Restaurant Etiquette

As you enter the restaurant, you are greeted by the smiling host and shown to a table. The server appears as you settle in, introduces himself and informs you of any special items for the day. He returns shortly with your drink order and answers your questions about the menu. The appetizer you ordered arrives in short time and the server engages you in a short, but entertaining conversation as you enjoy the perfectly prepared calamari. Just as your date licks the last crumbs off his fingers, the server brings your salad, split for you in the kitchen, the dressing on the side and without onions, just as you ordered. You leisurely enjoy the salad with the ice-cold pinot grigio you ordered and conversation with your date. Just as you are thinking the salad may be finished, your dinners arrive cooked and presented with perfection. Just as everything else, the server presents the lady’s food first, offers any condiments or refills you may want, and whisks away the dirty plates and utensils. Some time later he brings you boxes to take your leftovers home and talks about the football game on tonight, he hopes to see the replays after work, and then brings your cappuccino and desserts. The evening is lovely, the server is entertaining, prompt, and accurate, and you leave a well-deserved tip. From your server’s perspective, however, things are very different. Your server is not an autonomous robot; as a professional, hard-working individual, he deserves your respect and gratitude. He works in a dynamic, high-paced, stressful environment with many responsibilities; we shall examine these responsibilities with the goal of educating the general public who have not had recent experience within the industry.

A server’s responsibilities are wide and varied in the majority of restaurants. He is responsible not only for his tables, but also various tasks in the “back-of-house.” But let us start with the “Front-of-House,” which is what the guests see of the restaurant. Most establishments divide the dining room into sections of between three and seven tables, depending on server strength, the day and time, and holidays. With an average of two to five guests per table, this means “your” server is responsible for between six and thirty-five individual guests, each of whom has different communications styles, requests, drinks and entrees, paces of eating, and, yes Virginia, demands. With each guest the server is responsible for timeliness, including: the greet (saying hello, informing of specials, the drinks order), each of the one to eight different courses, refills, and check presentation and return. Each ordered item is expected to be presented correctly as ordered. A pleasant demeanor is also a must for interacting with each and every guest, no matter their attitude or rudeness. The server is also expected to maintain the cleanliness of his section, and tables, keeping used plates, utensils and glassware to a minimum on the table. Finally, in the Front-of-House, the server is expected to help when necessary his fellow servers, the bartenders, and even the hosts. That is quite a load, right? Well, your server’s tasks don’t end there.

In the Back-of-House, most restaurants also have server responsibilities. Coffee and iced-tea must regularly be brewed; coffee mugs, soda and bar glassware, and silverware must be cleaned and restocked; the ice-bin needs to be refilled sometimes ten times a night; the bread warmers need to be stocked with freshly cut bread; all the to-go boxes need to be stocked; all of these server areas, including the dish area and food pass-through area need to be kept clean and usable; finally, food needs to get run out to the dining room. Each of these duties is shared between the servers on shift, and each is concurrent with his Front-of-House responsibilities. Now things are starting to look like a difficult job… Servers tend to be exceptional at juggling responsibilities in a high-paced environment, and also at communicating with many people in rapid succession.

For all of this intense work and stress, in most states the server is paid a measly $2.xx per hour. Few states require that tipped employees earn minimum wage; one I know of is Washington State. Generally, that $2 per hour covers income taxes on tips the server earns through working. Most restaurants stick to that amount, excepting some five-star restaurants that charge much more than the average person is willing to spend on Monday-night dinner. Additionally, in many establishments, a tip-out is assessed to the server at the end of his shift. This is generally around three percent of the server’s sales for that shift, and the money goes to pay the busboys, the bartenders, and in some places, the hosts and other staff. The result of this practice is that any individual tip is reduced by three percent of the check, or in other words, a 10% tip becomes a 7% tip, while 15% and 20% tips become 12% and 17%, respectively. All this adds up to a server making less than the average person realizes, in a job that is both more demanding and more stressful than many desk jobs (having done both, believe me, I know).

In an effort to have the most pleasant dining experience possible, there are several things a guest needs to keep in mind. The first is an elementary idea, the Golden Rule. Servers are most definitely people, and return treatment in favor: the more you leave your deplorable day at the door, the more likely you are to receive wonderful service. In the same vein, if there is one particular thing you look for in “excellent service,” if you let your server know in a pleasant way, he can see that your needs are met. A good rule of thumb for interacting with your server is to think of the experience as a first dinner with your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s parents. You would not suck a soda down when the host sets it down, do not do it at a restaurant. If you do plan on emptying your glass thoroughly and quickly, ask for a carafe or pitcher, or for two sodas. As long as the establishment offers free refills, you should only be charged for one drink, since you are making the server’s job easier. Keep in mind as well, that your server more than likely intimately knows the menu and food at the establishment. When recommendations are presented, they are for your benefit to enhance your dining experience. Finally, please expect a level of service appropriate to the prices you are paying. Five-star restaurants provide that level of service because they charge enough to pay more servers, to provide busboys and food runners, and a larger kitchen staff, not just because of the food. A server at a restaurant charging between ten and thirty dollars a person has many more responsibilities than at a restaurant charging fifty to one-hundred-fifty dollars per person.

As far as splitting and paying for the check, keep some things in mind. For a party of five or fewer people, most servers and restaurants will gladly split the check individually. However, for larger parties (especially if bottles of wine or salads are shared) splitting a check more than four ways will delay your party and hobble service to other guests (splitting a check for a party of twenty can easily take up to twenty-five minutes). In most cases the guests, the server, and the restaurant are better served by evenly divvying up the check at the table. Also, one person should be selected to deal with the money and the server. This ensures the check is completely paid (the remainder often comes out of the server’s pocket), as well as an appropriate tip is rendered (more on that shortly). If a server agrees and goes above and beyond by splitting individual checks for your large party, an additional tip is appropriate.

Finally, we come to tipping. As mentioned above, most servers are not paid a mentionable hourly wage. Additionally, they often are provided no benefits, and assessed a ‘tip-out’ at the end of the night. Keeping these things in mind, a general guide to tipping is provided here. When planning on a budget, try to keep a twenty percent tip in mind. Call the restaurant to determine the price ranges, and if you cannot afford the prices with that tip in mind, you can choose another restaurant, or wait a week until you can afford the prices. Given the wages and tip-out servers have, a fifteen percent tip is now an appropriate standard tip for service in a dining restaurant. This indicates average service with few mistakes, and few or no special requests or orders. With good service, special orders, a busy night, and/or few or no mistakes, a twenty percent tip is appropriate; finally, when excellent service, no mistakes, correctly delivered special orders and a busy night are involved, a twenty-five percent tip is appropriate. Remember that these are the server’s earnings, and that he works very hard for them. A couple of other things to keep in mind when figuring the tip: remember you are tipping for service, not necessarily by the total of the check. If a coupon, free (birthday or other) dessert, or half-priced bottle of wine (often found in neighborhood, family-style restaurants on Mondays or Tuesdays) are involved, it is appropriate to tip as if you are paying full price on those items. With split checks, be sure to check the total of the tip and the check, the server will often provide a full check if asked, and your friends might surprise you unpleasantly; also, as mentioned above, when a server goes above and beyond, and splits a check individually for a party of more than six people, it is appropriate to tip an additional five percent on top of the gratuity (if included), or otherwise to tip a minimum of twenty percent. Finally, people will often provide written or verbal compliments in addition to tipping, and while these are well-received, if they are not backed up by a monetary tip, then they are not good for very much, and make the individual look cheap or rude.

For your ease, I am providing a simple math to help figure out the tip:

Based on a check total of $100.00,

10% can be found by moving the decimal one place to the left:
$100.00 becomes $10.000

15% is 10% plus half of 10%, or:
$100.00 10% is $10.00, plus half of 10% ($5.00, in this case) = $15.00

20% can be found by doubling 10%:
$100.00 will be 10% ($10) x 2 = $20

25% is 15% plus 10%:
$100.00 10% is $10 plus 15% is $25.00

When dealing with change or not-neat totals, two methods are appropriate:
1) Figure the approximate tip first, then round to the next whole dollar, or
2) Round to the next whole dollar, then find the percentage.

I hope this essay has enlightened you to the duties and responsibilities of your favorite server, as well as provided a realization that your tips are all the money he sees.

Next Week, I will take up some great free utilities available online, that can replace everything from your $300 Operating System to your expensive subscription-based antivirus program. See you then.