Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dining Out In The New Economy

My wife and I like to go out to eat at restaurants about once a week because it gives me a break from coming up with the daily gastronomical delicacies that I whip up in my kitchen. And yes, it is MY kitchen. To my wife it is just a huge cooler where the Diet Coke is housed. Anyway, I feel that every dining experience has the potential to be an epicurean adventure, no matter where you go, so I’m pleased when we go to new places and try things we haven’t had the pleasure of yet.

I was chatting about this the other day with my buddy Randy, who works in San Jose as a waiter for a popular Italian restaurant chain. I was telling him of my latest dining experience, which didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I felt the wait was excessive, the food slow to the table, the chicken was overcooked and the ambiance was negated by the shrill screams and wild running about of small, unattended children. (Honestly, my wife and I now cringe and debate about leaving whenever we see children in nice restaurants. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction.)

He just smiled and nodded knowingly and asked me “so did you leave a lousy tip, then?” Well, no, I didn’t. I am usually quite generous with tips, especially with having had my kids and many friends in that profession at one time or another. I left the waiter a regular tip. As a rule of thumb, I just double the tax and round up, which comes to about 18% or so. I leave more if I feel the waiter did an exceptional job.

He smiled and told me he was proud of me because a lot of people wouldn’t have been as understanding. He said waiters often bear the brunt of their patron’s bad experiences even though they usually don’t have anything to do with it. He explained that the time waiting for tables to open up would be a lot less if people wouldn’t “camp out” at their table drinking coffee for hours after a meal. And as for the food being slow or overcooked, he said that happens frequently when the kitchen is short staffed or gets too busy. As for the out-of-control children, waiters hate that too. “Try carrying a tray filled with plates of hot food or hot drinks while the little bastards are running in front of you playing tag.” The point he was making was, of course, that just because the news was bad doesn’t mean you have to kill the messenger.

I feel sorry for waiters and restaurant workers in general because they really don’t get any respect. In fact some people new to this country have a misconception that they are slaves to be bossed around and abused and never, ever tipped. Randy said this is pretty common amongst patrons from India and Middle Eastern countries in particular. It doesn’t matter if you provide exceptional service and make sure all the glasses are kept full, the food is delivered promptly, at the right temperature and in the manner they requested it, the waiters still get stiffed.

For many guests there is an invisible wall when it comes to tipping whereas the maximum they could ever conceive of leaving as a gratuity is $5, even if the bill is over $100!  It's not necessarily an insult to the server; a lot of it is simply a matter of cultural differences.  Of course when it's your livelihood at stake, cultural differences don't mean a whole lot. Servers actually fight over not having to wait on certain people because they know from experience that they will be have to jump through all kinds of hoops and then still get stiffed with the tip.  Although that does seem a bit discriminatory, it helps to put things in proper perspective when you consider that tips make up the majority of a server’s income.

I like to listen to his stories from work. Just when I think that people couldn’t get any weirder, Randy tells me a story and proves otherwise. Like the guy who was so germ phobic he wouldn’t open the door to the restaurant, and would instead wait for someone to leave so that he could slide in without touching anything. Sometimes he would wait outside for awhile until a customer or a server let him in. Other times he would call ahead and ask for the food to be delivered to his car parked outside.

Always he insisted that it be packaged in a particular way in a tray and placed in a bag a particular way with the bag folded a particular way by someone who had sanitized their hands. From his car he watched with binoculars to make sure the server had someone open the door for them so their body didn’t touch anything that might contaminate the food. If he saw that the person delivering his food made contact with the door or door frame he would send it back to start all over again.

So that’s what happened to the bubble boy! Someone needs to get that guy a hazmat suit!

With the economy being in the tank, a lot of people have been trying to save money in unexpected ways when they dine out. At his restaurant, the child’s meal comes with free soft drink refills. Wary of this, parents are ordering water for themselves and when the meals arrive at the table they grab their kid’s soda and give them their water. *eye roll*

It’s not uncommon for their guests to purchase the cheapest meal on the menu, to share, and then request 5 or 6 loaves of the free French bread to eat with it. Or sometimes they will purposefully lie about bad service to get the manager to comp them a meal or get money knocked off their bill. The people that do this have it down to a science and keep coming back to the same restaurants and playing the same game every time with the same successful results. And of course when it comes to the tip, all the servers get for enduring the abuse and running themselves ragged is a derisive smirk when the customer leaves.

Despite the hardships and lack of respect, they still manage to have a good time at work most days. Randy told me a fun distraction common in restaurants is for the wait staff to let others know when a hot girl comes in so that that person can go check her out, sometimes with comedic results.

“So here’s what happened Thursday night. The hostess seats two young women at a back table in my section. One of them is smokin’ hot. I say hi, get their drink orders and go back to the kitchen and tell my buddy Keith about the hot girl. He says ‘I’m going go see for myself,” and goes back to check her out. Now consider that they are alone in the back section and there is no reason for anyone aside from their waiter to go back there. Keith comes back and says out loud, ‘oh hell yeah, she’s gorgeous!’

Naturally this gets the attention of some of the other servers and kitchen staff who now are all madly curious about the angel that is sitting in seat one at table 43. One by one they file on back there, trying not to look too much like stalkers as they pretend to wipe a nearby table or replace the salt and pepper shakers. A total of eleven guys and three girls took turns checking out the pretty girl and echoing Keith’s sentiments. So I go back there with their drinks and they are laughing, apparently not fooled in the slightest as to the intentions of the other staff.

Apparently some of the guys couldn’t help but stare like a deer in headlights.  Subtle.  Real subtle.

But instead of being mad, the cute one tells me that if we will shut down the parade she will let me take her picture.”

So I ask him, “So then what did you do?”

“Well, hell! I did what any other red-blooded American man would have done. You want to see her picture?”

Seriously, I'm just kidding.  Everyone knows Snooks is way to good for an Olive Garden.


  1. We eat out ALL the time and hubby tips great!

  2. I usually gives servers the benefit of the doubt unless they are rude. There is no excuse for rudeness.

  3. Snookie is red blooded and orange skinned.

    This is great. I almost always feel badly for the waiter as long as they are kind to us and I can tell they are trying. I tip way more than my wife likes (usually 25%), but I'm cool like that.

    And I tip the same no matter what background they come from.

  4. My daughter works as a server. Every once in awhile she comes in ranting about the cheapskates that left her $3 on a $100 bill after bending over backwards for them. I know I could never do it. The first snotty patron would end up with hot soup dumped on his/her head. I would be fired. And probably sued.

  5. That's exactly how I figure out my tip! And just like you, I always tip good. One day my sister and I went out to lunch (on me) I had thought that we would be spending at least $40 on food, but we ended up splitting a brownie sundae..I tipped the waitress $20 (figured I had planned on spending more anyway..so why not?). She stopped me before I got out the door, professed her love for me and gave me a big hug for the whole restaurant to see. She literally made my day!

    And? "To my wife it is just a huge cooler where the Diet Coke is housed." ~ Made me laugh so hard, I snorted! Perfectly Awesome!

  6. lol! why didn't they sneeze in the food so the germ freak never returns?

  7. I think the bottom line is that empathy lives in the house you once occupied. Seriously, if you've EVER been in food service--you can't help but have pity! I tip huge--but it SO pays off cause they tell EVERYONE! I get stronger drinks, faster service, and have even had staff fight over who "got us." In a world of mediocre everything--being known for generosity is a damn good thing!

    Hazmat dude is a scream--I'd be so tempted to mess with him...

  8. Love the first picture; this is totally hilarious although you've made some important points. I think I must be frequenting the same Olive Garden. Now I know why I'm ignored.

    Your method of calculating the tip fascinates me. Never thought of that!

  9. One of my sons worked as a waiter for a few years and thanks to him, I tend to tip 20% unless the service was bad.

  10. Good for you, Tom, for rallying to the aid of food servers. It is a tough job.
    I'm actually a pretty considerate customer. Most times the servers catch on to this right away and provide great attention at our table. But once on a rare occasion we've been saddled with someone who seems to find it painful to be pleasant. We still tip well, and if we're asked, we will be honest about our experience..not mean, but up front. Often that turns things around immediately. But usually, we just decide not to return. (By the way, I am too sensitive nowadays for your intro photo....I worked for 9 years in college residence halls, and I've had quite enough of that ....!!).
    Nice job!

  11. I LOVE the dinosaur tip sign! I would give who ever created that any money on me.

    I'd want to use that if I ever go back to waiting but don't know how unless it was pinned to my apron...and that might be too aggressive and weird. You think?

  12. Amen, brother.
    My wife's a waitress. She work's her tail off. About half of her customers tip 15 to 20 percent. Rarely does she see tips in excess of twenty percent. Looks like your followers are exceptionally generous.

  13. Thanks for the tips on the waiter world. Sorry for the pun.

  14. It's interesting you talk about cultural differences when it comes to tipping.

    Down here in Oz we haven't had a culture of tipping. Basically until recently no one in restaurants or hotels (or anywhere else)in Oz ever got tipped . And I mean ever (unless by American tourists).

    So us Aussies had to learn the hard way when we went overseas that tipping leads to better service out there in the wide world.

  15. My two oldest are servers during college breaks. The stories they tell amaze me. Another thing that most people don't understand is how low they are paid hourly. My kids get $2.13 and the restaurant does not make sure their tips even out to minimum wage. They hate Sundays the most because church people are notoriously stingy.
    Great post.

  16. I've never actually understood why people give tips to waiters when we don't give tips to people of much more difficult and important professions which are also badly paid - nurses, firefighters, blue collar workers .... Is it because we are afraid waiters would do something bad with our food and drinks if we don't?

  17. Actually waitstaff don't even get minimum wage in many cases. Personally, I'm with you, I give the maximum allowed: usually 20 percent and rounded up, unless the service is extra horrible or the waiter/waitress is extra horrible for no seemingly good reason -- sometimes you can tell it's a particularly busy night or if the manager is a douche or something like that. Also my mother-in-law has been a waitress for 30 years, so I know secondhand what it's like to be on the receiving end.

  18. What a great story. I really figured the picture would show a lot more cleavage...

    Thanks for making me laugh!

  19. I was a waitress years ago in an Irish Pub. It was heaven or hell depending on the customer.


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