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Daily Archives: January 24, 2010

Tip: Expected or earned?

That is the title of an article under the general “Sales tips and advice” page in the “Marketing” section at

It’s written by Laura Lake, who uses a bad experience at a restaurant to not only act as inspiration for the article but also to illustrate her point.

She boils down waiting tables to 4 basic points:

“I’ve never been a waitress, but that does not mean that I don’t understand the difficulty in their job. With that being said I also look at the wait staff has having to have a certain degree of a sales mentality in order to make a decent living in their choice of a career. What does that mean?

  • It means being courtesy to the customer.
  • It means understanding the needs of the customer.
  • It means taking the sales order and completing the order in a timely and efficient matter.
  • It means smiling even when you don’t want to.”

Pretty simplistic, but basically true.

And she talks about an autograt situation where the service wasn’t very good. She closed with this question:

“You be the judge was the tip expected or earned”?

What I think is a basic misunderstanding that many people throw out in the public discussion of tipping is not understanding what a waiter means by “Yes, I expect a tip”.

I’ll say it loudly and proudly, “When I wait on a table, I expect to be tipped”. This is because I’m a US waiter (I fully realize that I have many readers in far-flung parts of the world where this might not apply to you either as a waiter or as a guest). My wage is structured so that the bulk of my income is based on my tips. In fact, I work in a state where I get no spendable money at all from my restaurant wage after taxes are deducted. This means that every penny of the money that I spend on my mortgage, food, bills and frivolous purchases like food for my dogs and internet access comes from your tips. Every penny. In fact, some of those pennies go to cover the $2,000 that I owe the IRS at tax time because my withholding isn’t enough.

Now, what do I mean by “I expect to be tipped”? It doesn’t mean that I expect a certain percentage regardless of my performance. It means that I expect to be tipped according to the customary standards of my industry, my wage structure and my society. This means, if I sleepwalk through your service but deliver your food and drink exactly as you ordered it in the proper time frame, but I don’t do anything to connect to your actual dining experience, then I expect 15% because I’ve fulfilled my side of the social contract that has been present for longer than I have been alive (and probably you as well). If I don’t fulfill this contract, then I expect to get docked. If I exceed it, then I expect to be rewarded for it as well by tipping a higher percentage. I would have to be totally horrible, rude and incompetent for you not to tip me anything. For the record a 10% tip is considered a major message that your waiter hasn’t performed up to standards. The least you can do is tip 5% for pretty bad service because that’s an insult tip of the highest sort. to leave absolutely nothing would imply a level of service that I can’t even imagine, although I have no doubt that it happens once in a blue moon.

 Some might disagree but it’s important to understand that leaving a zero tip would be like docking a worker 80% of their hourly wage if they screw up. Taking a job as a waiter implies acceptance that our hourly wage is judged as if your job were judged on an hour to hour basis, so that’s part of the game. But a guest has to try to put themselves in the shoes of a waiter – could you live with your boss adjusting your paycheck directly day by day based on their perception on how well you do your job? How would you feel if, when you screwed up or displayed a little attitude (and face it, there’s nobody who hasn’t screwed up on their job), your boss came in and said, “Jennie, when you snapped at me for pointing out that your report is late, I’m going to only pay you $10 today instead of the $100 you would normally earn. I hope this will improve your performance the next time you have a report to file. Had you been humble and understood my point, I would have only docked you $50. I hope that you take this as a learning experience”. Well, that’s what we deal with at every table, minute by minute, hour by hour and shift by shift.

Now, before you accuse me of whining, let me be clear – I’m not. This is the nature of my job. This is what I signed up for.

But it points out that I would have to almost do the equivalent of Jennie walking up to her boss and slapping his face for me to not receive at least a token tip of 5%. For Jenny to be docked 30% of her income would be bad enough, right? After all, she showed up on time at work and she did significant prep for the report; she just didn’t get it finished on time. Had she told her boss after showing up late for the 3rd time this month, “Well boss, I’m sorry but I just didn’t have time to do the report this quarter. I’ll start on it now”, I’m guessing that she’d be fired on the spot.

I might screw up on your order, I might not be as friendly today because of personal problems that I should have left at home, I might not have been as prepared as I should have been concerning the menu. All reasons to dock me. But none bad enough to leave me no tip.

The other thing I mean when I say “I expect a tip” is because I feel like I’m going to deliver a level of service that entitles me to a tip. I’ve done a lot of preparation, study and, yes, sidework prep, to entitle me to a tip. How much of that I bring to bear with your table will determine what percentage of tip you give me. I expect a 20% tip going in but there are times when I feel as if I haven’t given you my best efforts. When I get a 13% in those circumstance, I understand. I’m grateful when you give me 15% or even more in that sort of situation because I’m grateful for your kindness and understanding. I think the worst feeling is when I’ve delivered a hot shit performance and I know that I did and you acknowledge this by thanking me for my great service and then leaving me 14.5%. You didn’t even bother to do the math? Are you kidding me? That.5% hurts far worse than the 10% that some ungrateful table gave me for the same level of service but didn’t bother to acknowledge the service verbally with praise. I figure that they’re just oblivious. You know. in actuality, that .5% is actually more like 2.5% – 5.5% because most people acknowledge great service by tipping 17 – 20%.

You notice that I’m not addressing the autograt thing that forms the nucleus of her argument. That’s because I’ve already been too long-winded and a bit abstract already. My personal opinion is that it’s a necessary evil because of the liberties that large tables take with tipping, especially if there’s a separate checks situation (there’s always that one moron who undertips). If I had the option, I wouldn’t add an autograt (and my restaurant doesn’t add autograts for large groups unless they book a private party). When I worked in restaurants that did apply them, I had no choice because, once you post an autograt notice on a menu, you have to always apply it every time because, if you don’t, you run the risk of discrimination charges.

However, to me, the writer has one point worth addressing – mandatory service charges and autograts are a general disincentive to providing great service when, and this is an important distinction, the system is set up to use tipping to provide both the bulk of income and the main incentive to execute. A waiter should never take service for granted simply because they know that they’re going to get an autograt. An autograt should free the waiter from the pressure of dealing with larger parties, not free them from the obligation to provide the best service possible.

I hope this clarifies what most waiters mean when they say that they expect a tip. It might not be the case for 100% of waiters, but most of us have enough pride in our jobs and our abilities that our expectations of a proper tip are fulfilled far more often than not.

If you want to read the full article, please go here.