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Daily Archives: September 18, 2009

Tipping in US vs. Europe Round 1 Pt. 2

I maintain that each system has evolved a payment scheme that reflects the expectations of the diner. If you tried to change the system in Europe back to a tip system, chaos would ensue. It wouldn’t be reflective of the staffing requirements nor the expectation that you won’t be rushed. And if you tried to change the system here to a salary system, once again chaos would ensue. There is no more reason to change this system than to change the European system. Each dovetails well with the way restaurants work within the dining culture.

Many Europeans find the bang bang dining pace and the constant interaction with the server annoying. Americans don’t always mind the slow pace of Europe, because, let’s face it – they’re “on vacation” most of the time. So, it’s easy to remember that slow pace as “good service” even though they wouldn’t tolerate the same pace in their neighborhood restaurant. And those of us who have lived there for any length of time adapt to the slower pace.

As servers, we are not *only* motivated by the great tip, many of us are also beholden to the secret shopper. I (or somebody if I’m not available) have to greet my guest within 1 minute. I have to have a first drink on the table by 4 minutes. I have to mention the brand names of the bottled water I carry, I have to check back after the deliver of each course within 2 minutes. I have to offer dessert. I have to offer coffee…the list goes on and one. This checklist reflects the demands of the American diner. Personally, I’d love it if everyone slowed down, but you think it’s hard NOW to get a table at the most humble Chili’s in the most humble strip mall in suburbia at 7pm? Good god, we’d have to have twice the restaurants with double the size. And restaurants are already almost on every corner.

Erik then asked:

And you think that the system of low salaries and expected tipping is the root cause of this “drink on table in 4 minutes” service in the US? I’m not so sure about that causation.

Are these strict rules you have to follow passed down from the franchise corporation or are they specific to the locale owner? Or are they self-imposed by you in an attempt to better your tips?

To which I responded:

I think that it’s probably the other way around. Americans are impatient (and restaurants are large and need lots of service people to help wait on them) *so* tipping has evolved as the most efficient transactional system. And it’s a win/win/win, which is rare today. It’s a win for the restaurant – they get to keep their payroll low (which has the benefits that I outlined on my blog), the server gets to act almost as an independent contractor paid on commission based on the level of service that he or she provides, and the guest sees lower menu prices upfront and has the ability to weigh in on the service that he or she receives (many people actually like the idea of directly rewarding the person that they’re waiting on). There’s very little downside. The main downside from a server’s standpoint is that we don’t get enough hourly wage for our tax withholding so we end up owning taxes at tax time (we don’t actually *owe* more taxes, just less has been withheld throughout the year and if we don’t make extra withholding out of our tips, we get hit with a big bill at tax time).

“Are these strict rules you have to follow passed down from the franchise corporation or are they specific to the locale owner? Or are they self-imposed by you in an attempt to better your tips”?

In my case, this is a 100-point-based form that people who have signed on as “secret shoppers” have to fill out based on our specific restaurant – there are probably about 30 things they’re expected to report on, from the time they make their phone reservation to the valet service that we use to whether we “thanked them for dining with us tonight on their way out”. My last restaurant (a completely different style of restaurant) actually used the same company but some of the questions were different and the time standards weren’t the same down to the second (every restaurant tailors their form to their own style of service). These “steps of service” are based on many years of research by the dining industry based on the fact that we Americans are quite fussy and impatient when it comes to dining. The time standards I quoted are pretty close to the type of standards that you’ll find in most restaurants, whether or not they use a secret shopper service. They reflect current expectations from US diners.

We are expected to get a perfect score every time. anything less than a 90 is considered by my management a “bad shop”. Miss two 5 pointers (like forgetting to mention the bottle water by name), and you’re pretty much there. And we’re not the only ones graded, so if the valet doesn’t open the door for someone, BANG! that’s 2 points.

The scores definitely affect your job. But no, not all restaurants use a mystery shopper service. But I brought it up to show the kind of service points that we require here that aren’t required in most European restaurants.

When I came back to the States, my ex came over and brought her mom. I took them to the only German restaurant in town. They had one server for about 10 tables (at least 6 of them were seated) and she was also having to seat. We were sitting when I saw a four top come to the door. “Watch this”, I told my ex.” I’ll bet that within a minute, they’re start looking around for the ‘hostess’ ”. Sure enough, hands went on hips, heads started swiveling, foreheads started creasing. It took the server close to 4 minutes to seat them. By then, they were almost livid. As they got seated next to our table, all we could hear was grumbling about how long it took them to get a table. My ex was laughing – “You guys are pretty spoiled, aren’t you”. I said, “Just wait until it takes them 10 minutes to get their beer”. Sure enough, all we could hear was annoying grousing about how slow everything was.

I think that moment crystallized a lot of things that I had already subconsciously noted about my time over there (and no, I actually wasn’t back in the restaurant business at that point). I was actually a dispassionate/amused observer at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong – I prefer the European way of life personally. I like things close, I like to be able to use mass transit, I like the smaller scale of restaurants and the slower pace. But I can’t ignore the reality. and the reality is that the tipping system seems like the best fit for a “turn your table/I want to be seated now /give me my drink yesterday” mentality.

Blogger’s note – see why the term “loquacious” is being extremely kind?


Bus Stop Body Language by Jean Taylor

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