It’s late Thursday night and my girlfriend and I have just returned from a long road trip only to discover that we’re hungry. So we stop into the local TGIF’s to get a bite to eat. TGIF is not my first choice but, due to the hour, all other culinary options have closed
“Hi,” I say to the hostess as we walk in. “Is the kitchen still open?”
“Yes, sir,” the hostess replies. “It’s open until eleven.” I look at my watch. It’s ten o’clock, so we’re not in the last minute asshole zone.
The hostess seats us at a table where the waitress on duty promptly ignores us. We’re the only table in the place but the bar is half full of drunken commuters killing time before they go home to whatever hell awaits them. Most of them have been here since their train pulled in at six o’clock. It’s not a pretty sight.
After ten long minutes the waitress comes over. She’s in her mid-twenties and looks at us with barely disguised disdain.
“You know what you want?” she says.
“I think we need menus first,” I say.
“Sorry, let me get you some.”
The waitress brings us some menus. “While we’re figuring things out,” I say. “I’d like a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon.” My girlfriend orders a Coke. Then we wait. And wait. And wait.
“My God,” I say to my girlfriend. “What’s taking them so long?”
“I think they’re brewing your beer in the back.”
The drinks finally arrive. Because we’ve had so much time to peruse the menu we know what we’d like to order – an appetizer and two burgers. “Don’t wait for us to finish the appetizer,” I say. “I know it’s late.”
“Ah hmm…” the waitress says, walking away. No thank you is forthcoming. I’m pissed. When you come into a restaurant late, asking for all the food to come out right away is a cool move. A good waiter would realize that their customer is being considerate. But this girl wouldn’t know a good customer if it bit her on the ass.
“Not a great waitress,” my girlfriend says.
“I’ve seen worse,” I say. “At least she isn’t high on meth and took a shower recently.”
My girlfriend lasts. “I know about those types,” she says. “I read your book, remember?”
The waitress reappears and drops the appetizer and burgers on our table. Before I get a chance to ask for ketchup the waitress is out of earshot. Piqued, I get up and take a bottle of Heinz off another table – along with some extra napkins. Just being proactive.
After ten minutes I want another beer but the waitress is sitting at a table in the corner talking on her cell phone. I give her a little wave. No reaction. So I flag down another waitress. This one’s friendlier and returns with my beer in two minutes while her colleague pretends not to see us.
“So what are you going to tip her?” my girlfriend asks.
“I’d love to tip her nothing.”
“But you’re not going to.”
“Of course not.”
A few days ago I filmed an online promotional spot for the paperback edition of my book Keep the Change. (Coming in September!) When we finished the producer asked me if people always expect me to leave a good tip. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess you can say I’m screwed.”
And to some extent I am. After telling people to tip heavy for years it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to get all cheap now. I haven’t waited tables since 2008, but I still feel the job in my bones. My experience tells me that our waitress might be having a bad day, that the manager may have groped her, cut her shifts or that she’s pissed that it’s a slow night and the rent is due. Now that doesn’t excuse bad service but, as I said in my book, the quality of service has almost nothing to do with the tip you leave. And anybody who’s waited tables knows this is true. You could give great service and get a lousy tip. But you could give bad service, insult your customer, hit on his wife and make fun of his kids and still get a great tip. Even though people will say to their dying breath that they tip to reward service, they don’t. Studies have shown that service quality affects tipping only 2 percent of the time. Unseen processes buzzing inside the customer’s head dictate what tip servers receive.
Here’s an example. Ex-waiters and bartenders are the best tippers, hands down. That’s because, like me, they’ve been there. But a waiter cannot know, unless they are told (Which I consider passé) that their customer is an ex-comrade in arms. What I will tip is dictated by reasons that my waiter has no clue about. And it takes a lot to make a former server leave less than 20 percent. Leaving 15 percent might be a clue that you’ve pissed us off, but it’s still a decent tip.
My girlfriend and I finish out meal, pass on dessert and ask for the check. When the waitress delivers it she says cheerily, “Thanks for coming. I hope you enjoyed everything.”
Great, I think to myself. Now she’s being nice.
“She was terrible,” my girlfriend says. “Are you going to leave her a good tip?”
I stuff some bills into the check holder and get up to leave.“Yep,” I say. “Twenty percent.”
“I’d have left fifteen.”
“It’s only a couple of bucks extra,” I say. “Besides, I acted like her occasionally. Waiting’s a tough job.”
“Did you ever hear of a song called Waitress by the band Live?” I say.
“Well it goes something like this.”
Come on baby leave some change behind
She was a bitch, but I don’t care
She brought our food out on time
and wore a funky barrette in her hair
Come on baby leave some change behind
She was a bitch but good enough
to leave some change,
Everybody’s good enough for some change
“She was a bitch,” my girlfriend says.
“But everybody deserves some change.” I say, smiling. “Besides, after writing my books I’m condemned to always tip well.”
And with that, my girlfriend and I step into the warm summer air and leave our cranky waitress behind. She was a bitch. But I don’t care. I’ve been in her shoes. So you see folks, how much you tip has nothing to do with service.
It has everything to do with you.