Recently we dined at a restaurant we’ve been meaning to try for awhile and most everything about the experience was awful. We won’t be naming names, but it did spark an interesting conversation between Molly and I over how tipping should go after you’ve had an across-the-board disaster.

Restaurants. A Great Place For Young Folks To Work

I spent 15 years working at least part time in restaurants. It’s what gave me my appreciation of great food, the experience of dining out, and the desire for those in my care to enjoy themselves. I could never do it again. The pay is horrible, but mostly it’s the treatment you get as a restaurant staffer – which is, nearly without exception, insufferable.

Hungry People Behaving Badly

Restaurant dining brings out the worst in many otherwise civilized people. They’re sort of like polar bears. Super cute right? But have you ever seen footage of a polar bear ripping a seal apart? It’s not cute. In my experience there’s a polar bear inside of roughly one third of diners. All it needs to come out is the tiniest tinge of impatience or hunger.


No matter how upset these polar bears gets in any other professional relationship I’d be willing to bet they’d never dream of treating anyone as poorly as they do their servers. For the smallest amount of cash, these polar bears think they’ve purchased the right to degrade their server as much as they like.

When you have to deal with a surly or unresponsive server it probably isn’t because they’re jerks. The vast majority of restaurant folk are just trying to avoid getting eaten alive by a polar bear.

But what about when the service sucks?

If a server is extremely busy and knows they can’t give everyone the best service, triage begins. The higher the check and the lower the level of time needed to attend to someone determines who gets the attention first. If you’re getting bad service it’s probably for one or more of the following 3 reasons:

  • You aren’t spending much, and therefore aren’t tipping much.
  • Your waiter lost it and is just trying to make it to the end of their shift as best they can.
  • You’re a time-devouring pain in the ass.

This last one doesn’t mean you’re a jerk. You most probably aren’t. You’re probably a really great person who deserves good service every time you go out; it’s just you’re going to consistently be the last priority for your server because of that time consumption part of the equation.

It’s often not the server’s fault that things have fallen apart, but the blame is thrown on them.

The take-home pay for everyone else working in that restaurant is unaffected by a bad tip.

That means if the kitchen screws up, very often the server is the only one who gets shafted. And when things go south like that the server has to make a decision: do I piss off this one person, or do I piss off everyone?

Sometimes too you just get crap service.

You’re in a great mood, you want a nice meal, you’re willing to drop some significant cash, you’re ready to order in a timely fashion, you’re friendly and happy to be there, and you just get ignored by your server for no explicable reason. This was our experience recently. We were greeted by a rude hostess and ruder manager, given painfully unfriendly and slow service, and were rewarded with poorly-cooked food. It was a complete failure, but I still left our server 20 percent.

Why The Good Tip?

My thinking is if you tip the obligatory 15 percent for a bad experience, you’re confirming the worst reality of a server’s existence. If you give them a good tip, however, you’re giving them hope in what often seems a thankless job. You’re motivating them by showing appreciation even when they know they probably didn’t give you the best experience.

At the end of the day your server is your ambassador to everyone else on the staff, and all of those people don’t need your tip. For the best experience you want an ally, not an enemy. You make allies by treating them like valuable assets, instead of servants.

Molly’s rebuttal:

I also worked as a server a couple summers during college.  It doesn’t take years of experience at fancy restaurants to realize this is a tough, thankless job. I figured that out about a week into my short serving career. I busted my ass to try to make everything as delightful as possible for every table I had, assuming they’d see how hard I was scrambling, how carefully I watched their glasses, how I hit the perfect balance of friendly yet unobtrusive, hoping they’d acknowledge all of that in the tip they left.  

Some did.  And some left me nothing but a photocopied slip of paper listing “50 things money can’t buy”. I know that little photocopied gem was not a reflection of my job performance, but rather some kind of bizarre get-out-of-jail-free card for their guilt.

15 percent tip is an adequate tip.

It’s not great and it’s definitely not ideal (ideal would be abolishing the tipping system altogether and paying servers a living wage) but barring that, 15 percent is fine. It’s kinda like those old-school report cards where the teachers just used to write “satisfactory”…not “exemplary.” 

In my mind, leaving 15 percent is like leaving the message “I hereby acknowledge that without you, this dining experience would not have been possible. Thanks for doing this very difficult, very demoralizing, very low-paying job. ” Notice I didn’t say “doing your job well/cheerfully/efficiently/etc”; just thanks for doing it.  I don’t expect to be treated like royalty every time I step into a diner or brewpub, but I do expect my server to make an effort.

No one’s going to get rich being a server or even really be able to make a sustainable career out of it, unless our entire country makes some enormous shifts in its thinking.  Look, I’m not saying “if they don’t like their job find another one”, which is often an asshole’s response to low-income workers being unhappy with their jobs.  There are reasons people work these jobs and there are legitimate reasons why they stay; I get that.  I think Matthew missed another option in his list of possible explanations for poor service:

  • The server has a bad attitude, is not cut out for the job (it’s HARD), or is just personally having a crap day and is taking it out on his/her diners.

And for that, 15 percent is more than acceptable.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. Tipping is such a sticking point for people, I tend to tip based more on the work required than anything. I tip my hairdresser $10 for a $20 haircut because they spent 20+ minutes focusing on making me look good for 6 or more weeks (a hard job by the way). I rarely tip the people who make coffee because they expect a tip at the til before my drink is made and pouring an automated espresso is pretty easy, at a lesser automatic “hippie” joint I generally tip them as they put effort into it. For food service, I tip based on drink refills, attentiveness and I have kids so the mess we make factors in there too. My base is 20% for food service, it goes down for bad service and on rare occasions up for awesome service. If the food is taking a while, I will reduce my tip unless the server actually check’s in and does something about it – there are lots of things that can be done to appease a waiting client (more bread, refills, a snack, etc) but few actually do this even a “let me check on your food really quick” helps.

    • I hear that and have to admit when I was serving I could be guilty of avoidance if the kitchen was taking forever. Mostly because some of the chefs I worked with were scarier than the angriest diners. That’s one instance where even if it’s the kitchen’s fault for the delay, it’s on the server to make it right.

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