I need to start this off with a disclaimer, lest anyone think I’m unsympathetic to the plight of sub-minimum wage restaurant employees. You see, I worked as a waitress – for one semester of college – and I know what it’s like to spend hours on your feet, shuttling from table to table, dealing with whiny kids, disgruntled adults, and people who treat you as the working professional that you are, but as someone too lazy to get a “real” job. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.
And so when it comes to leaving the appropriate tip, I tend to be generous. 20% is a pretty standard tip for my family when we’re dining out; if my kids have been particularly messy – and the server has been particularly good-natured about it – I might leave 30%. My dad’s the type of guy who goes even further – he’s been known to leave $100 tips for his favorite servers at restaurants he and my mom frequent week in and week out. So I know what it means to leave an appropriate tip.
Which is why, after a recent meal at a local Italian restaurant, I felt so bad about tipping the waitress well below my usual 20% threshold.
It began innocently enough. We opted for Italian because if was a Friday in Lent and, as good Catholics, my husband and I were trying to avoid eating meat. We thought pizza and spaghetti would be a good choice, both for us and our two young children (ages 5 and 2). We’ve been to the restaurant in question several times before and have always had good (if slow) service.
We didn’t order anything out of the ordinary. My kids split a pepperoni pizza. My husband ordered a sandwich; I ordered a salad.
That’s not what made it to our table.
My kids ended up with a cheese pizza – no biggie, they’re just as happy with all cheese as they are with pepperoni. But instead of getting the caprese salad I’d requested, I ended up with tomato and beefsteak mozzarella on two pieces of bread; my husband didn’t get the portabello mushroom, peppers, and eggplant panini he’d ordered, but rather a salad with those toppings (raw, not grilled). In other words, the kitchen had given us each the inverse of our order.
When we mentioned this to the waitress, she suggested we just “swap” plates. I actually laughed at her, because I didn’t think she was serious, but she totally was. When I explained that I wanted a tomato salad, not a mushroom salad, she realized what was going on. It still took some convincing to get her to accept the fact that she was going to have to take the incorrect meals back to the kitchen and bring us what we’d actually ordered. It took us another 20 minutes to get our actual meals. By that time, the kids were done with their pizza and were antsy to be going (re: they were starting to act like hooligans and disturb other diners). We ultimately took our meals to go.
As we left, I paid the bill, leaving what amounted to a 10% tip. I know some people think that’s an appropriate tip in general, particularly for bad service; I know a few folks who think it’s absolutely okay to stiff a server. Having done the job for a few months, I could never do that. But leaving just 10% left me feeling guilty.
It’s not that the waitress was rude or anything – she was actually just clueless. Things that seemed common sense to me (ie, if you bring out the wrong food to a customer, you immediately replace it with the wrong dish, no questions asked!) puzzled her. My husband suggested I look at my low tip as a way of telling her, “Maybe this isn’t the job for you.” However, if she couldn’t figure out that our meals were wrong and needed to be fixed, I doubt she’d read between the lines of a small tip to see what I was actually trying to tell her.
So my question is, what do you consider to be an appropriate tip for bad service when dining out? Do you stiff a server, and if so, under what conditions? Or do you tip the same percent, regardless of service?