Recently, after lunch at Anis, I found myself amid a scene that occurs too often. I sneaked my usual peek at a friend signing his credit card receipt. He was leaving a $3 tip on a nearly $25 bill. This is usual for my friend. I seldom say anything, but I erupted this time.
“How do you do that?” I asked. “Do you not realize these people are working for tips for a living?”
“All right, all right,” my friend said. That’s part of the incomprehensible part to me. He knows fully well that such a weasley tip is offensive. It’s especially embarrassing at a place like Anis, where I’ve been dining for years. So, chastened, he changed the $3 to $4. I love my friend, but WTF?
When I first started writing about restaurants almost 30 years ago, chief among my stupidities was a relative lack of respect for servers. As was typical of the time, I called them “waitrons.” The term was not considered insulting then, partly, I think, because the profession was widely regarded as something you unhappily did before you got a “real job.” Employers treated servers like robots, and a gender-neutral term like “server” had not yet replaced “waiter.” In my weekly Creative Loafing column, “Grazing,” I regularly awarded a “Waitron of the Week” designation that actually became coveted.
Not everybody was amused, though. In fact, when I wrote a satirical column about waitrons, someone began circulating a petition to have me fired. Soon after that, I began to pay more attention. I became amazed that anyone can even work as a server without going insane.
Eating constantly in restaurants became a lot like viewing theater of the absurd. I watched, and still watch, diners punishing servers with outlandish demands. It’s as if they’ve purchased a slave for the evening. They haughtily chastise the server for not bringing ketchup with their lobster. They send their entree back to the kitchen because their whole fish has eyes. Servers maintain their cool when these people deserve to have their comped desserts rammed in their faces.
Then the slave-whipping diner leaves a 10 percent tip, before taxes.
I’ve asked my friend why he leaves such small tips and have never received an answer, unless throwing an extra dollar on the table is an answer. He travels a lot, so I’ve wondered if he thinks that servers here are paid a living wage like they are in Europe, where it’s customary to leave a small tip. Maybe he doesn’t understand that most servers here receive extremely low hourly pay and are dependent on tips to pay their rent.
It’s true that with the increase in fine-dining restaurants in Atlanta, waiting tables can pay pretty well these days. Ditto for pub-style restaurants where tabs are heavy on the booze (on which many restaurants are dependent for profits). But, for most servers, it’s still grueling work with low pay and without benefits.
Employers are not particularly sympathetic. Decent-paying shifts may be hard to come by or too many servers are on the floor at once. And I’m not even going into the absurdity of the new “no-tip” restaurants like Panera. True, these places are all about counter service, but at least let the diner have a choice about throwing some money in a tip jar. Or let diners enter tips on credit card receipts. Even Starbucks won’t allow that.
My rule? Tip at least 20 percent, after taxes, on full table service. If you get truly lousy service, it’s rarely the server’s fault. For God’s sake, don’t punish the server because the food sucks or takes forever to get out of the kitchen.
The only job I had that was even close to a server’s job was at Six Flags Over Georgia, the summer after my senior year in high school. I was hired as a “relief worker,” circulating among various fast food stands. I got called to the office once because I had prodded customers into line with a broom handle and, at another time, impersonated a redneck to her face when she ordered seven or eight hot dogs, each with four different toppings. I was not fired and I knew why. Nobody in their right mind would have taken that job for what it paid. Things haven’t changed.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, besides being a longtime Atlanta dining critic, is a psychotherapist-turned-life coach, specializing in creativity, midlife transition and gay issues. He offers individual sessions and group workshops. www.cliffbostock.com