Sunday, November 17, 2013

Should you tip lousy waiters?

What do you leave for a tip if you receive lousy service at a restaurant?

It's a question many of us have faced at one time or another. If the tip is supposed to recognize good service, then is it OK to leave no tip when the service is abysmal?

A reader from Massachusetts writes that he and his wife took their granddaughter to an Italian restaurant last month.

"It took 40 minutes to get her chicken nuggets," he writes. "I had to ask twice for water, for Parmesan cheese and for napkins."

When it became clear that good service was not forthcoming, the reader had "a little conversation" with the manager. The manager told him that the restaurant would eat the cost of his family's meal.

But the reader was still steaming about the lousy service even after the manager foot the bill. Nevertheless, he writes that he still gave the waitress a $7 tip, which he indicates would probably have been a 10 percent tip on the total cost of the meal.

"I usually tip 20 percent," he says. "What should I have done?"

Everyone has a bad day. Restaurant servers can certainly find themselves falling victim to a slow kitchen or surly patrons at other tables or they may simply be off their game for the night. Some understanding is always a good thing.

Talking to the server first about the service early on is one route to take. When that doesn't work, then talking to a manager, as my reader did, is a good next step.

Still, if a gratuity is supposed to represent good service, why should a restaurant server expect to get a good tip if he or she delivered consistently bad service throughout the meal?

If the goal of my reader was to leave a message to the server that the service was terrible, then leaving nothing would have been risky. The server might not know if it was deliberate or if my reader simply forgot to leave a tip. Leaving 10 percent, however, might just suggest to the server that he's on the stingy side.

A better solution that's been offered by some waiters and waitresses is to leave a tip that is small enough that it says to the server in no uncertain terms that the service was abysmal. Would $1 send that message? A penny? That depends on how much the meal would have cost.

But if that practice is to be employed on the rare occasion when poor service is received, then it seems only fair to enact a similar policy when truly exceptional service is received. In such instances, rather than his typical 20 percent, my reader might want to go a buck or two or percentage or so higher to send a clear message about that kind of service.

The right thing is to do as my reader did and try to talk to the server first and then the boss. If he wanted to send a message to the server about the truly awful service he believes he received, the right thing would have been to send that message more clearly. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Jody Regan said...

Interesting topic. Yes, speak to the management if the service is abysmal, but still leave a tip of between 10 and 15%. Wait staff earn a fraction of minimum wage and depend on their tips for income. I also think it's important to educate our youth on tipping etiquette.

William jacobson said...


At the point that the manager comped you for your meals, you are not obligated to leave a tip but if you can't attribute all of the problems to the waiter then leaving a tip is definitely the right thing to do.

While you are correct that tips are to reward service, we also have a social contract with restaurants where we allow them to pay waitstaff far below minimum wage on the expectation of tips. IMO the restaurant has already made things right by comping the meal. Not tipping would be excessive. Better to consider whether you want to return to a restaurant that previously gave you poor service...

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA