Dear People Who Have Never Worked as Servers,
As someone who has worked as a hostess and a server for about seven restaurants since college, I know a thing or two about dining out, both as the guest and the one taking the guests’ orders. I’ve worked for chain restaurants, for banquet companies, for locally-owned places and for high-end, white-linens establishments. The guests at my table have ranged from farmers in overalls questioning, “What is an ‘ennnn-tree?'” to wealthy executives who preferred not to look at or speak to me.
Right now I’m waiting tables part time, about five shifts per week. I own my own business, but as a divorced mom to four it’s not quite enough to cover all my bills and have room for fun. Serving is the perfect flexible job – I can make $20-$80 per shift in cash, I can switch shifts with my coworkers if something pops up, and my management is understanding enough that they don’t care if my schedule changes week to week. They put me where they need me and I work when I can.
I’m sure this is foreign to you, those of you who have never worked in a restaurant, or perhaps never in the service industry at all. You might walk into a restaurant and assume your server is uneducated (I have a BA from a private university), lazy (I work more and fit more activities into any given week than any other person I know) or irresponsible (see above about the four kids – I watch over them with the utmost care and love).
Of course you’ve been out to eat many times. Maybe most of your dinners come from restaurant kitchens. You know by now it’s customary to tip 15% for adequate service. You know you should not change a diaper on your dining table. But I’ve realized there are some things non-servers have never had the opportunity to learn, and I’m here to help you.
8 Things You Should Know About Dining Out
1. Your server is employed at the restaurant to serve you. Seems obvious, right? I can’t tell you how many times I approach a table and everyone simply… ignores me. It’s as if I’m not there. My job is to greet you so that you aren’t annoyed in thirty seconds when you don’t have drinks on the table. If you don’t acknowledge my presence or let me take a drink order, I can’t help alleviate your thirst. I’m intelligent, true, but I can’t read minds. So if your server approaches your table, as it’s her job to do so, hit pause on your conversation about the company’s merger or your next trip to the outlet mall and let her introduce herself and get you something to drink.
2. Your server does not make your food, so don’t shoot the messenger. I suppose there are some locations where the servers double as cooks, but not in my world. I take your order and relay it to the kitchen. If your food arrives and it is not cooked to order, it is not the server’s fault unless she rang in the order incorrectly. If your food is not hot, it’s not because of the server – she doesn’t stick her fingers in it before bringing it to your table to determine the temperature. When your food does not arrive as expected, don’t jump to conclusions about the server being to blame. Except in cases where the server truly rang in the wrong order (which does happen occasionally, we are all human), a problem with the food usually comes from the kitchen or your own incorrect assumptions. A good server will apologize and try to fix it immediately, possibly getting management and the chef involved. Don’t ding her tip for something beyond her control.
3. Be honest when the server asks how you’re enjoying your food. This is called a “check-back.” The server will visit your table shortly after the meals arrive to make sure everything is correct, warm enough and prepared to order. This is no time to be a shrinking violet! You aren’t hurting anyone’s feelings by politely indicating that the steak is overcooked or that your pasta arrived with mushrooms instead of without (often a different server or a food runner brings the food to your table, so your own server may initially miss a kitchen error like that). Going back to the topic of mind-reading, we servers cannot tell if you aren’t satisfied with your food unless you say so. I recently had a table where one of the women said her food was fine when I checked back, and then ten minutes later, after she’d eaten half of the dish, said it had arrived too cold and could we please make her another entree. Um, okay?
4a. Tip your server. Nothing will induce server rage more than being undertipped. If you tip less than 15% without voicing a reason to management as to why, I guarantee every server in the building will know your face as that of a cheapster. We all share stories about cheap people. Tipping is part of the dining out experience. If you conscientiously object, go to a fast food restaurant or cook at home. I make minimum wage, and my paychecks for ten shifts in two weeks are usually $200 or less, thanks to taxes on my declared tips. In some states it is legal to pay waitstaff LESS than minimum wage. At one restaurant I made $2.09 an hour. Servers count on tips to pay bills – telling your server in flowery language that everything was fabulous and that the chef should be kissed is nice and all, but your compliments won’t magically turn into currency that can be used to buy groceries.
4b. Tip your server on the amount BEFORE discounts or gift certificates. So you found a great Groupon for your favorite restaurant, or your mom gave you a fat gift certificate and you’re out for your birthday. Fantastic! Have a nice night out. But don’t take that discount or gift and turn it into something vile. If you rack up a bill that comes to $120, tip at least $18. I don’t care if your gift certificate is for $100 and you only end up being charged $20 for the balance, always tip on the initial amount. ALWAYS. Or else you, too, will be added to the Cheap People Hall of Shame.
4c. Tip your server well because she probably doesn’t get to keep all of the money. At the end of a shift, I have to tip out the bartender and bussers. Sometimes I’m leaving $20-$30 behind. So you might think you’re being Ms. Generous leaving $6.75 on your $45 ticket, but I don’t even get to keep that whole $6.75. Fifteen percent should be if your server did his or her job. If he or she did a great job, tip at least 20%. You’ll get attentive service each time you come back – we remember the awesome, appreciative guests, too. They’re our favorites and sometimes we give them free stuff to thank them for being wonderful. Shhhhh.
5. Don’t let your kid throw food all over the floor. Do you know how hard it is to get spaghetti out of carpet? I have kids, so I know. The way some moms and dads let their kids behave at restaurants makes me want to slip them brochures about parenting classes. If you don’t allow it at home, don’t allow it at the restaurant. Actually, even if you allow that kind of craziness at home, don’t let the kids do it when there are other people trying to enjoy a nice meal three feet from your table. If your kid does make a ginormous mess, try to clean up a little and leave your server a fat tip.
6. If you must stay at your table for an extended period of time, tip extra. Like twice as much. In most restaurants, the servers get a fixed number of tables in their sections. At my restaurant, that is anywhere from three to six. The more my tables turn over, the more money I make. If guests decide to sit and talk for four hours because they haven’t seen each other since they graduated in 1971 and have soooo much to catch up on, I lose money.
You might think you’re not bothering anyone because you’ve already paid and you’re not asking for refills on water and Diet Coke, but every minute you sit at a table after you’ve finished your meal is another minute your server can’t get a new table who will tip her more. I don’t mind if my guests stay to chit chat as long as they tip me well. Otherwise I will be complaining to my manager about the people at table 74 who just.will.not.leave. If you are at a restaurant for more than 1 1/2 hours at lunch or 2 hours at dinner, leave a graciously large enough tip to make up for your server’s lost income opportunities.
7. Be polite to your server. We’re not idiots who can’t find employment elsewhere. Some servers I know simply love the work and are what we call career servers. Could they get other jobs? Of course! But they enjoy serving and the flexible hours. Others are doing it because they are students and need something that fits in between their morning chem class and evening bio lab. Some have children and need to work opposite hours as their spouse so they don’t have to pay childcare. Some are trying to grow other businesses or careers and need the boost of income that comes from waiting tables a few times a week. There’s no need to feel superior to us or to act like we’re not worth your pleases and thank yous.
8. Servers don’t spit in your food. In all of my time working in restaurants, I’ve never, ever seen that. But if you’re a jerk or super cheap, we might joke about wanting to lick your bread before we take it out, and we absolutely say bad things about you to our coworkers the minute we enter the kitchen. Have you ever been out to eat and felt like all the servers and managers were looking at you? Might be true if you were an ass or tipped 10% for good service.
I’m fortunate in that I work at an established restaurant with a great reputation, above-average management and excellent food. We have so many regulars they know the menu better than I do and know most of us by name. My tips are regularly in the 20%-30% range. Most of our guests know all of the above, whether they’ve waited tables in their pasts or not.
But for the rest of you amateurs, study up, or the next time you dine at a restaurant where you didn’t follow the basic tenets of dining out, the servers will make sure you get seated at the worst table in the place and your ears will be burning the entire night.
Image used with permission granted under creative commons license from Koen Demarest.