Table 18 needs ketchup. Where the hell is 20’s food? Gotta split the checks for 17 … but wait—what did that one dude order? Don’t forget the fuckin’ ketchup. What’s that muck on my apron? How many drink refills does that guy need?
This was my routine for three hellish months as a server at Cracker Barrel. Turns out working a part-time writing gig and part-time server job was the only way to make the proverbial ends meet a few years after college. It also meant I had the unique perspective of being both a server and a food writer for three long months. Eventually, I got picked up as a full-time scribe and it turns out I’m somehow more suited for this than serving people, which is fine because some customers are the absolute worst.
Whether at the most high-end of restaurants or laidback, quick-service diners, servers across the board share many of the same issues on any given shift. The list of grievances runs the gamut from impatient guests, messy kids, giant parties with separate checks, faux food “allergies” and meager to nonexistent tips.
Area servers and managers all shared examples of how the customer isn’t always right. For the sake of safeguarding people’s income, we’re withholding names and places of employment.
If you want to avoid surreptitious spit (or worse) in your spaghetti, or you just want to avoid making low-wage earners’ lives even harder, consider these examples of how not to act.
There’s a long list of complaints when it comes to ways you’re making an ass of yourself in public. For starters, don’t cut people off.
“The worst was people cutting you off in the middle of the sentence with their drink order. I have my spiel I have to do—try to be friendly,” said a seven-year server/bartender at a chain restaurant known for its spicy moniker. “I had a lady snap at me before, and the worst I’ve seen happen to someone else was an older gentleman who stood up in the middle of the section and waved his napkin to try and get someone’s attention.”
A fellow Pepper employee with three years under her belt reiterated the sentiment.
“There’s snapping, waving the arm, yelling across the restaurant. It’s a much different clientele than at a nice steakhouse or something like that.”
Or is it?
According to a slew of servers at one of Downtown’s hottest upscale eateries, annual income definitely doesn’t correlate to manners.
“If someone snaps their fingers at me, they’ll never get service from me again. It’s only happened once before, and never here, but you’ll never see my face at the table again,” said a two-year vet. “At this level, our job is to swallow it and be professional; it comes with the territory. If you go to Chili’s or Dick’s Last Resort, you’ll probably be doling out some attitude—not here.”
Remember to keep your hands to yourself—servers stressed being tapped on the shoulder or having their apron tugged while they’re serving a neighboring table was a total no-no. “Just don’t touch me,” said a 12-year service industry vet.
Entitled guests exist on each side of the spectrum. Before a certain high profile set of diners goes into their favorite Downtown eatery they send over a list of requirements that rivals any pop star’s tour rider. From specific tables, cuts of beef, wine labels, cuts of fruit and glassware, these diners also have required servers, along with a list of staff they’d rather not deal with.
Similarly, yet another set of eaters at this locale takes new servers to task.
“I had a server leave the restaurant because of this couple. I had to talk him down,” said a manager at a Downtown eatery.
The same attitude oozes over to the Pearl, where patrons expect the best service and will take issue when presented with anything but.
“People have told me I’m the worst person ever, that I don’t care about them and that I don’t care that they want to come in to eat,” said a manager at one of the Pearl’s eateries about unruly would-be guests demanding to be seated no matter the rush. “It’s how we make our living … but I’d rather make you upset at the door and have you come back to give us another opportunity, rather than sit down and have a horrible experience when you sit down.” In other words, try to remember patience is a virtue, as is kindness.
She continued, “The guests forget we’re all human beings, too, and we have problems of our own as well. Sometimes we’re treated poorly based on [the customer’s] mood for the day.”
Our eight-year pro would appreciate a little compassion come closing time, too. “At the end of the night, drunk guests are especially fun to deal with. … They want their things and they’re not shy about it. … We’re trying to get home, too.”
Even sweetie pies can cause heartburn, though. The current bane of every server’s existence by and large is gluten-free “allergies.” While most agree that celiac disease is real and worth addressing, our pool of servers made this their biggest complaint second to rudeness.
“I don’t think people know exactly what that means,” said our Pearl manager. “We have guests that truly are gluten-free, and guests who give us printed lists with food allergies, and we take those into consideration very seriously, but some [people] just don’t like certain ingredients.”
For an eight-year vet of the industry who’s held jobs at chains and local eateries alike, the gluten-free movement is another culinary “trend” that’s hard to avoid.
“It’s not really a big deal, but what we think is funny is that they don’t know what gluten-free is. There’s no allergy to it. It’s funny that the industry comes in trends—three years ago gluten-free wasn’t even a thing.” Indeed, in contrast to celiac disease, wheat allergy is rare and gluten intolerance does not yet have a scientific test for diagnosis, relying instead of folks’ subjective feelings of discomfort.
A notable Downtown chef pointed out that the GF customers aren’t the only ones with aggravating diet confusion.
“Why don’t they know what they can’t or can eat? We’ll hear, ‘I have a shellfish allergy, can I have the crab?’ What the fuck? I don’t want to cook for that person.”
Yes, food allergies are serious and at times life-threatening, if they are actually real. If yours are confirmed, do yourself, your dining partners and your servers a favor and study up on what you can and can’t have before you make your dining plans. But also, use common sense. Don’t eat at a steakhouse if you’re a vegetarian. Don’t hit up dim sum if you have a soy allergy. And don’t assume every restaurant has a gluten-free menu, because you may not like the response: “Yes, let me get it for you real quick—it has nothing on it,” said one of our Downtown servers.
Go Dutch the right way
Next time you’re heading out to a group dinner, make sure your server knows you’re splitting the check before you place your drink order. While not exactly the most polarizing pet peeve, dividing the ticket usually turns into a saga when guests start moving around the table or trying to split items.
“They think we can put .4 of the bottle on one person’s check and .6 on the other—we can’t,” said one Downtown server.
If you absolutely must have it your way, be patient.
The simplest solution for this particular waiter is splitting the check into multiple payments and not itemizing, which can turn into a “20-minute thing.”
For our Pearl manager, the way to navigate split checks is a heads-up. “A form of payment is a form of payment, but the easiest and best thing is to know ahead of time so then it’s something we can plan for and make sure we have checks fixed in the system.”
One of our Downtown servers agreed.
“If you do it right the first time, it takes 12 seconds. But if you’re lazy and just ring shit in like a lot of these guys do, it’ll take about half an hour.”
Large groups can suck in another way: gratuity. Of course, for parties of six or more, some restaurants and servers exercise the option of added gratuity or “auto-grat.” But even with added gratuity, Pepper employees often have to worry about the guests’ adding or subtracting from the bill to make sure each and every tip is exactly fair. Heaven forbid someone throw in an extra buck or two accidentally.
This all brings us to what constitutes as a good tip. The current rate most servers aim for is 20 percent of the total bill, but what they want diners to understand is there are lots of hands in the cookie jar.
Tip sharing or “tipping out” is customary at all establishments we reached out to, casual and fine dining alike. The breakup ranges between two and eight percent from the individual server’s sales, with most tipping out to at least two of the following groups: food runners, bussers, hosts, the maître d’ and the bar staff. Need we remind you that the Texas minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour?
While 20 percent is customary these days, tips vary depending on several factors.
Our three-year Pepper employee was flat-out stiffed by a table of teens who also overturned full beverages onto the table using suction from their menus.
“I’ve noticed that younger kids these days just want to mess with you, they want to bully someone,” she said. “They’re going to have to serve one day, though, I’m sure of it.”
Her Pepper comrade had a similar encounter with a 10-top of prom-going teens whose check totaled $150. She received a $3 tip.
For some of our Downtown crew, whose tabs are admittedly bigger than their quick-service counterparts, a 10 percent tip can be normal.
“We all shoot for 20, but it comes down to the customer really, some people have old-school ways and will tip 10 percent no matter what. You can get old people that love you, loved the service and the food and they’ll still tip 10.”
Getting stiffed happens and most have learned to brush it off, but the most infuriating tip is $1 or change.
“I’ve been very rude about it because what are they going to do now? Tell my manager?” said one Pepper employee, “I’ve told people to keep the change because clearly [it] looks like they need it more.”
So, to review, if you’re too broke to tip, don’t eat out; if you’re splitting the check let your server know early and often; if you have food allergies or sensitivities remember, that’s your problem, not your server’s; don’t get handsy with the wait staff and finally, try not to be an asshole.
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