Tips: $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.

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 of 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.