Tipping is not optional

Anyone who has spent any amount of time eating out has encountered the Bastard Server from Hell – a good example can be seen at Not Always Working. When we’re treated poorly, human nature leads us to seek revenge (hence the proliferation of attorneys in our society), and the most obvious way to get back at a poor server is to leave them a small tip, or none at all.

Somewhere in my youth, during a long avocation as magician and prankster (most of that has been packed away in boxes for decades, largely due to lack of time) I collected this little gem:

Zero Cents Tip Coin

The coin reads, “Give Nothing – Get Nothing”, and “Zero Cents: This Coin is Your Tip – It Matches Exactly the Value of Your Service”

I thought it was hilarious, and wanted a whole bag full of them. 40 years later, I’m grateful I never left one of these, because I didn’t understand the system.

In the wake of the recent media brouhaha over the sever who was fired from Applebee’s for posting a photo of a customer’s receipt, the individual in question, Chelsea Welch, has posted an essay at The Guardian, talking about her experience and underscoring the inequity of the restaurant compensation system. I repost her thoughts here in full, as they deserve to be seen as widely as possible.

I was a waitress at Applebee’s restaurant in Saint Louis. I was fired Wednesday for posting a picture on Reddit.com of a note a customer left on a bill. I posted it on the web as a light-hearted joke.

This didn’t even happen at my table. The note was left for another server, who allowed me to take a picture of it at the end of the night.

Someone had scribbled on the receipt, “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?”

I assumed the customer’s signature was illegible, but I quickly started receiving messages containing Facebook profile links and websites, asking me to confirm the identity of the customer. I refused to confirm any of them, and all were incorrect.

I worked with the Reddit moderators to remove any personal information. I wanted to protect the identity of both my fellow server and the customer. I had no intention of starting a witch-hunt or hurting anyone.

Now I’ve been fired.

The person who wrote the note came across an article about it, called the Applebee’s location, and demanded everyone be fired — me, the server who allowed me to take the picture, the manager on duty at the time, the manager not on duty at the time, everyone. It seems I was fired not because Applebee’s was represented poorly, not because I did anything illegal or against company policy, but because I embarrassed this person.

In light of the situation, I would like to make a statement on behalf of wait staff everywhere: We make $3.50 an hour. Most of my paychecks are less than pocket change because I have to pay taxes on the tips I make.

After sharing my tips with hosts, bussers, and bartenders, I make less than $9 an hour on average, before taxes. I am expected to skip bathroom breaks if we are busy. I go hungry all day if I have several busy tables to work. I am expected to work until 1:30am and then come in again at 10:30am to open the restaurant.

I have worked 12-hour double shifts without a chance to even sit down. I am expected to portray a canned personality that has been found to be least offensive to the greatest amount of people. And I am expected to do all of this, every day, and receive change, or even nothing, in return. After all that, I can be fired for “embarrassing” someone, who directly insults his or her server on religious grounds.

In this economy, $3.50 an hour doesn’t cut it. I can’t pay half my bills. Like many, I would love to see a reasonable, non-tip-dependent wage system for service workers like they have in other countries. But the system being flawed is not an excuse for not paying for services rendered.

I need tips to pay my bills. All waiters do. We spend an hour or more of our time befriending you, making you laugh, getting to know you, and making your dining experience the best it can be. We work hard. We care. We deserve to be paid for that.

I am trying to stand up for all of us who work for just a few dollars an hour at places like Applebee’s. Whether a chain steakhouse or a black-tie establishment, tipping is not optional. It is how we get paid.

I posted a picture to make people laugh, but now I want to make a serious point: Things like this happen to servers all the time. People seem to think that the easiest way to save money on a night out is to skip the tip.

I can’t understand why I was fired over this. I was well liked and respected at Applebee’s. My sales were high, my managers had no problems with me, and I was even hoping to move up to management soon. When I posted this, I didn’t represent Applebee’s in a bad light. In fact, I didn’t represent them at all.

I did my best to protect the identity of all parties involved. I didn’t break any specific guidelines in the company handbook – I checked. But because this person got embarrassed that their selfishness was made public, Applebee’s has made it clear that they would rather lose a dedicated employee than an angry customer. That’s a policy I can’t understand.

I am equally baffled about how a religious tithe is in any way related to paying for services at a restaurant. I can understand why someone could be upset with an automatic gratuity. However, it’s a plainly stated Applebee’s policy that a tip is added automatically for parties over eight like the one this customer was part of. I cannot control that kind of tip; it’s done by the computer that the orders are put into. I’ve been stiffed on tips before, but this is the first time I’ve seen the “Big Man” used as reasoning.

Obviously the person who wrote this note wanted it seen by someone. It’s strange that now that the audience is wider than just the server, the person is ashamed.

I have no agenda here. I seek no revenge against the note writer. I have no interest in exposing their identity, and, at this point, I’m not even sure I want my job back. I was just trying to make a joke, but I came home unemployed.

I’ve been waiting tables to save up some money so I could finally go to college, so I could get an education that would qualify me for a job that doesn’t force me to sell my personality for pocket change.

(Note: The last two paragraphs were added by Ms. Welch after the original article was published.)

While this story has garnered immense media attention, my story is not uncommon. Bad tips and harsh notes are all part of the job. People get fired to keep customers happy every day.

As this story has gotten popular, I’ve received inquiries as to where people can send money to support me. As a broke kid trying to get into college, it’s certainly appealing, but I’d really rather you make a difference to your next server. I’d rather you keep that money and that generosity for the next time you eat out.

In her essay, Ms. Welch says “I can’t understand why I was fired over this.” From the perspective of a person in the trenches, one who shows up every day without fail, who puts in obscene hours, and who does their best to deal with the kind of douchebag customers (and managers, and corporations) one encounters at Not Always Right, for a pittance of a base wage and wildly fluctuating tips, it seems grossly unfair.

I reiterate: I’m really sorry Ms. Welch lost her job. In this economy (and I don’t care what the economists or the White House say, this country is still deep in recession), losing a livelihood can be catastrophic. Having put that on the table, there are two main issues here:

  1. Expectation of Privacy, which I dealt with in my previous post, and
  2. The nature of the tipping structure

As a business owner, I have not only Ms. Welch’s perspective but also the one that a corporation must have with regards to its customers. As mentioned in my first essay, the customer was wildly out of line to leave such an insulting and arrogant note for her server, and she is paying a heavy price of her own, having been roundly pilloried in the court of public opinion. But even as inappropriate as the customer was, she had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and Ms. Welch’s actionable offense was to put her company at risk for a lawsuit, not to mention the negative publicity.

The privacy issue aside, every word Ms. Welch wrote about the experience of working in a restaurant is indisputable. So your takeaway here is this:

β˜› Never stiff your server! ☚

Notice the large, bold, italic, underscored, and colored text, and the exclamation point and the fists. That’s so you’ll remember: never stiff your server.

Notice what she said: “After sharing my tips with hosts, bussers, and bartenders, I make less than $9 an hour on average, before taxes.” And remember, that the IRS in its wisdom taxes tips based on an expectation that servers are receiving 18%, which is often not the case. So that couple of bucks you leave on the table, and walk out feeling like you’ve done your good deed for the day? Pennies go into your server’s pocket. All my life I’ve tried to tip generously, and I’ve taken flak for it from people along the road, but that has never deterred me. If I can afford to eat out, I can afford a decent tip, and by decent I mean 20% or more if it’s warranted.

So what’s a customer to do if they actually encounter service from Hell? The decent thing to do is leave a tip anyway, because there are a lot of people down the line who weren’t rude or lazy or incompetent, and keep in mind that anyone can have a bad day. That server may have just broken up with a loved one, or suffered a loss, or be absolutely exhausted from working two other jobs – all of which are much more likely than just being downright ignorant. The point is, you don’t know, and by stiffing your server you’re stiffing a lot of other people who worked their tails off to make your dining experience a success. If you really have a legitimate complaint, see management about it, but for the love of Mogg don’t be a douchebag yourself; stay civil. Even the manager doesn’t make enough money to be treated like something you scraped off your shoe.

There’s another essay waiting in the wings about the ethicality of the entire system and the responsibilities of restaurant owners, but that will have to wait – I’ve been teaching for most of the night, and I need to go back to bed for a while.

EDIT: I recently encountered a great article about tipping with some intriguing statistics. Click through to visit Wait But Why.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

PS: Never stiff your server.

9 responses to “Tipping is not optional

  1. Pingback: 22 Years Later, Waiters Still Work for $2.13 a Hour | Playing in the World Game

  2. Pingback: Sushi Yasuda in NYC does away with tipping | Playing in the World Game

  3. I completely understand why she was fired. Regardless of whether she believes this or not she WAS a representative of an establishment. She was completely out of line for this. And rightfully fired.

    She embarrassed a customer.

    That customer most likely will not be returning to that establishment. Nor will many of his\her friends due to this.

    This hurts the company that relies heavily on repeat customers.


    With that said, I do not believe in mandatory tips. I don’t believe in tipping someone who does a shit job.

    I will not tip someone who does a shit job.

    I am not your employer. I am not paying a bill for your service. I am paying for the food.

    Your tip is for your level of service. If you give me shitty service, I give you a shitty tip, or no tip at all.

    I am not your employer, The person sitting next to me is not your employer, and the person across the room in the booth with the party of 6 is not your employer.

    They are your guests.

    You want a tip? If you’re paid so horribly? FIND A DIFFERENT JOB! One where you don’t have to rely on tips!

    If more people did this? The whole damned industry would change!!


  4. Pingback: Why tipping is a bad idea. | Playing in the World Game

  5. Pingback: Servers are people, not slaves | Playing in the World Game

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