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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gratuitous Foodity

I realize that foodity isn’t a word. I needed something to keep in line with my sardonic or wry sense of humor when it comes to titles. There is no naked food here, but we’re going to talk about having huge tips. I SAID TIPS! TIPS! Get your mind out of the gutter.

In one of my previous lives, non Shirley MacLaine styled, I was a bartender and server. I did this for three years before becoming an office drone. I find it fitting that I am writing this right after Thanksgiving as I always hated having to work the holiday buffet scene because it was a huge chaotic disaster and I would rather be home with my family on the holidays.

As a server I always appreciated tips and hoped that my service was worthy of your dollars. As a patron, I identify with the wait staff and usually tip more than most. It was odd, but I never understood the idea of tipping when I was younger and ultimately made a few food service faux pas in my tipping. I just didn’t understand the idea that the people serving me my meal were not paid minimum wage and relied on tips to make a living. It took being one to figure that out. If my daughter comes to me one day and wants to get a job, I’ll tell her to be a server because you will gain an appreciation for those who do the work.

Now, that’s not to say that my veteran status obscures my common sense when it comes to tipping properly. Just because you are a server does not guarantee you a great tip. You do have to actually do the job well. I mean I can understand mistakes and screw ups from the kitchen. How you handle that situation means all the difference in the change on the table or what’s written on that next to last line on the slip.

Case in point. When I was still dating my wife right out of college we use to hang with a group of people that made it a ritual to go out to eat on Tuesday nights. This was usually a discount wing night at a local joint in Latrobe, PA. Anyway, we would sit and enjoy each other’s company along with the good food. It was a sports bar so there was popcorn in a basket on the table. I am prone to munching or drinking what is in front of me with Pavlovian like conditioning and never noticed the contents of the basket before it hit my mouth. Popcorn is one of those foods that you tend to have a preconceived notion of how it will feel while being chewed. Instead of the crunch of the popped corn in my mouth, I felt the soft squishing of something else. Immediately knowing that something was wrong I retrieved the foreign object from my mouth and examined it. It looked whitish yellow like popcorn but it was solid instead of puffed. It appeared to be chewed gum.

It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that someone previous to our group was chewing gum and discarded it into the basket. The wait staff cleared the table and refilled the basket with fresh popcorn on top of the used paper with the now chewed gum sticking to it. Regardless of having gum on it, the fact that they kept the paper in it was disgusting enough to make my mouth curl up. As soon as the server came back, I showed her the offending addition to our popcorn and explained how I found it. “What would you like me to do about it?” I’m sorry but is that even a question? I don’t think a question is even required here. You simply go to the manager, explain it to them and ask to comp the meal. I was livid. All I did say was, “I want you to not do it again. How about that?” We don’t go there anymore and if by some chance we do, I won’t eat the popcorn.

Needless to say, the incident caused me to reevaluate my tip for this person and besides having competent service, she only received 10% from me. And that’s how it goes, from the moment I sit down you are already at 20% for a gratuity. How you end up is totally your call. We usually keep the wait staff busy and sometimes, I admit that, we may ask for a lot but I take care of the ones who take care of us. It comes from being in the trenches and it’s like a fraternity of servers. It’s kind of like that unwritten rule of the road where you see bikers give the low-air-five to other, passing bikers. They call it the biker wave, I think. They don’t even have to know each other. It is just sort of expected. The same comes with tipping another server.

One thing I do not like is the automatically added gratuity. I understand that if you have larger parties you are not only inconveniencing other patrons but stretching your staff in order to provide good service to a larger number of people that might have it spread out, if they were in separate groups. The fact that this is done is sometimes an excuse to let the staff phone in their performance, confident that they will still get a decent tip. In fact there was a story out of my own state where a couple of patrons were arrested and charged with theft for not paying their tip. The stance of the establishment: gratuity was added automatically to checks for parties of six or more. The stance of the penalized patrons: Why should we pay an automatic tip when we had to get our own napkins and cutlery, wait for over an hour for salad and wings and asked the bar to refill sodas. The Consumerist was all over this and eventually the police dropped the charges. Still one must wonder, if it’s mandatory, it’s not really a tip, then is it? It’s a service charge.

This whole story was ridiculous. The establishment wasted tax payer money and police resources over $16.00 in “gratuity” for a table that had to do most of the work themselves. If anything, the students should have complained to the manager and asked to not pay the tip, citing poor service. But the owner used poor judgment in calling the cops. Some things you just accept and move on.

I was in the same situation a couple years back. One Mother's Day we took my M-I-L to a restaurant for dinner. It was a nice Italian restaurant and quite frankly, I'll never go back. The service wasn't all that spectacular and being a holiday buffet, I usually do not tip above and beyond the usual clearing of dishes and a drink refill. We actually didn't see our server all that much and plates did begin to pile up at the table. Anyway, when we got the bill, my wife and I picked it up as a treat for her Mom. I added a customary 18% on for somewhat competent service, not my full 20%.

When we got home, I was unloading my pockets and saw the slip which had a mandatory gratuity of 18% added on for the holiday buffet. Once again, if it's mandatory, it's not really a tip, then is it? I called to ask them to refund my additional 18% due to my mistake stating the issues we had. While I admit that it was my own fault for not paying attention to the slip, I think that it should have been refunded. The manager pretty much told me they wouldn't. I really didn't want to go the route of a charge back from my bank so I just accepted it and moved on. But the restaurant loses out because we'll never go back. What establishments need to realize is that sites like The Consumerist are pretty good at getting the word out about stuff worse than this and have been able to affect businesses. First off, though, you should take your complaints to the management. If you feel that is not satisfying your complaint then by all means do what it takes. Sometimes, the establishment or idiot employees make it easy by posting their despicable practices on YouTube, like what happened at a Dominoes Pizza location in North Carolina.

So, next time you are out think about what it takes to be a server and think about what that means to you in terms of service. Tip accordingly and fair.

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