The Joelsuf Way: How to be a Good Server, How to tip Your Server

                       Did I tip enough?

One of my facebook friends recently shared a post from someone who posted this picture. And after some back and forth commenting, it motivated me to post this article. As I briefly mentioned in a previous post, I was a server for a few short months. Although I didn’t learn as much from that job as the job I just left, I still learned a very valuable lesson. And that lesson is a clear system of how to tip your server when eating out.

I won’t describe how things were at my server job in a ton of detail. Anyone who has been a server already knows. Many think that servers only need to worry about taking orders. That isn’t true at all. About a quarter of my day at my server job was wasted doing mundane kitchen tasks, washing dishes being the biggest one. And yes, I was washing the dishes while getting server wages. That job came to a nasty end when one of the dishwashers didn’t show up. I had to cover for him, getting paid my server wages.

9 hours later, and after having nearly every supervisor in the kitchen breathing down my neck, I was furious. I threw down a few plates, breaking them and nearly started a fight with one of the supervisors. I was “banned” from the restaurant after that.

So my thoughts on being a server are quite biased. There is decent money in being one, but the stress does not justify it at all. There are many other things one can do for money that are not nearly as stressful.

With all that being said, its time to get into the main ideas of this article. The first part will cover what I believe makes a good server. The second part will cover what to look for when you are a patron. By the way, I am only talking about servers in restaurants, I’m not talking about any other job that involves gratuity. Also, like the other entries of The Joelsuf Way, this is from my own experience. I am not claiming to be an authority about this.

So now its time to talk about what I would do to be a good server.

When servers complain about low gratuity, they aren’t wrong. Server wages are not high at all, and some don’t even get paid an hourly wage at all. So their gratuity represents the majority of their paycheck. This makes being a server a performance based job. The better you are as a server, the more you will get paid. When I was a server, I knew this, but had no idea what it exactly entailed.

Patrons want to be treated well when they go somewhere to eat. They don’t want to wait forever for their food (and especially their drinks), they don’t want to be ignored, and they don’t want to be treated like numbers on a chain. What many servers lose sight of is that they are working in the service, hospitality, and entertainment industries. The job title “server” literally falls into all three.

What many don’t understand, and what I didn’t understand when I was a server in late 2003, was that in order to be good, you need massive ego management. If you don’t have the charisma, mental toughness, and self esteem to relate to others, accept criticism and contempt from others who you don’t know, and apologize for things you may not have done wrong, then you have no business being a server.

I had no idea how what patrons wanted when I was a server. All I knew was that I better not get orders wrong. That was the only thing I was concerned about. I had no charisma, and no real interest in relating to others. This resulted in criminally low tips from new patrons. But if they came back I had some rapport and they would tip me higher. If I were to go back in time and give my former self serving advice, I would say the following:

Guideline #1: Develop deep rapport with the patron right out of the gate. Give the patrons your name, Get their names. If they have kids with them, ask how old they are and don’t just assume that they want a kid’s menu, ask them. Be friendly, but not over the top friendly. Make some small talk. If the patron feels like you are trying to be their friend, they will feel welcome. If someone in the party has a birthday, ask if they want the celebration thing that your establishment does. Most do not. If your patrons want to watch something specific on the TVs there, see if you can arrange that. Because you did this, understand that now the patrons have expectations of you and you must now deliver. Which leads to…

Guideline #2: ABC, Always Be Cognizant. Be aware of how many tables you have and how many guests are at these tables. Tell the patrons this, this way there is a level of understanding. Tell the patrons what they can do to get your attention. This is actually something I did when I was a server. I would tell patrons to literally shout out my name if they needed something. The more that everyone is aware, the more understanding the patrons will be when something goes wrong. Never forget, rapport is the name of the game when you are a server.

Guideline #3: Make sure drinks are filled and make sure that your orders are correct. This one is a no-brainer. I also knew this when I was a server, but I would ignore the first part because I was obsessed with the second. So although all of my orders were accurate to the table, I would often forget to check up on patrons to make sure their drinks were filled. Not good. Unfilled drinks are the biggest cause of smaller tips.

Guideline #4: Know your worth around your co-workers. Calmly stand up for yourself if necessary. This is part of a concept I call “ethical narcissism.” Thinking that the entire universe revolves around you isn’t good, but it is important to know your worth and stand up for yourself when the time is right. Recall my previous musings about being a server and how I had to wash dishes at times. I had no problem doing this, but I wasn’t about to get paid server wages to wash dishes. If they paid me dishwasher wages I wouldn’t have gotten so mad.

That covers how to be a good server. Now its time to talk about knowing exactly what to tip your server.

First let’s get the recommended tip thing out of the way. I don’t care what you hear from anyone. 20% of the tab is standard. 15% is the lowest possible. Allow me to repeat this.

Standard = 20%. 15% is the absolute lowest before 0 (or close to).

This is a hard and fast rule. No matter how much the tab is, you should have at least 20% of it put aside to give to the server. If you have less than 20% ready, and you get what you would consider good service, then you are a bad patron. And a bad person as well.

Now! How do you determine how much you should tip? I use a tier system, which is as follows:

I start with 30%. This number goes down by 5% for every “mistake” I detect from the server. This seems harsh, but as I go into it, you’ll see that it is actually rather forgiving. I take 5% off the tip if I notice the following:

-my drinks go unfilled for 3-6 minutes.
-my order is wrong and I don’t hear an apology (if I do hear an apology, it doesn’t count as a mistake).
-the server sounds like they don’t want to be there/fails to build some semblance of rapport.

I usually detect 1 or 2 of these when I go out to eat, resulting in me tipping 20%. This is what happens most of the time.

The following are what I call “10% mistakes.” These are a little more rare, but they do happen.

-My drinks go unfilled for 6 minutes or longer.
-My order is wrong, the server argues that it isn’t, but they eventually fix it.
-I witness the server mistreating another patron or co-worker but not me.

I haven’t come across these often at all. The drinks one does happen once in a while, but the other two are extremely rare. Usually one of these mistakes accompanies a 5% mistake, resulting in a 15% tip.

If I tip a server 15% it usually means that they were just kinda there and provided the worst service possible. I can count on probably one hand the times I have tipped 15% ever since I created this system after my time as a server.

But here’s where I get very generous. A server could make every mistake I listed, multiple times, and still get a 15% tip. To not get tipped, they would have to mistreat me. Has this happened? Yes, exactly twice in my life.

The first time, I ordered something small and cheap at a diner, I think it was a bowl of soup or a salad or something. That was not what I got. What I got instead was something worth a lot more money. The server belligerently argued with me that it was what I ordered. I said that I wasn’t going to eat it because I didn’t order it and was charged anyways. I had to get his boss over to correct my order. The soup or salad, whatever I got, was around $5. I had $10, a five and five singles. I placed the $5 bill on the table and walked out. If this server were nicer, he could have made a killing off of my piddly little side item that I ordered. I would have gladly tipped him $2 (which would have been 40%).

The second time was at a steakhouse. I ordered a small sirloin, and requested it medium well. It arrived at my table charred to a crisp. I very politely told the waitress that I would be willing to wait for a medium well steak, and she said that she couldn’t do that. Then for some reason she told me I was disrespectful. My father, who I was eating with, told me to let it go. I begrudgingly ate my coal steak and again, left very close to a $0 tip (the tab was $14 and some change, I gave $15 and let them keep the change). Ironically enough, the very same thing happened to my father a few weeks before, when I told him to let it go. Only in that instance, my father actually was disrespectful.

So there’s my tier system of tipping servers. If you follow this system, you’ll never be confused as to how much you need to tip your server. Below is a cliff notes version.

Perfect service (no mistakes) = At least 30%
Good service (exactly one small mistake) = 25%-30%
Average service = (a couple of small mistakes or one really bad mistake) 20%-25%
Bad service = (three or more mistakes of any kind) 15%-20%
Blatant mistreatment from the server = 0