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Y’all Weekly: Third Course: Leaving on a High Note
In the final piece of her "Respect" series, our resident restaurant expert discusses overstaying your welcome and under-tipping.
This is Part 3 in a series.
Hospitality is as ancient as recorded history. However, especially in the United States, our culture and the history of service work often tilts the scales of grace and politeness out of balance. Working in food service demands being constantly polite and friendly. Reciprocity should be a given, but it’s not.
Deeply embedded classism paints workers in this industry as “less than” and too often invites rudeness and messy dining experiences, so I’m happy to introduce this three-part series on respect in restaurants. Recognizing the humanity in everyone you interact with is a great starting place, so I've got some tips rooted in respectfulness to make all of our dining experiences better.
Third Course: Leaving on a High Note
In general, you should plan to take up a table for a respectable amount of time and then move on. A good guideline is 90 minutes for two guests and two hours for parties of three or more. It’s okay to get this wrong from time to time. It’s not okay to make a habit of it
It is important you don’t overstay your welcome. Most restaurants are still scrambling to rebuild revenue streams after the pandemic, but even before 2020 they were operating on razor-thin margins, usually 3-5%. They count on turning tables - seating someone else after you - in order to make money, stay open, and keep employing staff.
Your server definitely needs income from the next guest. Failing to honor this - on a high volume night - causes serious backups for hosts who now have to either find another space for incoming guests, or tell them to wait.
Many restaurants are now making it policy to adhere to these timeframes. I wish more would. If you have paid and your server has passed by you more than once, it’s probably time to go.
Don’t make it weird. Servers don’t want to undo a great experience by circling like a buzzard and making awkward eye contact. It may look like they’re rushing you, but likely someone else on staff asked them to check if it looks like your table will be available soon. A good way to avoid this is to simply move over to the bar, or a general seating area like a patio. Ask your server where you can relocate.
Want to ask your server where you should go? Absolutely. They know at least five places where you can continue a quiet conversation or turn up for the night within a ten square mile radius of everywhere they’ve ever worked.
To my chatty loves, you know you do this on the regular. Plan ahead! Maybe it’s worth making a habit of making reservations later in the evening. Let’s say 8 PM?
You may think you’re off the hook if you’re clearly the last table for the night. Seems fine to hang out while the crowds around you disappear. You’re not costing anyone any money, so what’s the problem?
There’s some leeway here, but it’s still an overstep. Your service staff reaches a point in the evening where they don’t want to be “on” anymore. Extroverts and introverts on staff just completed an inhuman marathon of politeness. They just want to be fully themselves with their co-workers while closing and cleaning. They’re lifting the veil of the carefully-crafted experience you just had, getting on their hands and knees to pick up mashed-into-the ground food from deep under a table.
Your server probably wants to take their hair down and take off their apron. Don’t tell me you don’t care if you see that. We care. Our managers definitely care. Let me just cackle loudly with my work bestie and do some sweeping without being in the public eye anymore.
If you still end up staying longer, you should definitely make it rain on the tip line.
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Speaking of Tipping …
I’m going to skip right to the part where the standard in the United States is 20% of the grand total. That’s 20% for the trainee, the server who forgot your order, or the person who is having a bad day. You should only go up from there.
Maybe you remember Oprah suggesting ten percent as fine, but it’s really, really not. Your hosts are on their feet for the equivalent of several miles per shift (Fitbits don’t lie) with a smile on, disrupting a healthy circadian rhythm. They’re away from friends and family during holidays and all the other times most people are socializing. They’re rattling off the highlights of a wine list they spent countless hours of our own personal time and money learning.
The thing that keeps us going is making good tips.
Whether you agree with tipping or not, you have opted into the economics of the system by dining out. If you disagree, by all means boycott the system and work and vote to change it. Your server is someone trying to live with the fact that they never know exactly what their paycheck will look like on a given week, even if they put in consistent work and hours.
A rainy day could determine what groceries they buy that week. They rely on a consistency in tips under general circumstances to counterbalance things like this.
Sixty-four percent of all Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the impact this has on creating wealth and stability is real. The person serving you likely does not have health insurance, but does have medical needs to pay for. But that’s a whole other article.
Don’t overthink the math. An easy calculation is to move your decimal over to the left one place, and double the number before the decimal for the base of your tip.
$20.00 Check? 10% is $2.00, multiply by 2. Your tip is $4.00.
$300.00 Check? 10% is $30.00, multiply by 2. Your tip is $60.00.
If a portion of your check is discounted, you should consider that in your tip out. If you didn’t like something and we got it taken off the check, remember us when your discounted bill appears. Be mindful if you are using a local promo or if you’re coming in as a VIP and getting items comped. Use this as a time to be an exceedingly generous tipper. Guess on the high side. If your meal would have been in the $100 range before discounts and comps, make sure to tip starting at $20 to $40.
Getting takeout? Post pandemic, we tip. 10% is a good starting point; higher for delivery.
Do some work to educate yourself on the reality of service work. There has been more mainstream media coverage since 2020 than ever before and if you’re not paying attention and adjusting accordingly, you shouldn’t get frustrated when your overworked service person loses the ability to be saccharin-sweet.
I can honestly say most of the interactions I have had in this work are positive, but some of them could use some polishing. Only a small number are actively bad.
As both a worker and as a food writer, I’m glad dining out survived the pandemic. I hope we can all work together to make dining out a nice experience for all involved. We should treat it like something we almost lost that is special and worthy of celebrating.
Stay classy Y’all!