So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Why should I tip for to-go food? pt. 2

In part one, I talked about what goes on behind the scenes of many “to-go departments” in mass market restaurants.

Let’s talk about the considerations that you need to take into account when you order to-go food from your average mass market restaurant, and even if you do take out from high-end restaurants.

First of all, the people who are handling your take out order in a mass market restaurant are still waiters. They have to know everything that your tableside waiter needs to know about the food. They need to know about ingredients in case you have concerns about a dish when you call in. They need to be able to know how to ring in an order and how to follow that order to completion. I touched on this in my narrative about a P. F. Chang’s to-go process. They have to negotiate traps of the kitchen. For instance, a kitchen can go down in flames from one moment to the next. Your tableside waiter can manage this through his or her interaction with you (some are better than others with this), but a to-go waiter is stuck with the time that they’ve promised you. They can’t give you a free appetizer to tide you over or have a manager come by to assure you that your food is on the way and it’s not the waiter’s fault that your food is slow. You asked for your food for 7:00 and you’re not going to be happy if it’s not ready when you show up. They also are at a disadvantage when having to take your order over the phone. They can’t “read you” and waiters often have to be able to read verbal and physical cues when going through the ordering process.

Actually, a to-go waiter (or bartender) performs most of the same functions as your tableside waiter or bartender. They greet you, they take your order, they assure that your food gets delivered to you and they take your payment. The thing is, they don’t have to refill your water or entertain you or mollify you or upsell you. They aren’t your “service companion” as you enjoy your food, so you really don’t perceive the “service” that they give you. All you know is that you called in your order and it’s in a bag when you come by. However, in a fairly busy restaurant, they actually perform more work in order to get you your food than the tableside waiter does. Instead of the kitchen delivering your food ready-to-go on a plate to be run by either the waiter or a food runner, they deliver a product in a paper or aluminum container that has to be closed with a lid and marked as to its contents. This then has to be transferred to bags that are usually marked with your name. The to-go waiter also has to assure that all condiments and side items like plasticware and napkins are present. They either have to package the dressings and sauces in small tubs before the shift and/or restock 30 lb boxes of ketchup and other condiment prepackaged packets before the shift.

It would be a lot easier if all they had to do was order the food as soon as you call it in. But they can’t do that because they want the food to be as fresh as possible. You order a burger for an hour for now? What do you think it would do to your desired meat temperature if it sat for 45 minutes under a heat lamp? Your medium burger would end up being well done. And they are constantly dealing with orders coming in at a pretty constant rate so they are basically running a 6 to 10 table section where each customer has to have their food come out at exactly the right time, no matter what state the kitchen is in.

And, guess what? That position is considered a “tipped position”. So, even if you’re lucky enough to get a higher hourly rate, it’s usually going to still be at minimum wage or less. Even though it seems like a counter situation like McDonald’s or Starbucks, it really isn’t. It’s far more complicated and stressful when things really get rolling. It really is like waiting tables on the floor in terms of multi-tasking, juggling orders and managing the guest experience.

Let’s get real – a service is being provided. The waiter is making it possible for you to enjoy the food at your favorite restaurant at a time and place of your choosing. Think about it – how valuable is it for you to be able to pick up a meal at your local restaurant instead of having to wait an hour for a table and then having to spend an hour or two sitting at a table in a crowded restaurant? And think about how you would feel if this “privilege” were taken away.

If people stopped tipping, there are several things that could and would have to happen.

A. To-go waiters would have to be paid a much higher wage, probably close to what they would be making if they were working tableside. Why is that, you might ask? Because what waiter would voluntarily make $8 an hour doing a very hard job when they could be working the floor? “Well”, I hear you ask, “couldn’t each waiter have to give up a shift or two a week and chip in”? Well, maybe. but what happens when the dedicated to-go waiter for a certain shift has to call out because of sickness or some other reason? And what happens to a waiter who realizes that they’re now making less money per week?

You might also ask, “Couldn’t you just hire people only to do to-go and pay them less because they really aren’t “waiting tables”? Well, sure you could. But you have to train them as waiters because they need to know how to do virtually everything that a waiter has to do, from inputting orders into the computer to knowing the menu to being able to process the day’s business and the end of a shift. And what happens when they see their fellow waiters making a lot more money than they are? They’ll want the same chance to make money that their brethren have. They won’t stick around all that long and then the process starts all over again. Just as they start getting good at managing all of the to-go business, they’re gone. then you have to start from scratch and it’s you, the to-go customer that’s going to suffer through yet another learning curve.

And, on top of that, now the payroll has increased. this means one of three outcomes. First of all, the restaurant absorbs the cost. How many restaurants are willing to do that. sure, they get more sales, but that percentage of sales costs them more. Alternately, they could increase the price of the menu to compensate. This means now that when you’re dining in and enjoying all of the benefits of the restaurant, you’re subsidizing hit and run guests who aren’t going to support the main part of your business. Somehow this just seem fair. And then there’s the least likely thing to happen – an autograt or “to-go surcharge” to make sure that a waiter tasked to do the job gets fairly compensated. To the to-go customer, this would seem whack. Why should they pay more when they aren’t even taking up a table or having someone wait on them for an hour or two? After all, they’re just picking up a bag of food, “just like McDonald’s”. If it were only that easy.

Fortunately, most to-go waiters in fairly busy to-go situations make close to what their bretheren make because a majority of  people seem to instinctively understand that they are receiving a service worth paying for. They make it up on volume. Many to-go waiters will ring up half again to two times the amount that a floor server will ring up.

So, someone who refuses to pay are a. letting others subsidize their purchases, and b. acting in a fashion that’s against their own long-term interests. If their fellow to-go customers start taking their cues from such a customer, everyone will end up paying more. It’s “pay me now or pay me later”.

When it comes to high-end restaurants, to-go is far less frequent. It’s usually handled by the bartender, even if someone else takes the order. The bartender has to leave the bar to do many of the things that the waiter in a mass market restaurant does. And it’s even more important to get it right because the food costs a lot more and expectations are even higher.

So, it’s been my experience that high-end to-go customers generally tip. They do this because they’re probably a regular who knows that to-go in the fancy high-priced restaurant is an exception, not the rule. They probably know the bartender personally and understand the sacrifice to the bar service that happens when the bartender is dealing with their order. Plus, I’m sure that there’s a little guilt involved. They don’t want to be seen as generous in one situation and cheap in another. So they tip.

So, what’s a reasonable tip for a to-go order? From looking at more than a few to-go charge slips, it seems that the market has decided on 10% as a typical “average”. This recognizes that the waiter or bartender isn’t having to interact with them for an hour or two but still rewards them for the service that they’re providing.

This is an evolving situation. As to-go gains momentum, there is a certain amount of “growing pains”. The market is having to act on its feet and adapt to new dining patterns. And there are certainly grey areas. It sort of rubs up against the tip jar thing that bothers people. The thing is, if you see a tip jar, you know that the staff is at least getting a wage commensurate with what the market will bear. And you don’t know whether the to-go waiter is making $2.13 an hour or $7.00 an hour in states that allow a $2.13 wage. But you can be sure that if a waiter has to be paid more than the bare minimum, the volume just isn’t there and your tip will have less of an impact with keeping their wages close to what a full service waiter would get with tips. It’s sort of a self-adjusting standard which really shouldn’t affect whether or not you tip on your order.

I hope that this gives some insight into what goes on “behind the curtain” and why tipping will help keep the service that you have come to expect.

6 responses to “Why should I tip for to-go food? pt. 2

  1. Marta Daniels January 28, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I agree, the to-go people at our restaurant work hard and I’m amazed at how little people tip! Sometimes they do two and three hundred dollar orders for office buildings, 10, 15, 20 individual meals packaged up, and these doctor and lawyer offices don’t leave them a dime! I think to-go should add a mandatory 5-10% gratuity! Just saying.

    • teleburst January 28, 2010 at 3:09 pm

      I always hate to stereotype people, but lawyers and doctors are usually pretty mediocre tippers in the first place. They aren’t bad, per se, but they aren’t inclined to tip great for great service. They like the least that they can get away with.

      Before laywers and doctors start on me, I’ll have to say that both categories, when they are regulars in a restaurant, usually do their servers well, probably because they’ve gotten to know their familiar servers (I know a few doctors, and even fewer laywers whom I like to wait on). They become like any other regular, and they can be very generous as well. But if you wait on the random doctor or lawyer, you’ll probably get 13 – 15% regardless of how well you do your job. And god forbid if you should fuck up. shit runs uphill in that case.

      I think some of them are still mentally in their med school phase, even if they’ve built a succssful practice. I think that they might still feel like they’re making about $2 an hour if you factor in all of the hours that they have to put in and they still have those student loans lurking in their lizard brains (no, I’m not calling them lizards…doctors will understand what I’m referring to).

  2. teleburst January 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Marta, I’m curious. Do they make the same hourly wage as you do? And, at the end of the day, do they make close to what you make? It would be interesting if you could do some research on this and post it to your website. You know, go through a few days of receipts and see what the average tip is, find out what they actually make, etc. I would do it but I’m not working in a restaurant that does a significant amount of to-go business these days. My comments about P. F. Chang’s are based on memories from 5 years ago and a top 20 store in the chain in the nation (the busiest in the region). It would be nice if someone could establsih some baselines based on current figures.

  3. Redbraid January 28, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    Wow. I had never thought of it like that. I even worked in the industry for awhile, (back of the house), and never thought of it the way you just presented it. And I am one of those people who tipped little to nothing, because, “it’s carry out.”

    It’s been a _long_ time since I have done carry-out, and it will likely be a long time before I do it again (budget constrictions), but I will certainly tip much better.

    And I will carry the crusade to my current friends and co-workers.

  4. waiterextraordinaire January 29, 2010 at 8:10 am

    I tip the delivery guy who brings the food to my door. If I am picking up the food I don’t tip. And if someone comes into a restaurant and orders take out they should tip the waiter.I am talking about the take out places that have no waiters. Just walk in and pick up and go.

  5. teleburst January 29, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Well Steve, first of all, you’re in Canada, so the pay scheme might very well be different. However, if it’s a restaurant that you’re just “walking in and picking up”, you should consider tipping something if you’ve called your order in ahead of time because someone has prepared your order for you between the time that you called and the time that you picked up (but again, maybe in Canada they staff differently and actually have to-go specialists that don’t rely on tips unlike here in the States). If you’re talking about a counter situation where you’re ordering on the spot, then that’s pretty much fast food and then, the only thing you have to deal with is whether or not to toss some change into the tip jar if there’s one present. That’s optional, of course. Personally, I throw money into tip jars since I *always* “overtip” because I think it’s good waiter karma.

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