So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Why should I tip for to-go food? Pt 1

I got into a back and forth on Facebook with someone during a general conversation about the question “Do you tip on take out orders”? This person is actually a Chef/Culinary Partner for a leading steakhouse chain. His irreverent opening bon mot was “isn’t McDonald’s take-out”?

Well, that immediately put me on edge (and I didn’t even know he was in the biz). First of all, the clear implication is, “You don’t tip at McDonald’s, do you”? Or, “If you think you should tip for to-go orders, shouldn’t you have to tip at McDonald’s”. You know, that sort of thing.

Bill and I had a few rounds of insulting each other, which escalated when we each discovered each others’ careers. And others weighed in as well (actually, most people said that they indeed did tip on to-go orders, albeit at a lower percentage).

This is one of the most contentious topics when it comes to tipping.

I’d like to provide a little context to possibly give people a wider view.

When I was but a young waiter in my first incarnation as a waiter in the hazy days of the 70s and 80s, to-go food was an incidental thing. People just didn’t think of taking restaurant food home with them very often. First of all, a lot of restaurant food just doesn’t travel all that well. Second of all, that’s what pizza and Chinese takeout is for.

But everything changed with Boston Market. Meal replacement became a thing. No matter that the Germans had been doing it for years with their roasted whole chickens that you could buy in any decent small town. Suddenly, the increasingly busy American had a time-saving alternative to both cooking and dining out. Tipping at Boston Market was pretty rare, IIRC, because they were staffed strictly to cater to takeout. Theirs wasn’t a staff that consisted of tipped employees – they were paid as other counter people would be paid and you were often waited on by a manager-type person as well. It was like an upscale fast food joint because they also had a few tables.

As we went into the 90s, takeout was still somewhat of a minor part of the biz. If you had a favorite restaurant, you would usually put a to-go order in by phone and the bartender would be the responsible person for the order. They would put the order together back in the kitchen and deliver it to you when you showed up. Most people tipped for that because they realized that the order was facillitated by the friendly neighborhood bartender. A typical restaurant might do 10 or 20 to-go orders a week, if that even.

With the advent of the “bar and grill” concept, suddenly there was food that traveled decently well and could feed a family for less than the cost of dining out (didn’t have to tip as well and didn’t have to spend time marshalling small kids or dealing with surly spouses, etc.). And there was the shrinking public social time that we had available. Now we could call in an order to Chili’s at 5:30 when it was clear that the boss needed the report that she was requesting for tomorrow, by “close of business today”. Yep, I’m going to be working an extra hour, so I’ll mollify my family by bringing home a feast from Chili’s. I can actually call them now and set a pickup time two hours from now! I love this country! Whatta country!

As companies found that more and more people were taking advantage of  take-out, even in average restaurants, the light went on. Here’s a new market niche! Since our seats are already full during the lunch and dinner rush, we can stretch our kitchen even more by selling more food to more people. And we have a captive waitstaff that we can tap for to-go duty. And we don’t even have to pay them more money because enough people are tipping to make it worthwhile for those waiters, although they sure do seem drained after processing 50  to-go orders a night.

So now, places like Outback, Applebee’s P.F. Chang’s, etc., are actually building or modifying units with to-go in mind, sometimes even having a dedicated to-go station set up exclusively for take-out. Some of these places even pay their to-go waiters a little extra, possibly because they are in communities that don’t get that they are being served by tipped employees who get less than minmum wage and that they are indeed getting service even if it isn’t table service.

To-go is big.

So, do I tip or not?

Yes, you idiot, of course you tip. You don’t tip the same as you’d tip if your were being served tableside, but you tip nonetheless. The most popular tip seems to be 10% but if you at least tip 5%, I guess I can respect that.

Let’s deal with some of the issues.

“I don’t have to tip because I’m not getting ‘served”. They’re just giving me food in a bag, just like fast food”.

Well, no. If it were just like fast food, you’d come in, stand in line, order your meal, take your bag from the cashier and pay for your food, all in a matter of a couple of minutes. You don’t get to (or need to) call in your order to be handed to you at some future time of your choice.

This doesn’t happen at every place, but let’s track your order for pickup at 7:30pm  at P.F. Chang’s.

6:00 pm

Ring ring!

Hello, this is P.F. Chang’s. How may I help you?

“I’d like to order some takeout”.

Just a minute, let me transfer you to our to-go department.

The to-go department is two waiters, one who specializes in to-gos and tonight, one who has been tapped from a normal floor shift to help because it’s the other specialists day off. They will pool all tips. They won’ttip out the bar, but they’ll tip out the food runners because the runners and the expo person will be assisting them in packaging the $2500 worth of food that they’re going to process in the next three hours. And here in Tennessee, they’re going to make 2.13 an hour doing it.

<cut to the sight of one to-go specialist on the phone and another running around, getting two orders from the hot line, lidding and marking them, then suddenly dashing around the corner to the pantry where she lids and marks a big entree sized salad and some potstickers. We see 5 Chang’s big handled grocery bags on the table, each getting filled with certain items as she passes – a toss of duck sauce in one, side salad dressing in another, each bag marked with someobody’s last name>

Hi, I understand that you want to put in a to-go order. Can I put you on hold for a moment because I’m taking an order from someone else?

“Sure. I’ll hold”.

After a minute the to-go person is back.

“Yes, I’d like to order two orders of potstickers with some extra dipping sauce. I’d like an order of lettuce wraps, an order of Orange Chicken, Lo Mein with no onions, an extra order of rice and a Great Wall of Chocolate. I’d like to pick that up at 7:30 please. Is that possible”?

Yes, I can do that.

Of course, had they wanted it in 30 minutes, it would have been up to the to-go order taker to give them a more realistic time because they can see that the kitchen is starting to get backed up from the dinner rush and in-house food always get priority because one of the things that a to-go person has to know is the timing of the kitchen at any particular time so that they can keep the to-go customer from waiting for their food at the appointed time.

So, the order has been taken, the time is promised but the order can’t be put in for at least another hour because the food is cooked when the kitchen gets the order, but it also gets put in line, so it could be 10 minutes or 30 minutes before the entire order comes up (remember, to-go food takes a back seat to sitting guests).

Meanwhile, you try to finish that report.

The to-go orders are piling up. there are now 10 pending to-go orders slated for pickup between 6:15 and 8:00. The one for 6:15 is the one that’s getting boxed up right now. The three at 7:00 are starting to get all of the normal side stuff like plasticware, soy and duck sauces put in the bags. One of the 7:00 orders is pretty big (it’s almost $100 so it’s already in the system because the kitchen has said that they’ll need that much time to get everything out). The other 3 7:00 orders can’t be put in yet because of the timing. And the restaurant is already on a 30 minute wait, so the kitchen is having to shoehorn the to-go food between the other 20 orders that they have hanging form the line.

Your 7:30 order is one of 2. However, in the next 20 minutes, 2 more 7:30 tickets will be added by now to-go orders. One of the 8:00 orders is from a sororitywho has ordered for the whole house. It’s a $250 order. It will take 7 full Chang’s paper grocery bags to contain. And, guess what? They don’t ever tip. But they are gong to have to be accomodated, even though their order is going to totally put the kitchen into the weeds at the height of the rush and the sales are 10% of the total sales of the night and will literally take 45 minutes from the time the first bag gets something placed in it until the order is full. But the order can’t even be put in until around 7:15, and it has to be done in direct consultation with the chef, even though several orders are having to be bagged up and there are already people waiting for their earlier orders.

As the to-go orders are put in the window, they are in uncovered tubs. They have to be lidded and labeled with a Sharpie right on the top. The Lo Mein without onions must especially be identified and marked as such so that it doesn’t go home with the wrong person and you don’t get onions in your Lo Mein. Thing is, there are 4 orders of Lo mein hitting the pass at the same time. There are two people at the register waiting for their food and there are also 3 ongoing orders in the kitchen. There are another couple of orders that will have to be put into the kitchen in the next 5 minutes or the promised time won’t be able to be met.

So it’s starting to get to be crunch time. Plus, the kitchen seems to be going down and some floor waiters are telling the expo that their food is 10 minutes late and the guests are bitching. This doesn’t bode well for the to-go servers, but they’ll just have to deal with it because they can’t turn back time.

So now it’s 7:20 and you pull up for your food. You go inside and assume that it will be ready early, because all these people do is bag up your food, right?

But nooooo, it won’t be ready for 10 minutes. “Well”, you think to yourself, “I was early”. And so you wait and at 7:31, here comes the waiter with your bags.

Hi, Mr. Grinchè, nice to see you again (although the waiter is thinking, “It sure would be nice if you’d bother to tip something”.)

And the waiter starts unpacking the bag in front of you like they always do. Here are your lettuce wraps. I made usre that I put the lettuce cups in a bag with the cake so that the heat wouldn’t bother them. Ahhh, here is your Lo Mein without onions. Perfect. here are the potstickers and the extra sauce, and you can see that I’ve given you some extra rice”.

They go through the whole bag with you, as you see two other people come up. that waiter is going to go through the same routine with them two while the other waiter is frantically assembling a $200 order and two more orders, all the while handling two more to-go orders for 8:30 on the phone (they had to have the hostess take another to-go order and hopefully, she got any special orders right).

You give the waiter your credit card and conspicuously and contemptuously write “none” on the credit card slip.

I hope you’re proud of yourself.

I just described a typical midweek night at a busy P.F. Chang’s. Not all Chang’s are that busy (or located next to a major university), and not all to-go situations in restaurants are that complex or brutal. but you can be assured that the people who are processing your order are tipped employees (with the possible exception of a hostess that might take your order over the phone).

At the end of the night, the team has processed $2600 worth of food. Thanks to  2 or 3 who tipped 15% or more, which counterbalanced you and the other two people who refused to tip, the team is going to share $230 worth of tips. They’re going to tip out $30 to the food runners leaving them with a respectable $100 each. Just about what many of the floor servers will make after tipout.

In part two, we’re going to delve a little deeper and deal with another couple of misanthropic tropes and excuses for not tipping.

6 responses to “Why should I tip for to-go food? Pt 1

  1. vandervecken January 28, 2010 at 12:57 am

    I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about to go tipping. One of the reasons is that I think a lot of anger in the “biz” is misdirected towards people who have no idea what is happening behind the curtain — and, IMO, shouldn’t have to.

    It isn’t their fault that restaurants refuse to pay dedicated to-go employees a reasonable wage, tell them its the customers’ responsibility to pay them, then tell the customers they don’t have to. It isn’t the customers’ fault if to-go employees go home empty handed for working all night. It’s the employer’s fault for throwing them under the bus.

    Is it really fair to stick customers with that moral burden? That’s not a rhetorical question. I don’t have the answer. What would happen if we stripped away all the bullshit and just dropped in on their heads? Would it make things worse or better?

    But I do know that between employers, employees, and customers, the employees are the only ones who have no recourse to do anything about it. Everyone else gets to say, “screw you, I got mine already.”

    And the “screw you” attitude comes out in your friend’s McDonalds quip. He’s not wrong because because it’s a bad analogy, he’s wrong because it’s a callous statement of total disregard for someone. When people talk about “working at McDonald’s”, it’s not a job, it’s a stigma. It’s a colloquial euphemism for being a worthless person.

    What he was really asking was: Why should he care about worthless people?

    So I leave good take out and delivery tips, but only because I’m someone who should bear that moral burden because I’m in it with them. And god bless us all, everyone.

  2. teleburst January 28, 2010 at 7:24 am

    You’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to why it’s a contentious subject.

    Here’s the thing that the customers are missing (and this will probably be part of part 2) – they are losing sight of the fact that they are indeed receiving a service. It’s a privilege to be able to take home food from a full-service restaurant. It’s a privilege to be able to call in ahead of time and get a whole meal packaged and handed to you by someone who you might very well see at your table a week from now when you deign to dine in. Yes, it’s restaurants taking advantage of the increasing desire of people to do this and, as long as it isn’t cannibalizing sales from the dining room, it means extra sales and more food consumed. What people need to remember (or understand) is that they are paying prices for food that are based on what the service staff is paid. It’s the same deal as the dining room – if I have to be paid $15 an hour to keep me from feeling screwed because I can’t work the floor as a waiter (and the job can be even tougher in the to-go corner), guess what that does to prices? It doesn’t increase prices the way that paying the entire waitstaff would, but it would have an impact. Can you imagine what would happen if people really DID have to pay for the people who are managing their to-go order? Say with a “to-go surcharge”? Can you imagine the howling? “Why am I being charged for not even taking a table? That doesn’t make any sense”. “Well, we had to do it because you wanted a free ride and we didn’t want to have to raise prices on everybody simply because you wanted to take food home. We’ve got to pay people to serve your need to eat your food wherever you want to. If you had tipped those people enough to allow us to be able to keep experienced people there, people who could handle all of you ordering to-go food (because it takes a good server to be able to do it)you wouldn’t be paying a surcharge”.

    The thing is, a majority of people actually do seem to get it on an intuitive level. Occasionally, when I worked at Chang’s, I would ask the to-go person at the end of the night if I could see the chits. Everytime I did that, I noticed that a majority of people tipped something. It wasn’t the almost 100% that leave SOMETHING when dining in, but it was usually about 60 – 75% and probably 2 or 3 people left 15 – 20%. Part of it might have been having to stand in line sometimes to pick up the to-go order and seeing the waiter literally unpack each bag for each customer. Part of it might have been gratitude for seeing the same people everytime they picked up their food and sometimes being acknowledged by name just as they would if they were a regular at a table because they were regular to-go customers.

    Gee, I’ve almost written part 2 here. You don’t mind if I steal from this, do you?

  3. Moneybags November 1, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    “Yes, you idiot, of course you tip.” I think you’re the idiot: of course you don’t!

    • teleburst November 1, 2014 at 12:19 pm

      You’re welcome to your opinion cheapskate.

      Also, I’ll bet you’d be the first to howl if the option of to-go food from a full service restaurant were taken away. I’ll bet you would think it was a service then.

  4. Moneybags November 1, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Man, you guys have it all wrong. Working at McDonald’s isn’t a euphemism for worthless person. I’ve gotten nothing but excellent service and happy servers at McDonald’s. Same thing goes for the grocery store: I go in there, browse around, pick up a roast chicken or something I would cook myself, plus other things, and I pay the price. I don’t tip the cashier, or the person who stocks the shelves, or the person who cleans the floor, all of which fall under the category of your excuse for tipping which is: “you’re getting a service.” The “privilege” of being able to pick up your food is a “service?” Don’t make me laugh. That’s the most nonsensical reasoning I’ve ever heard.

    We have a culture in this country for tipping at full-service restaurants. It’s unfortunate that this culture existed in such a way as to allow the government to modify the law in order to allow employers to underpay their staff, with the expectation that they should be tipped. But that’s just a fact we have to deal with, so tipping is something everyone should do unless we can get the system changed for the better.

    • teleburst November 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Also, your reasoning is faulty. You don’t tip at the grocery store because a. those employees are receiving the same wage as they would get for not stocking a roasted chicken, plus, you aren’t doing anything other than you would do for picking up a can of soup off the shelf. They aren’t putting together courses of food, packing silverware, double-checking your order, making sure that the food is cooked and packed as close to the pickup time as possible.

      As far as McDonald’s goes, they should make more money as well (if you’re going to argue wages). I’m fine with that. But they DO generally make more money than the tip based wage that to-go servers make if you TAKE AWAY THE TIPS.

      I’ll bet if the servers were paid a wage without a tip being part of the equation (and no, I don’t argue that they should make the same tip that a full service server does), and they added a surcharge to make up the difference, you would howl in outrage. Or maybe you wouldn’t, considering that pizza delivery business now routinely do the same thing with their “delivery fees”. Chili’s should do you a favor just to make you happy and track on a “convenience fee” for to-go food to cover increased wages, packaging fees, and providing a convenience (I.e. SERVICE) to you. Fortunately, at least enough people tip to allow you to continue to be a welfare diner. Enjoy your status as a leech.

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