Today’s post is directed at my waiter brethren, should there be any reading. The rest of you, of course, are most welcome to read.

The other night, I waited on a rather handsome European couple. Spanish. First time in San Francisco. They were youngish, well-dressed, and very polite. They ordered wine, three courses of food, and bottled water. So far, so good. When I checked in with them at each course, they seemed happy. The temperature of their wine? Excellent– they even thanked me for asking. My dessert suggestions? They took them and loved them. These were not menu-pointers, miming their way through a meal because they lacked the local language skills.

When I brought them their check, they examined the bill, slipped in some cash and said, “Thank you, that’s fine,” indicating that they would not need change.

I examined the cash inside the bill folder. $130. Their meal was $126.25. I rushed to the bar and rather hurriedly asked one of our bartenders to make me some change, and quickly, because “I’m about to get “f—ed by table 10,” I said. In front of my boss.

I received the change and gently placed the remaining $3.75 back in the bill folder with the three little bills neatly peaking out of the corner back on their table. Perhaps, I thought, there had been a mistake in their calculation. They might examine the contents and increase the 2.97% tip they were unwittingly leaving me. During the next half hour, during which I refilled their waters, folded their napkins, and asked if they had suitable transportation home, they never re-examined the contents of the folder. As they stood up to leave, I felt the anger swelling up behind my eyes. But I smiled, tilted my head and knitted my brow in such a way that would indicate that I was slightly perplexed to the marginally perceptive, and said, “Good night,” with such a subtle questioning at the end of it I am uncertain as to whether typing a question mark is deserved.

They didn’t so much ignore me as act oblivious to my words. I thought the best thing for me to do was walk away before I did something foolish, like stick my foot out as they approached the steps to the exit.

I stood by the hostess stand at the front door as they approached, giving them one more chance. I tried to obtain eye contact with the man, but he would not meet my eye. Instead, he held out his coat check. Fortunately, the hostess on duty took it before I had the opportunity to ignore his gesture or reply to it with one of my own. I followed her to the coat closet.

“Spit in it,” I said. “I think you should spit in his coat.” I’m sure she thought I was joking. “Or, at least, drop-kick it when you hand it to him.” The sad thing is, I wasn’t joking.

Well, that moment at the coat check served as a little reality check for me.

At our shift meeting earlier in the evening, my boss had warned us that summer was approaching. Our regular customers would be crowded out by out-of-towners, both of the American and foreign variety. Cranky travelers and people for whom American-style tipping was, well, a foreign concept. The announcement brought down the mood of the staff, but he was speaking the truth, and the point of his little speech was that we needed to basically suck it up and treat these new guests with the same warmth we treat our regulars. We needed to kill them with kindness, regardless of what kind of tips a Spaniard, German, or Canadian might leave. I briefly wondered which type of insecticide added to coffee would be considered kind.

He was right, of course. So what was I angry about?:

1. The money. My service merited at least another $20 in gratuity.

2. I let these two people get under my skin on the very night my boss had warned us, as though he had somehow jinxed me.

3. The fact that I let any guest get under my skin.

I consider myself fortunate in terms of my experience as a professional waiter. I work at a wonderful restaurant. It’s upscale without being over-the-top, has a fun vibe, and is always packed with people– it’s not easy to get a last minute reservation, though we will bend over backwards to try to accommodate. The guests, by and large, are either affluent and willing to spend money or, at the very least, enthusiastic about dining with us. I almost never just wait on people, but act more like the host of a dinner party at every table in my station– offering my suggestions, painting verbal pictures yet-to-be-seen food items, getting people to relax and open up. I work in a place where a handshake normally accompanies the “good nights”, and a hug or even a kiss from the women is not at all uncommon. “Goodbye” is almost never said, but rather “see you again, soon.”

And, normally, my tips reflect my service. Twenty percent is the norm, but twenty-five or thirty is not unusual, either. Am I spoiled? I don’t think so. I work hard at what I do, and I am frankly very good at it.

But I allowed the two idiots who gave me a 2.97% tip to get to me. I had tied my own sense of worth to money. $3.75, to be exact. It colored my outlook for the rest of the evening. Fortunately, they were my last table, so I brought no thundercloud to my other guests.

I sometimes find working exclusively for tips a bit harrowing. There is a vagueness of income that is frustrating– never knowing exactly how much one is going to earn in a month makes budgeting difficult. Waiters have nights when they’re on fire and making money hand-over-fist, others when their sections are populated by women who bring photo albums with them and haven’t seen each other in years– splitting salads and making two hundred substitutions.

The fact that my income is wholly dependent upon how much a stranger feels I am worth is rather frightening if I stop to think about it for long. So I don’t.

The fact that I sometimes allow my own sense of worth to be determined by strangers is even worse. I feel validated when a group of business guys leaves an extra hundred dollars on top of an automatic 20% tip. I feel utterly deflated when Spaniards screw me.

It’s crazy-making. I do the same thing every night with mostly rave reviews. Sometimes, I get the shaft. And in my calmer moments, I can shake it off easily.

But the summer season is upon us, complete with the usual unprepared tourist who freeze their asses of in their shorts and hastily- Wharf-bought San Francisco sweatshirts in the middle of July. As a member of the hospitality industry, I need to remind myself that I cannot give lessons in tipping etiquette to the ignorant, but merely accept them as they are. I’m not a bad waiter if I receive a 2.97% tip, I’m a bad waiter if I am, well, inhospitable. In the meantime, I’ll have to accept the occasional bad tip along with all the good ones and dream of the day after Labor Day, when our summer really begins and the tourists go back to the non-tipping lands from which they came.

Tips: $3.75 and Worth Every Penny 20 June,2008Michael Procopio

  • So, in Europe they typically include gratuity in the check so the waitstaff does not get stiffed like here. I know you said they examined the bill so they really have no excuse… but that might be a contributing factor…if European folks don’t do their travel homework to know tipping customs are different here. and btw…some restaurants include a gratuity here in CA…Chez Panisse includes the gratuity in the check and I know I have had to be reminded by the waitstaff of this inclusion since after lots of wine and great food and not scrutinizing the check I almost added a 20% tip on top of the included gratuity.

  • HD

    Wow, you’re such a douche. “Your service” worth 20 bucks? Why don’t you ask the chef in the back how he feels about walking with 50 dollars from his 6 hour shift? You’re the reason people hate Americans… money grubbing weiner for no work. By the way, in Europe the tips are split EQUALLY for all staff. Bite me, HD Richards

  • Erika

    Have you traveled in Europe at all? Gratuities are included in bills almost everywhere. Any additional tip is for amazing above and beyond service. Also, at the point that you are so enraged as to ask another colleague to spit on a customer’s coat you may wish to look into anger management because honestly, that is incredibly rude and nasty.

  • As a bartender for the last 5 years at 3-4 places at any one given time, I’ve certainly run into the same situation as you. Luckier than you, perhaps, I don’t work in fine dining establishments so I have a little bit more latitude in how I interact with customers. Also, the places that I primarily work at are high-volume nightclubs, so they’re very casual. I, too, have noticed a big influx of foreign tourists in the last month or two and, like you, have experienced being stiffed numerous times. If they don’t tip the first round or two I let it go while still being very courteous and giving them the same kind of service I would to someone that was tipping me consistently. But, say, on the third round if I see them start to pocket their change that I’ve given them without making a move to leave a tip I say something. I’m very polite and courteous but I’ll usually say something to the effect of “is there a problem with the service?” And they’ll usually look taken aback and say something like “no, why?” To which I’ll respond “because I’ve been giving you good service and making you good drinks and you haven’t been leaving a tip.” And then 9 times out of 10 they apologize and start tipping. And we get into a friendly discussion about how they (supposedly) didn’t know what the custom is over here as far as tipping goes– I explain to them that tips are given for good drinks and good service and that the custom is $1 per drink. I explain to them that they’ll get good repeat service everywhere they go if they follow this rule and everyone will happy. You probably wouldn’t have this kind of opportunity in a fine dining restaurant but your manager should definitely take pains to ensure you’re getting a mandatory 20% tip. Obviously, you have exceedingly high expectations placed upon you at your work and it’s your knowledge of food and wine, your committment to service, and your personality that makes the establishment that you work at want you to represent them, and the price for that in this country is a 20% tip minimum. Regardless of whether it comes on the front-end as a tip they leave or on the back-end as an auto-grat, it needs to happen! Maybe it’s something that the manager could just institute during the summer tourist months because there’s no reason why you should have to suffer because of tourists’ ignorance of our customs. You wouldn’t be ignorant in their country and they shouldn’t be in ours!

  • Amy Jo

    Do you have a right to be upset? Absolutely. Should they have done their travel homework about American restaurants? Of course. Are these the only people to have ever defied a country’s customs? Absolutely not! As explained to me by a friend from Portugal, Europeans assume their staff are being adequately compensated by their employers upfront. Chalk it up to cultural misunderstanding and move on.

  • sam

    I am sorry this happened to you Michael. I am sure it was ignorance not vindictiveness. When I go to Europe (as I will tomorrow) I suffer the opposite and tip way too much and they all look at me like I am crazy. Here in SF, I try to give a minimum of 20%, even when the waiter is total a jerk. If I am able, I usually give a little more than that when service is great, especially in the smaller, neighborhood places where food is cheaper and the staff’s wages are a lot smaller. I hope the actions of people like me help balance out the actions of people who don’t understand how to tip properly. I don’t know about other people, but I try to tip well across the board and full spectrum of service standards because I want to be supportive of your industry as a whole. I don’t enjoy tipping bad servers but I do anyway.

  • I just got back from Spain. Over there, tipping isn’t expected though it can be customary to leave the change as tip. Here’s a chart of tipping around the world (http://politicalcalculations.blogspot.com/2007/10/tipping-around-world.html). You’ll notice they have 0 in the row for Spain. You’ll also notice that in almost every country except UK and US, waiters are paid a living wage and tips rarely go above 5-10%.

  • Hey folks,

    I think some of you see what I was trying to relate– a simple example of allowing others to calculate one’s own sense of worth and what happens when one let’s that happen. It was simply an experience I wanted to share.

    This was not a “poor me– look what those mean foreigners did to me” post. Quite the contrary, it was about realizing how I am allowing others to calibrate my worth, both professionally and personally. I think it happens to everyone. I am just grateful that I caught myself doing it.

    I don’t really think the Spaniards were hateful, just inexcusably ignorant. I say inexcusably because this wasn’t their first visit to the U.S.– they should be aware of the basic tipping standards. Whenever I travel outside the U.S., I like to read up on where I’m visiting– finding out what is considered taboo, how I am expected to behave, etc., and I attempt to act accordingly.

    Of course, it’s always possible that they just didn’t like me.

    And, no, I don’t think all Europeans are lousy tippers, just as I don’t think for one moment that all Americans are great ones. One of the biggest tips I have ever received was from an Italian man with two cranky non-English-speaking children.

    And some of the worst I’ve had have been from locals.

    What is often difficult is that I generally spend a lot of time with people– chatting, getting to know them at their own invitation. Sometimes, the line of professionalism and just plain friendliness is blurred, so when I later receive their monetary tip, it could feel like an assessment of my self, not my service. If I allow it, which is exactly what I did in this story.

    Which was the whole point. I apologize for not making that crystal clear.

    That said…

    Wendy– I worked at Chez Panisse years ago. Okay, it was only for a week, but I got really creeped out by how odd they were about money (at least, in my experience). I was promised “x” amount of money per hour as a back waiter. I was on the floor one week when I finally had to corner management to take care of my paperwork. Imagine having to hound management to do that. When I was filling out the papers, I was told I would be getting “x minus $3 an hour” because, “Oh, we’d never pay anyone with no experience “x”. No experience. Five years of experience. I quit on the spot.

    Erika– Yes, I have been to Europe a few times. I know how things work over there. When I am there, I follow custom (though I am still prone to over-tipping). I should expect seasoned travelers over here to do the same.

    And, yes, I did say the thing about spitting, but, no, I knew that the hostess would never do such a thing, so it was a safe thing to say. Sometimes, just giving words to one’s frustrations is enough to give it release. They did not hear it, it did not happen, and I felt better. And that is what I did. It is all the anger management I need. If one holds onto such things, one bottles them inside and gives one’s self cancer.

    I do hope that this post might instill a little more paranoia into everyone’s lives– always thoroughly examining their coat sleeves for signs of foul play before slipping their arms into them. (Add your preferred evil laugh here).

    Evan– First off, I have to tell you how much I love the fact that you took the time not only to write such a long comment, but that you took the time to make that great map of outdoor dining on your website. I will get lost in it shortly.

    I could never comment on guest’s tip, which is fairly frustrating, but, like I said, a rare need. Sometimes, I do certainly feel that a mandatory 20% tip would be great, but I am a waiter, so why wouldn’t I? As a consumer, I would strongly disagree. Though the word “tip” does not, as some people think, mean “to insure promptness” (of course, the correct word in that phrase would be “ensure” and, therefore, make the word “tep”), the promise of a good tip does help ensure attentiveness. I don’t really need a lot when dine out, but I do expect a certain level of politeness and a feeling that I am welcome. If I don’t get that, I will think twice about tipping 20%. I don’t care about waiter mistakes like mis-ordering and such. And a good dose of personal charm covers myriad spills.

    Amyjo– Thanks and, yes, I have moved on. I moved on as soon as I realized I acually wanted my hostess to do something nasty to the man’s coat. I saw how pointless my anger was, vented, checked myself, and went home.

    And then brought it all up again when I sat down to write this post, but now is gone again…

    Sam– Thank you. And, yes, it is because of people like you who dine intelligently, thoughtfully, that I stay in this business. Have a great trip!

    I might, however, caution you against tipping jerks 20%– it only encourages them. I don’t.

    Patrick– Thanks for that great tipping chart!

  • HD– I am thrilled by your anger. Do you, by any chance, work in a restaurant kitchen? Or have you? The pay is awful, it’s true, which is one of the reasons I got out of the damned kitchen and onto the floor.

    You think waiting tables is no work? Think again.

    If you like, I shall accept your declaration that I am the reason people hate Americans. I’m sure it’s true, because I’ve been around. But I do manage to say please, smile, and write thank you notes.

    Douche? I am touched. Though my knowledge of the female anatomy and it’s hygienic maintenance is mercifully limited, my understanding is that a douche is used cleanse and refresh. Sort of like mouthwash, but on the other end. So, if you are saying my writing is refreshing, I accept the compliment.

    Thank you so much.

  • Barbieg

    Hi. I can’t blame you for being upset. Since foreign tourists are a regular part of your clientele – and likely to be even more so with our dollar making US travel even more attractive, maybe it would be a good idea for restaurants to POST on the wall (or in italics on the menu), a notice to European and other foreign visitors a brief explanation of tipping practices here? The onus shouldn’t be on you to have to do this. I would imagine many tourists would inform themselves in advance of customs, but obviously many don’t.

  • Vinnie

    Simple solution: add a fixed percentage service charge (as Chez Panisse does) and the problem is solved.

  • Lisa

    Hmmm. I don’t think you allowed others to calibrate your worth. You calibrated your worth yourself, based on what they left. Your customers were apparently simply oblivious.
    My husband works for tips. Every day I ask, “How was work?” And of course, I mean, “How we’re the tips?” Perhaps secondarily I mean, “Did anything interesting happen? He is a foreigner. He’s worked in the service sector in this country and his home country, Mexico. He hustles to give good service. And he gets stiffed plenty of times. He never gets mad. Annoyed, but not angry. He tells jokes at home (“What is the difference between a canoe and a Canadian? A canoe tips.”).
    Those are the breaks. You work hard in this sector, and it’s a lousy system, in my book. Sometimes it pays handsomely, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s never about what you’re worth. You’re the only one who can make that judgment.

  • Cindy

    Frankly, i HATE paying tip, id rather not pay it at all. Maybe the food prices should be raised and there will be no tips. Or tip be split equally like in Euorpe. If you go to Asia, you wont need to pay tip when you eat at a restaurant. It used to be that tips were only if you did an awesome job and the customer wanted to give a lil extra. But now its customary…Why? I perfer to eat at home since i know what is in the food (you talked about spitting…EWWWW!) and i wont have to pay tip, not to mention the economy is slowing down so alot of people are trying to save.


Michael Procopio

I am terribly fond of martinis, Edward Gorey, and sleeping with many pillows.
You are more than welcome to follow me on Twitter: @procopster

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