I don't go out much anymore. I've started brown-bagging it at work. I even stopped getting my Starbucks every morning, for God's sake, so today's a real treat!" It's a sensible, Depression Era mindset and I can't say that I blame her one bit.

What I do blame her for is leaving me a 12% tip. And I blame the business guy sitting ten feet away from her discussing how his children don't appreciate how expensive their ski weekend in Aspen really was who gave me even less. And, no, I wasn't having an off day. I was clean, neat, welcoming, informative, prompt, and all the dozen-or-so other good things I have to be to each and every table I take care of. I happen to see it as a trend-- and an ugly one at that.

Don't worry, you won't be hearing violins and I promise not to go all Sally Struthers on you today (though we do share the same birthday, Sally and I). But it is a bit of a rant.

I've said it before and I will say it again, if you leave a (expletive) tip to a server, there had better be a good reason for it. If she is rude or hostile, don't leave one at all. If he screws up your order and blames everyone else, then disappears for a cigarette when you need to pay the check so you can get to the airport like you said you needed to at the beginning of the meal... stiff him-- he deserves it.

But leaving $20 on a $500 bill to a waiter who has orchestrated your meal, told you when you are ordering too much, selected a wine for you that you absolutely rave about, and who makes you look good because your guests are all raving about their experience is an outrage. All the more so because that waiter can't say or do anything about it without losing his job. There is a special dining circle in hell reserved for just this kind of diner.

Not that I feel very strongly about it one way or the other, of course.

Nearly a year ago, I explained in detail exactly what happens in such an extreme case of (undeserved) bad tipping. I mention it again because I've just witnessed another co-worker be treated in the same manner on a similarly-sized check.

Granted, the above is an extreme case, but people are leaving $3 less here, $5 less there. It's alarming to those of us who earn our living depending upon the unreliable tipping habits of strangers. $3 might not sound like very much, but it is. If a server waits upon ten tables in a night and they all sought to save a little money by leaving $3 less, that's $30 out of a server's take home pay per shift. If a server works five shifts per week, that's $150 less. Per month? Around $600. Per year? I think you get the picture. I'm being conservative in my estimates. And remember, sales are typically down all over town, so a server's losses are frequently more when you consider that tips are based on sales.

If you do need to cut down your dining expenses, don't take it out on the good servers. Of course, if you come into my restaurant and want to spend a lot of money, make no mistake-- I'll help you spend it. You'll have a great time doing it, too. But if you come and don't want to blow your whole pay check, I will go out of my way make sure you don't. I'm not going to make you feel like a cheapskate and you'll have just as good a time as the Fat Cats sitting next to you (if not better because, hey, you're more relaxed since you haven't just spent your rent money trying to impress your date).

When the bill comes, be kind. Remember that I found you that beautiful bottle of wine from a region you've never tried before that was $20 less (and much better) than the one you were asking about. It made you look adventurous. Do keep in mind that I suggested our rib eye steak was big enough to feed the both of you. That made your dinner a little more intimate, didn't it? And when I served it all out table side? Ah, that was a nice touch, wasn't it? And when I sent you that dessert for no other reason than "just because," well... perhaps you might bear in mind that I just cut about $50 off of your tab when you are leaving me a tip. Great waiters are worth their weight in gold.

My assumption here is that most of you reading this are savvy enough diners to not make your servers take one in the shorts. You are more than likely sophisticated enough to know good service when you experience it. Why do I know this? Because you're reading a food blog, that's why. I'm not saying it's you. Really. Except those of you who are invariably going to comment that I am being whiney or that I should "get a real job" (I've heard that one before). I'm saying it might just be your mother, or your husband, or your best friend, in which case I hope that you might pass this post along to them after you've given them a nice big hug and told them you love them, even though they are embarrassingly cheap.

The next time you go out to dinner and you've had a great meal and and even greater server, make sure he or she is taken care of. In the words of the mortal Canadian (and you know how Americans make fun of their tipping habits) pundit Nicholas Demeda, "If you can afford to dine out, you can afford to tip well."

Tipping for good service is the one place you should never cut corners.

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Watch This Week in Northern California tonight, Friday January 29 at 8pm to see Leslie Sbrocco, host of Check, Please! Bay Area in a new segment on local food and wine trends. This week, a conversation about restaurants and the recession and underground food markets with Bay Area Bites bloggers, Michael Procopio and Stephanie Rosenbaum.

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