A Philosophy Of Tips

As the economy has spiraled and sputtered, I’ve occasionally (and increasingly) found myself dismayed at the tips I’ve been getting. Friday at Michael’s truly was a record low point in recent memory – then the trend continued that night at Carney’s! At lunch I was treated to a 20% tip on $60, followed by three 10%-ers, concluding with a 12%-er. Sales of $500 and I walked with $47. At dinner my credit card tips were a mere 16%. On $1300 sales, I grossed a little under $200.

I’m in a slump. I’ve been through slumps before. Waiters are just like athletes. We can ‘lose it’ for periods of time. We can also have strings of bad luck (the wrong diners, bad shifts/stations, problems unrelated to service, broader problems of the economy, etc.).

Perhaps most of it can be chalked up to human perspective. For all of us, when we have a great streak of good luck (food serving, with the opposite sex, at the card table), we tend to stuff it in our back pocket and forget about it. We feel we got what we were due. But come a run of just three bad hands in a row, that’s all we can focus on. Never mind that previously we had won 10 out of 12.

The past six months I’ve developed a gnawing fear that the widely-publicized consumer trend of ‘cutting back’ has extended to tipping. What surprised me was that people seem to be cutting back on their percentage tip, which seemed really unfair. After all, the nature of The Percentage is that it’s scalable – it’s a ratio.

So of course we’ll get less in tips, because 20% of $150 is less that 20% of $200. People cut back on their spending, and the percentage follows suit. It does the work for them.

So why have we all (all of my compatriots) seen a marked increase in 10-12% tips? Could guests actually be taking ‘cutting back’ to mean slicing off 5% of their usual 20% tip? Again, it seemed unfair.

Then I spent some wakeful time in bed the other night to really consider the nature of The Tip.

tips-jar2

TIPS – To Insure Prompt (or Proper) Service

 I always thought this was B.S. And it certainly is for waiters. How do you insure something will happen after it has already transpired? To Reward Prompt Service is more like it. But TRPS doesn’t work as well as an acronym. Sounds to me like some not-too-clever jackass tried to make something fit that actually didn’t.

Of course, there are other jobs, and tipping scenarios, besides that of the waiter. Can you believe it? Now, in tipping a maitre’d as you meet him at the front desk, that is hoping to insure proper service. After all, you haven’t gotten any yet. Your tip can have an influence.

 There are other examples, but let’s just say from now on, you may not use that idiotic phrase (To Insure Prompt Service) any time the recipient gets his/her money after delivering the service.

How about an new one for modern times: Percentage Impaired Stingy Sonofabitch – ‘Oh look at this! I just got PISS’ed on!’

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way . . .

 Why Do People Tip?

 I brainstormed about 5 reasons people tip:

1.      The Bribe.

2.      The Reward.

3.      Social Peer Pressure. Don’t tip, and you’re perceived as mean and cheap.

4.      Philanthropy. You feel like you’re giving a boost to someone less fortunate than yourself. See Uncle Ben and His $100 Bills.

5.      ‘Mandatory’ Fee. Automatic add on gratuities.

 How Do People Tip?

 Here are a few ways diners arrive at the tip:

1.      20% Of The Bottom Total. The way everyone should tip. Includes the tax, wine, everything.

2.      Percentage Of The Subtotal. Doesn’t include tax.

3.      Percentage, Excluding Bottled Wine. Don’t like this. No waiter does. ‘Look, dude, opening the wine properly and keeping your glasses filled wasn’t that much easier than bringing you four drinks from the bar. Is that actually your rationale?’

4.      Complex Financial Derivatives. Thought processes like: ‘20% on the food, $1 a drink, nothing for the bottle of wine, and round up or down to the dollar depending on if I like him.’

5.      Top Dollar Figure. As in, some people cannot stomach leaving more than x-dollars, regardless of how large the check is. This is when you get $100 on a $1400 tab. Or $20 on $400.

6.      Double The Tax. The worst of the worst. For fake simpletons who are actually real cheapskates. They’ve adopted the method because it’s easy, and easy to remember. Supposedly. Or is it because it camouflages the fact that (in my state/county/city) they’re tipping only 14%? Also, they expect us to believe they can master that complex algorithm but can’t fathom that merely doubling the whole bill and dropping off the last digit yields a clean 20%? At least Top Dollar Tippers are operating under an honest principle – they just can’t emotionally and physically handle tipping that much – and they know it. Double The Tax’ers are liars.

 The Percentage Is The Tip

 I’ve worked many years under the unchallenged assumption that most of my tips are a percentage of the total check, translated into a dollar figure. In other words, because the check is x-dollars, I’m entitled to y-dollars because it’s whatever percentage the guest has decided to apply.

 I know this sounds arcane and stupid, but I’m starting to believe the tip isn’t that.

The tip is the percentage.

 I know when I dine out that’s the way I’ve always thought of it, without even realizing it. I don’t go, ‘Let’s see, this guy deserves $21.’ Instead, I say to myself, ‘This guy was really good; the meal was great; and we had a great time. I’m giving him 25%.’ The dollar figure is incidental.

 I caution, this is the way most people approach it. I know there are others who, as noted above, do it differently.

 What I’m talking about is a very subtle difference, but it explains the psychology that allows people to start tipping 10% in these hard times. For these people, it’s nothing personal, but they’re just tipping less. A 20% tip before was a generous extravagance; since they’re now cutting back, it’s just going down to 15%.

 How Should Tips Be Reconciled?

 The thing that’s scary to career waiters is that the whole house of cards could collapse at any time. I mean, why the hell tip at all? Anywhere? Except, of course, in advance of getting something?

 Is it intrinsically more difficult to orchestrate a 2-hour dinner than it is to properly rebuild a transmission over the course of five days? Is it even more appreciated?

 

Now That Was Harder Than Filling A Cup Of Coffee!
Now That Was Harder Than Filling A Cup Of Coffee!

 

 

Are we tipping now simply because it’s embedded into the fabric of society? Because it’s expected, and if you don’t you are labeled cheap, inconsiderate, selfish, a loser?

Are we tipping because restaurant owners won’t pay skilled help themselves?

I guess it comes down the waiter’s value to society. It’s clear we are valued, or else we simply wouldn’t make the money we make. This tipping business has been going on for like a hundred years now, and I believe it has reached some equilibrium. People hate to have their special nights out ruined by poor service. Along the way, a natural balance was reached that rewarded competent people enough that they would elect to be waiters.

 That’s the thing a lot of young waiters – who disdain their ‘temporary’ job – don’t understand. Being a quality waiter is a much-appreciated skill. It’s probably about the same as being an accomplished craftsman – a carpenter, a tailor, a mechanic, a writer. These are all valued and respectable lifetime occupations.

Perhaps, ultimately, it’s that waiters occupy that same ‘craftsman’ economic strata, which is closer to the bottom than the top. And like everyone else in the lower half, when times get tough, we’re the first ones to get the bread snatched out of our mouths. People can’t fight against their bank or their landlord to save money. But to our profession, it’s easy to do. Just lower the percentage.

Miscellany

Yesterday I got carried away talking about the Breakdown of Society, or Societal Collapse, as it relates to waiters. I said all I needed to say on the subject, but rereading it today, I realized I didn’t address one of SkippyMom’s main thrusts. Oops.

So here goes. She thought the concept of ‘Societal Breakdown’ was a little harsh for my impressions of fewer kids trick-or-treating. I agree. I didn’t really mean that this was going to ruin society. All I really meant was this is another aspect in that long slow process that I see happening.

* * * * *

There was a pretty cool article in the L.A. Times today about old waiters who know their stuff. Take a look.

* * * * *

So maybe this is what we’ve been waiting for (no pun intended). Three of us waiters today at Michael’s. Top dog (not me) took home $25. I walked with $17, as the closer.

Success at Michael’s is based on doing a solid job and biding your time until you get a big table ($-wise) that kicks your average into respectable, normal range. I’ve played that game for more than three years without any deviation from the formula. Time and again a week would come out with a $100 a day average, month after month. A rare $60 average per day week would be followed by two $120 average per day weeks . . . and on and on.

But the last month I’m seeing either a surprising run of bad luck, or else that the key component – the big hitter – has vanished. I’ve been averaging $50-60 a shift for a month. And obviously I’m not off to a good start this week.

* * * * *

Wanted to give a holler to TheHootersGirl. She’s only made one short comment here, but she has linked to my blog and is driving a lot of traffic my way. Thanks!

I’ve read some of her writing, and it’s a lot of fun. And, of course, what could be more provocative than learning what a real Hooters Girl thinks of her customers? And maybe there’ll be pictures . . .

Check her out. Her writing.

* * * * *

Hope you all had a fun St. Patrick’s Day. I was prepared to stay in while the wife worked, but a friend dropped in and pulled me out for a couple beers. It was fun. When it’s not degenerated into sloppy drunkenness, the excitement of St. Patty’s partying is a fun atmosphere. We went to the nearby restaurant row to an Irish bar. The street was full people, the vibe was lively. As I said, not sunken into sloppiness yet. We were out from about 8-9 p.m.

After that I came home and worked on the computer. Then I mixed a martini and watched the Lakers fall at home against the 76ers on a buzzer beating 3-pointer. This, after Kobe drained a jumper with 5 seconds left to go up by two. A stinging shocker.

Societal Collapse (previously Societal Breakdown)

Reader SkippyMom recently took small issue with some of my statements in the post, The Double.

. . . I have to disagree with the “tag” you placed on this.

Your opinion about Halloween seems based on one diner’s observation and adults costumed who showed up at Carney’s – but you labelled it “societal breakdown” because kids no longer trick or treat – either you don’t have children or you don’t live in the right neighborhood {one which has a lot of kids}.  My oldest is 22 and my youngest is 11 – and they have all done the traditional trick or treating and this year will be our last year {for the 11 year old}, although we will still give out candy – Yay!

I know this is a weird post to pick to comment on, but not everything is as cut and dried as you sometimes present it and I don’t think because you didn’t have trick or treaters or your customer related to you that all the kids go to church or school related functions dictates a label of societal breakdown.  Just seemed a little harsh.

Still, just my opinion and I do like you blog 🙂

First of all, I want to thank SkippyMom for reading and writing. That’s the most important thing. I get some self-indulgent kicks out of writing this blog, but it’s really out there so others can read, learn, chime-in, disagree, etc.

Next, I kind of apologize for being too ‘cut and dried’ and/or ‘harsh.’ In truth, I am a very ‘gray area’ type of person. However, that doesn’t make good reading. I’m not saying I’m trumping up issues just to be controversial or raise peoples’ ire. I’m saying that because I’m writing publicly, I’ve decided to go ahead and make bold statements about which I feel strongly. And sometimes I’ll make statements that I haven’t necessarily thought through, but just appeal to me emotionally. At the same time, anyone reading this blog for long will trust that I’m not just some jackass shouting the most inflammatory, attention-grabbing things I can conjure.

Regarding Halloween specifically, I probably only grazed the target on that one. I’ve lived in five different neighborhoods since the ’80s. I’ve seen a continuous decline in the number of trick-or-treaters in each location (not just location to location, but year to year). And I’ll include my parents’ old neighborhood in the ’90s, which was teeming with trick-or-treaters but they were all ‘carpetbaggers,’ dropped off literally in busses from other neighborhoods – so that, to me, counts too.

This observation stirred my feelings about the traditions of society and how many seemed to be falling away. Collapsing, if you will. As a waiter, I’ve long held a private theory that the rise in demand for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Day restaurant dining is actually a sign of a breakdown in society. Wherein important communal, familial rituals were being discarded in favor of merely ‘consuming’ a holiday meal.

Not that I invented the phrase ‘societal breakdown,’ but I did come up with it in my own vacuum. After SkippyMom’s response, I realized I’d better find out what the hell it actually meant. Google didn’t have it. The closest match was Societal Collapse, which turns out to be the same thing I was talking about. If you’re interested, please read the first few paragraphs from Wikipedia about Societal Collapse.

I was prepared to apologize in general for speaking a little too loosely about the disintegration of certain societal customs, but reading the Wikipedia entry, it turns out I might have been right. Like a blind squirrel finding a nut. Heh.

It really is a subject close to the waiter’s heart, as it applies to holidays – traditionally spent at the hearths and homes of family and friend – that are now occurring at restaurants. I don’t mean to say this is happening unilaterally across the nation. But in my lifetime (the last 30 years of which have been in California, admittedly) I have seen this trend accelerate.

What waiters don’t like about it is that we have lives and families too. We understand, first, that we’ll make more money because of the ‘new’ business coming in on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, even Halloween. We understand that as it is, anyway, we are the ones working all those other weekend nights when most people are communing with family and friends. We understand also even on these ‘special’ days our guests are having certain family and friends moments.

But we don’t care. We have family and friends too, and we would like to have these times with those people on just those few days of the year.

Rather than show up at home when everyone’s already asleep and the fire has died and there’s nothing but empty, sticky glasses on the tables. Rather than wake up Christmas day on 5 hours sleep when everyone else is eager and sharp for Christmas. Rather than eat a cold plate of turkey and stuffing taken from the refrigerator at 11 p.m, the rest of the family gone back to their homes.

Waiters: Happy Thanksgiving!

I don’t bemoan change. Society is always evolving, and indeed this is an evolution. Though nostalgia definitely plays a part in my feelings, I don’t complain just because it’s ‘not the way it used to be.’

I simply think the old way was better for me, for people, for society. There is a bonding that happens on those few special days (which is itself an evolution from when perhaps that kind of familial, communal bonding happened day-to-day, week-to-week, season-to-season). People are together as groups and they fairly celebrate that. I lived with my parents till I was 21, then off and on till I was 26, but the moments I remember best – some of the moments that cemented me to the family – were the gatherings at Thanksgiving and during the Christmas holidays.

I can hear the objections now. But I don’t think anyone would be the worse off if virtually everything closed at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve and didn’t reopen till Dec. 26. We’d lose some convenience expected in our everything-now modern world, but we’d be fine. What’s wrong with spending an entire day with the family? What’s wrong with making your own modest meal Christmas Eve, having some eggnog, and putting the presents under the tree – and having to suffer because you can’t buy a pack of smokes anywhere?

Is it that much of a hassle to cook your own food and do your own dishes?

Think of the meaning of the word ‘society.’ Social. Being with, interacting with, people. This brings me to the final aspect of Societal Breakdown (Collapse).

Obviously, people going to restaurants with their friends and family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is still communal. They are having their gathering, it merely doesn’t happen to be in their homes. But I maintain it’s just not the same.

Before restaurants existed, the gathering over a meal was an important, even sacred, undertaking. But why?

Because any caveman could shake a berry bush and grub-down on the spot. He could catch a squirrel, and with a little fire, eat it in short order.

Merely eating isn’t the thing.

It’s the whole process of coming home with the food. Preparing the food. Preparing the table. Gathering the family. The participation. The anticipation. And finally, the consummation. A real day to remember.

Showing up at a restaurant at 7 p.m., knocking back a couple glasses of wine, eating some prime rib, having some conversation, paying a check, and driving away at 8:45 p.m. is not the same thing. You didn’t have Christmas Eve. You just had dinner.

And you deprived a whole crew of restaurant workers of the chance of even that small pleasure.

Write-Ups & Shout-Outs

First off I’d like to thank some of the contributors to the comments sections: waiterextraordinaire, newcomer foodserviceninja, and of course, Mike the Waiter. You all have great, thought-provoking and entertaining comments. Thank you, all!

Also, I happen to know that waiterextraordinaire and Mike the Waiter have their own fine blogs. I urge you to check them out. They’ve provided me many interludes of entertaining reading. As for foodserviceninja, it sounds like the name of a blog, but I don’t know as of yet. From his/her comments here, I think it would be a fine read if there is a blog.

In fact, in finding the URL for waiterextraordinaire, I happened upon his most recent post, Steven I Need To Speak To You. It is a fine topic. WaiterEx was called into the office because of an email complaint from a table in which the guest wanted to give him a $20 cash tip but expected to receive the change left over on his gift card, $8. The guest had uttered the familiar words, ‘No, that’s for you,’ when asked if he needed change. As waiters we all know that means keep the change. Fortunately for WaiterEx, it appears his management understands what went wrong and that it really wasn’t his fault. Management also appears to understand that WaiterEx is indeed extraordinary – and that buys a lot of forgiveness.

It’s tough when you hear, ‘Hey, you got a second? I need to talk to you in the office.’ It’s usually something bad. It happened to me just recently as well.

My previous shift at Michael’s I had made the mistake of paying off the wrong table with another table’s credit card. I caught the error before the second table paid, so that one was cool. But the first table was charged for less than they actually should have been billed. I went to the manager to correct things. We fixed the second table, but she informed me that we couldn’t up-charge a card after the fact, once the guest was gone. She pointed out the difference was something like $27.

That was all she said. So I looked at her, waiting. Finally, I said, ‘So what are we going to do about it?’

‘You have two choices. You can make up the difference yourself –’

‘That’s not going to happen,’ I said. ‘Next.’

‘Or we can write you up.’

Okay then. By the end of the shift she said she wasn’t going to have time that day because she was going into a manager’s meeting. I assumed, frankly, that would be the end of it. Most of the time, with good employees such as myself, management might take you to task about something and threaten the follow-up, but then never do anything. Probably this is partially because of laziness, and partially because they think they’ve already made their point and don’t need to beat a responsible, well-performing employee over the head about it.

Well I got the call at the start of my next shift. It was short and sweet. They (a witness is required at Michael’s for write-ups) pointed out how important it was in this economy to keep our costs down and that’s why I was being written up. Okay. I could understand that. Write-ups aren’t just for misdeeds and things like being late – they’re also for poor job performance. And my screw-up was poor performance.

Side Note: In fact, I wish restaurants would do this more because it would give them the opportunity to legally and credibly fire deadwood waiters. Instead, they wait for them to do something wrong like stealing or missing shifts or whatnot, and it never happens because shitty waiters have a sixth sense about how close they are to the firing line. Whereas, if they would serve write-ups when hacks don’t greet tables for ten minutes, or take orders wrong, or forget to fire entrees, etc., they could cut loose the hacks after three strikes.

I wasn’t going to let it go that easily, however. I questioned why I would even be asked to pay for the mistake myself? Would they chase down a dishwasher for $3 if he dropped a plate?

The ‘other’ manager said that our day manager had been corrected on that. She never should have asked me to do that; it wasn’t legal. Then they started the tape loop again and explained about the need to save dollars, etc.

I responded, ‘Believe me, I do understand that. But it seems awfully inconsistent to go after me with a write-up here when it was simply a mistake I made in the course of the job. Are you writing up the cook when he burns a $50 porterhouse? That kind of thing happens every day and it doesn’t seem likely that you’re doing it.’

They claimed that they did . . .

But I had made my point. I signed the form, told them no hard feelings, we’re all cool, and went on with my day.

I’ve been written up plenty of times in my career. Most have come during ‘witch hunt’ binges that appear to be dictated by upper-management: An announcement will come that ‘we’re cracking down on things around here,’ and 60-70% of the staff will be written up at least once, and then it ends and everyone forgets about it. I remember one place where there was a ‘shoe crackdown.’ The condition, cleanliness, color, and physical properties of our shoes were inspected 5 or 6 times over a two week period. Forms were flying all over the place. A month later, waiters started showing up again in non-conforming  ‘Athletic Shoes.’

Waiter Shoes About One Year Before Retirement

Oh, management . . . what would we do without you?

Things I Like About Being A Waiter – Part 1

There are many things I like about being a waiter. Not ranked in importance – rather, this is the one that comes to mind right now:

I’m kind of in control of how I have to talk to people. By nature, I’m a reticent type of person, socially. Ironic, of course, on many levels.

  1. I’m in a profession where social skills are extremely important and rewarded as such.
  2. I’ve been a writer my whole adult life (and if writers aren’t trying to communicate, I don’t know what they’re doing).
  3. I’ve been a professional musician the last 12 years (ditto, re: writers).

But I am reticent. I’m the type to sit in the background, listening, evaluating. I’ll contribute if called upon, or if I feel comfortable. But I’m mostly inclined to let gregarious people do their thing and I’ll just wait, or else let them blow their brains out.

So back to what I like about being a waiter. It’s that I’m in a social situation of sorts with the guests, and I’m not locked into them for the duration. Yes, I’m there for their two-hour meal, but really I’m only there for minutes or seconds at a time. I get to dive and dodge and hit and miss and swoop in and retreat. If you’re not already getting the boxing analogy, I’m like Muhammad Ali. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Sometimes You Do Feel This Dominant, When Your Game Is On

We all have our best moves – usually verbal responses, set-pieces we deliver flawlessly as if from inspiration, and physical acting displays like smiling or laughing or fake consternation. It’s a repertoire that gets the job done effectively. Moves range from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. When you’re on you feel like a maestro, a star, a BMOC (Big Man On Campus, for you youngsters). There’s nothing that your moves can’t handle. No situation you can’t come out of looking like a stud.

If only dating could be structured the same way . . .

[Side note: Years ago, I realized why musicians – even ugly, boorish, stupid musicians – get so many hot girls. It’s because they’re in just such a situation. Forty-five minutes of the hour, they are on stage, playing music, looking cool, answering no questions, the center of attention. Fifteen minute break, they go and hit the crowd. Half a minute here, two minutes there, five minutes over there, get a drink, go to the bathroom, another two minutes there . . . and they’re back on stage. They have all their sure-fire social moves concentrated into a tiny space. And then they’re god again for the next 45 minutes. While the rest of us blow our brains out trying to be charming for three hours straight.]

As a waiter I can do this. If people are irritating, I only have to spend a minute or two at a time with them. It’s understood that I have things to do, and I can move on. In some ways, this does satisfy a shy person’s need for social interaction. Shy people are just like everyone else: they believe they are interesting and have something to say. They just are uncomfortable doing so. Being a waiter provides this opportunity.

Instead of having to suffer through the Elbow Man’s entire one-hour pontification on how smart he is, I can hear enough to scurry away, then return later to drop a nice bon mot on the table that perfectly summarizes the other guests’ pain for them.

With genuinely likable but high-powered personalities, I am able to show my best without really worrying about being eclipsed – which would surely happen in a normal social situation.

Intruding on a close-knit family or friend group would normally be highly awkward or even impossible. But as a waiter, you can insinuate yourself into that beautiful, warm vibe with a comment or two, and not be rejected.

There are a lot of lonely people out there. Waiters usually aren’t among them. Even for those without many friends or family, they are able to connect with people. And best of all, concerning the topic here, they have control of that connection.