By Josiah Hesse
Last May, I was sitting in a bar in Spain, wondering why I was so relaxed. Beyond the typical high of travel — augmented by the Mediterranean lifestyle of beaches, naps and midday wine — I felt an ambiguous sense of peace in every bar and restaurant I visited. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, and I mulled it over while I fiddled with the handful of euro coins I'd left on the bar after paying for my drink, which hadn't been touched for over an hour. My host explained to me that tips weren't necessary; as she put it, "These ladies are paid properly by the owner. They don't need customers to pay their wages."
Finally, I realized why I'd been so relaxed since I'd arrived in Spain: None of the bar staff were flirting with me. Or at least, not the kind of faux flirting you deal with in the States. I'd been to a dozen bars in 24 hours, and no server had patronizingly asked me about the weather, praised my clothes, or over-laughed at my jokes like a psychotic Phyllis Diller after too many whippits. They were casual, sincere and only took an extra interest in me if I was worth taking an extra interest in. Other than that, they just served me wine and sandwiches and left me alone.
I'd never really thought about it before, but in almost any American service establishment where the workers' income is dependent on the gratuity of the patron, I'd suffer a small tensing in my neck whenever conversation was required. The phony exchange of "Good morning!" "Oh, I just LOVE your hat," "You're so funny. You should be a comedian!" exhausted me to the point of just ordering takeout. Doesn't it hurt their face to smile like that? I'd wonder. I've always been tempted to just once respond to that "How ya doing this evening?" with a "Well, my inner child is terrified of dying alone, and in the face of melting polar ice caps and an ever-expanding universe, I often wonder why I get out of bed in the morning. How's by you?"
There are plenty of people who don't tip (just as there are plenty of people who don't vote). But none of them will identify themselves as the kind of person who doesn't tip. Tipping is not a polarizing issue, like gun control or abortion. Unless it's Steve Buscemi in Resevoir Dogs, it's rare for someone to publicly preach against the perils of an extra 20 percent. And if anyone dares to go into such a rant, the most common and immediate response from the guardians of gratuity is: "Well, you obviously have never worked in the service industry." For me, though, that's not the case. During my early- and mid-twenties, I traveled around the country, learning to write while living in hostels and on Greyhound buses. During this time I worked in several chain restaurants (Bennigans, Perkins, Red Lobster) as well as two Denver establishments (Tom's Diner and the now-defunct Supreme Court). Tips were integral to my income in these jobs — which was a problem, because I was the worst goddamn server in the history of restaurants. There would be nights when, after I had ordered a post-shift meal, I'd find I had less money in my pocket than I came to work with. Ultimately, I had paid the restaurant for my job.
All the while, I watched my co-workers bring home hundreds of dollars in tips. They were laughing, flirting and generally massaging the egos of customers — while I couldn't be bothered to make eye contact, let alone give a courtesy laugh to a bad joke. I was terrible at selling my personality, and therefore made couch change in tips. It was a relief when I was inevitably fired from these jobs (often at the insistence of some offended customer). Every morning I look at the ceiling and say a prayer of thanks that my income is no longer dependent on my smiling at idiots.
It's worth noting that I do tip. Every time. I tip all my bartenders, the lady who cuts my hair and my tattoo artist (even though the latter is somehow exempt from having to make any attempt at niceties). And I probably tip in larger amounts than the average patron. But I never made any pretense as to why I'm tipping: I'm doing it because I live in America, and that's how things are done here. Like wearing clothes at the beach, finding privacy to smoke pot and voting Democratic, I tip not because I want to, but because it's more of a hassle not to. If tipping were a sincere evaluation of a server's execution of the job, I'd be all for it. I love the idea of making the customer judge and jury of an employee's aptitude for the job, but this is not the case today. You'd have to be a brain-damaged ape with an Oxycontin habit to think that anyone in 2012 tips based on how quickly they get their food. They tip based on a) guilt and social pressure for not tipping and b) how much the server/bartender makes them feel special. And anyone who doesn't tip isn't holding back because they thought the service was bad; they aren't tipping because they're cheap.
Beyond the arguments that you shouldn't be paid extra for doing the job you were hired to do, or that gratuity percentages go up several percent with each passing generation (it's true: Thirty years ago, 10 percent was a perfectly reasonable restaurant tip), the biggest issue I have with tipping is that it's made the otherwise uncomplicated operation of ordering a beer into a nightmare of phony praise and artificial facial expressions, making me feel like a ten-year-old boy having my cheeks pinched at a geriatric tea party.
By Amber Taufen
My first job that didn't involve changing the diapers and wiping the noses of my neighbors' children was bussing tables at El Rancho up in Evergreen. I was fifteen years old, and it didn't take long before I was hooked, for two main reasons: one, I was bringing home cash; and two, I was making money proportionate to how hard I worked.
Since that first restaurant job, I've held down several of the most common front-of-the-house positions: hostess, server, bartender, busser. I've served in two states (and, technically, two countries), at corporations and mom-and-pop places, over fourteen years of my life. And I believe in tipping all service professionals — not just because it's the common, polite, done thing in the United States, but because I think it's a microcosm of something much larger.
I stayed in the industry because I was good at it. It's insulting when people presume that serving is nothing more than a played-out popularity contest. In my mind, there are two main components to excellent table service: a comprehensive knowledge of everything available on the menu (and all ingredients) and efficiency.
The days I brought home the most money were not the days I had time to chat up customers — or "guests," as they're often called now. My job was to make sure everyone in my section had all the information required to order something they would enjoy and to get them everything they needed to enjoy it, ideally without them even having to ask. It helps, of course, to put on your face for the guests. Literally, in my case: I found that wearing makeup increased my tips, so I wore it. I also drew smiling suns and wrote "Thanks!" on checks. (I conducted an experiment and found people really did tip me more, so it went into the routine.)
But more important than makeup or fake cheer is reading the customer. I had a regular who came into the bar where I worked in college, a pudgy guy in black shirts with thick glasses on his face and thicker fantasy novels in his hand. He always sat in the same booth and ordered the turkey sandwich, with cheddar instead of Swiss cheese. Everyone who worked lunch in the bar knew him, and his interactions were thus limited to quick queries of "The usual?" and a nod. He got his food and his alone reading time, all without having to say a word.
I had another regular at that bar, an older man who worked at a nearby factory. His name was Bill; he drank Bud bellied up to the bar and would occasionally order a burger. I would always give him the crispest, freshest dollar bills I had available when making his change. Bill carried toothpicks, superglue and goggle eyes in his pockets, and he would sit at the bar and make little origami creatures from the new dollars and leave them alongside a regular cash tip. I had a whole collection of his work — elephants, a snake (with little toothpick fangs), a monkey, a pig, a frog and a giant peacock.
Those connections with people — even people who may not really want to interact — are the reason why otherwise solitary types go out to eat instead of nuking a Hot Pocket at home.
I would never presume to say that those connections don't happen in countries where tipping isn't the done thing. My own experience is limited: I lived overseas for several years in my childhood, and I held down a job at a deli in Australia for a few months before my family moved back to the States. I got paid $8 an hour (this was Australian dollars in 1999) to slice meat and cheese, mostly, but there was always a lunch rush with office workers charging in to grab a meal. Apart from a friend who worked in the mall nearby, I don't remember a single person for whom I made a sandwich. That obviously says more about the deli where I worked than the whole of the Australian restaurant service industry, but that's what I remember: long hours slicing meat (as a vegetarian) for crappy pay and not many memorable interactions with other humans.
I've heard some people say that overseas, they would never ask the customers to pay the servers' wages. I understand where they're coming from with that, but I think it's fundamentally incorrect.
This is why I believe in tipping: Because when I worked as a server — worked hard — I was rewarded. Sure, I had bad nights, slow nights, but nine times out of ten, when I gave it all my attention and focus and energy, I walked out tired, satisfied...and loaded. It's a microcosm of the American Dream (and it might be the only place that dream is still somewhat alive). No other job would have offered me the steady flow of money and flexibility to go to class and party when I felt like it while I was in college. Except stripping, probably, but I'm not a very good dancer.
Even if the restaurants where I worked had decided to increase the price of food and drinks by 20 percent so that they could pay the servers a "fair wage," I wouldn't have made as much money as I did.
And that's because of the customers — the guests. I saw myself as a contract worker: The customer did pay my wages, damn it, and as a result, when it came down to it, I was their loyal and devoted employee. It's the server's job to make sure that the food that leaves the kitchen is the food you ordered, to ensure that you have the experience you came to have, whatever that might look like. If the restaurant as a whole is not living up to your expectations in any capacity, it's up to the server to somehow make it right.
It's a symbiotic relationship: The customer should also be getting an advocate. The aforementioned college bar was next door to a decent steakhouse, and when guests at my bar asked how our steak was, I told them that if they wanted steak, they should head one door south. A few took my advice, but those who stayed were glad they hadn't forked over $14 for a previously frozen hunk of meat.
Ultimately, I cared more about the guest's experience — even if that guest left the restaurant before ordering — than the restaurant's profit. My guests rewarded me for that, and I was asked to train other servers and moved up to bartender in that establishment, so my employer clearly saw value in my attitude, too.
As I see it, servers don't work for the restaurant; they work for the customers. And that's the way it should be.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.