Tips For Waiters And Diners

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - March 26, 2008
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A couple of letters to the editor in the same week tackling the same subject but from completely different perspectives got me thinking again about service.

The first letter was from someone who believes good restaurant service in Hawaii is a thing of the past (he may have a very good point); the other was from a waiter complaining that customers don’t know how to tip.

Interesting that both sides of the service spectrum feel wronged. The waiter sounds like he needs to try a different profession - not because he dared voice his concern about the paucity of his tips, but because of the particularly whining way in which he complained. What some in the service industry forget is that a tip is something that’s supposed to be earned. When you choose to work in the restaurant business, it’s a given that if you work well, graciously and hard, you can make an excellent living from tips. Servers at top tables like Hoku’s and La Mer, for example, can earn an attractive income, and they deserve their well-earned money. Professional service in a restaurant makes you feel good. But as those at the height of their profession know, earning a tip at the end of the evening is about a lot more than filling a water glass and saying “good choice.”

Professional wait staff can make or break not just an evening but an entire restaurant. I know I’m not alone in choosing lesser quality food over poor service all the time. I’d rather spend my hard-earned dollars in a restaurant where people are motivated to do a great job than in one where the food is fabulous but the wait staff couldn’t care less. I’ve said it before, but I truly believe people are more forgiving of average food than they are of poor service. Wait staff are the heartbeat of a restaurant, the go-betweens that keep things flowing. Without the communication between kitchen and customer, an evening can easily unravel. For their professionalism and for being there to ensure our nights away from our own kitchens are memorable, they deserve to be well-rewarded. But no one should expect it as a right. My advice to the grumbling waiter who complained that people don’t know how to tip is to get another job - one where he doesn’t have to deal with the public.

I do, however, believe that there’s one occasion when tipping becomes an issue and wait staff need help, and that’s when tourists come to town from countries where tipping is not a big part of the dining culture. In Paris, for example, leaving loose change on your plate is all that’s expected at the end of dinner in most casual restaurants. In Britain, a generous tip is 10 percent of the bill. This culture shock is a nightly burden that staff at busy tourist hot spots in Waikiki have to carry.

“We used to have a menu insert that politely gave information about American tipping,” says a server (who asked not to be named), “but that was removed. Now you can sometimes be left 5 percent on a table of eight.” Wait staff are taxed on more than that, so they can easily end up working a full shift by losing money. I’m all for menu inserts explaining tipping to our foreign visitors, provided there’s service to match. Rather than fear offending tourists by encouraging them to tip, restaurant owners should be proud to help staff who deserve it earn a decent living.

Happy eating.

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