Monday, May 2, 2011

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The Zero Tip and How to Pull it off

JOE: All right, ramblers, let's get ramblin'. Wait a minute. Who didn't throw in?
MR. ORANGE: Mr. Pink.
JOE: Mr. Pink? Why not?
MR. ORANGE: He don't tip.
JOE: He don't tip? What do you mean you don't tip?
MR. ORANGE: He don't believe in it.
JOE: Shut up. What do you mean you don't believe in it? Come on, you, cough up a buck, you cheap bastard.

~ Reservoir Dogs

The first time I didn’t tip a bartender, I flubbed it. San Diego is giving me practice, though, and the next three times, I did it right. Here’s what prompts me to zero tip a waiter or bartender — and how to pull it off.

My rule of thumb for tipping at a restaurant is that 20% gets added to the bill unless there’s a problem with the service. Exceptional service gets more — though not much more. If the owner comps something, that’s fine, but I tip on what the total would have been with that included. If I’m at an open bar for several hours, I tip heavy right when I arrive. When the line gets to be five people deep later, guess whose drinks are ready with no waiting every time?

But what if the service is so bad, so neglectful, so willfully incompetent, that you can’t bring yourself to leave anything at all for the waitstaff?

Until I moved to San Diego, I’d never encountered service that bad. Leaving nothing for a server or bartender simply had never occurred to me. I don’t mean a harried waitress on a busy shift or a newbie bartender fumbling a complicated drink. These are understandable. I’m talking about the silent “fuck you” of a waiter or bartender who pointedly ignores you.

Serving food and drinks is hard work that comes with more than its share of injuries and truly awful clientele. Leaving nothing goes against everything I believe waitstaff and bartenders deserve. But more than once since moving to Southern California, I’ve been flat-out ignored after being served an initial round of drinks.

The first time it happened, we waited forty minutes for a second round of beers and food that never came because the bartender at the Escondido beer garden had never placed our lunch order. “Don’t worry” he assured me when I finally got him to pay attention, “I didn’t charge you for it” (he had been busy serving other guests, joking with bar backs, and even tickling a giggling busser; he had had dozens of opportunities to serve us).

I can’t bring myself to leave the grandiose insult of a single penny; I’m just not that big of a prick. Instead, I tracked down a manager, paid the exact amount of the check, and left. I was angry at being ignored and angry that I’d been forced into reconsidering my 20% policy.

But leaving no tip doesn’t punish just the bartender or waiter. Waitstaff rely on support networks that span the front and back of the house and may include bar backs, runners, bussers, hosts, cooks, and others. Waiters, even bad ones, usually tip out; that is, at the end of their shift, they dole out a portion of their tips to those who help them do their jobs. I was so angry that I wasn’t thinking of the clearing staff and the cut they can get from a waiter’s tips.

The next time a waiter inexplicitly stopped coming by the table — even though he was clearly still working others in the section — I finally had to get the bill from a manager. I paid the exact amount of the check, then handed the manager $5 in cash. “Please give this to the busser,” I asked. It was more than the guy would have made from the waiter, but much less than what the tip should have been. Very briefly, I explained why I was leaving nothing for the waiter and that this not an oversight. Bad behavior is a management issue and management needs to know.

As a customer, I don’t ever want to be put in the position of leaving a zero tip. But there’s a right way to do it. When a busser brings you water, napkins, and condiments, refills your tea or coffee, and also clears your dishes, he’s doing his job. It’s not his fault that the waiter is a tool; he shouldn’t be punished for it. Make sure he gets something. It’s the right thing to do. And make sure the management knows. No fighting, no arguing, no raised voices, no exaggerating. Describe the situation truthfully, succinctly, and politely. Then leave.

And if the waiter is bussing his own table or the bartender has no bar back?

Well, fuck that guy.

Goes well with:
  • Larry Fox delivers restaurant food as a side job in Brooklyn. He got so fed up with cheapskates (take, for instance, the 68-cent tip on a $72.32 bill) that he recently launched the site ≤15% documenting who’s giving the worst tips around town. Subtitled “A Bunch of Shitty Tips,” the blog is at turns funny and appalling. Ever had the feeling your delivery guy hated you? Fox may be able to shed some light on that.
  • The Yelp Elite, a Tumblr blog that culls snippets of the most ridiculous, pretentious review copy from Yelp reviewers. Worth a read. UPDATE 5/3/11: Wow, that was fast. Less than 24 hours later and the site seems to have been compelled to rename and relocate. The new site, The ____ Elite, is up now with no reference to the Yelpers in its title.

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