How much should you tip? Talk to your server

Is this you when the bill arrives? Local server Nathan Collins reflects on how to put a value on the service you receive.

Tipping is a social convention, particularly in restaurants. And while other jobs get tipped, like beauticians and cab drivers, nowhere is a tip more expected than in a food service environment. If you don’t tip, you will be assumed to be cheap, rude, or Australian. If you tip excessively, you will be thought kind and generous. Often, the quality of the service is irrelevant.

This is part of what makes the convention tricky. Not only is it about rewarding a job well done, it is also about sending the right social signals to those around you. For example, many first dates take place in restaurants. The way you behave says a lot about you to the other person. How do you treat the server? Are you fussy when you place your order? What do you order to drink? And, of course, how well do you tip?

Again, the quality of the service might play little or no role in determining the size of your tip. You want to be seen as pleasant, kind, and generous when given the opportunity. Unless the service is extraordinarily bad, it is unlikely to countervail these motivators.

Good servers are aware of what motivates us to tip. Recently, I sat down with Nathan Collins, a veteran server, bartender, and manager in Vancouver restaurants. Collins is quite aware of the decision facing customers when they settle up.

“There’s this moment at the end of your experience where people are posed with this decision—it’s commonplace in this industry that that’s part of your interaction with these people. You don’t go out and buy a pair of jeans and then tip the guy, even if he did help you out and bring you a few sizes. You go out to a restaurant, and you have sit down service from a server, it’s just so normal: people feel like they have to tip. You don’t have to tip.”

Of course, he would prefer that you tip, but he admits freely that the customer is under no obligation whatsoever. Says Collins, “it’s always earned and never expected.” This is a mantra you hear around the industry. The best servers, in my experience, are the ones who are conscious that they need to earn their tips.

But how do you, as a customer, know how well to tip? How do you know when the service warrants an extra few percent? According to Collins, the answer is simple. “Talk to the person.” If you engage with your server, you will understand them better and this will give you more information on which to base your gratuity.

“Maybe he or she’s got more to offer than just a plate of spaghetti. Maybe they can tell you a cool story about the tomatoes and where they come from or you can learn something or have a good time in a small, educational way. If you’re curious about the food, he can tell you all about what’s going on. And so when it does come time to lay that percentage down, you’re aware of it. You reflect on, ok how did it start? We walked in, he was super smiley, gave us a seat, brought us drinks right away. We could see he was busy but he always acknowledged us. We got our food, exactly what we ordered in a timely fashion, perfect. Ok, now what is that worth?”

It is also a good way to establish a rapport with a server. Even the smallest thing can make a big difference.

“I love it when I say ‘how are you this evening?’ and they say ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ I love it. It’s such a simple thing. People say it and they don’t even realize they’ve said it. But every time someone asks I say ‘I’m great, thanks for asking.’ And I acknowledge it every time. It’s funny; it’s these things that people don’t even realize that they do. But it’s like, you know I’m here. Awesome. I appreciate that and I’m going to let you know that I appreciate that.”

Part of the reason it is so deeply appreciated is that many other people treat servers like they barely exist.

“There’s other times when I go up to the table and they are just so engaged in their own world that they can’t even acknowledge the fact that someone’s there. You could even say ‘sorry, just one second’ and finish your story. That’s all I need. Don’t pretend that I don’t exist.”

Servers are paid to keep their emotions in check. They have to maintain a certain demeanor. They are, effectively, part of the environment in which you are dining. But they are still people and want to be treated accordingly.

“I enjoy people. I would go stir crazy in a cubicle. Like, I barely know how to use a computer anyway. But I need this, looking at your face as we talk, getting that facial expression, that little transfer of energy. I just get a rush off that. It’s a natural buzz. That’s the type [of personality] that’s going to have fun and thrive in this industry.”

So not only does engaging with your server help you determine the proper tip, it is also a basic act of kindness. (Guys, remember this the next time you’re on a date, because she will notice.)

In my earlier conversation with Mayuko Peerless of Ouisi Bistro, she mentioned a piece of wisdom her mother shared with her as a child: when you go out for dinner with a guy, watch the way he treats the waitress. If he treats her badly, that’s the way he will treat you too.

As a customer, you are in a position of power. “The boss is paying the bills,” says Collins, “but really the customers are paying my bills. So I have new bosses twenty-five times a night.”

So what kind of boss are you? Do you treat servers the same as someone who is actually your employee?

Or do you treat them better, hoping to be accepted into the fold and greeted by name the next time you arrive?

Conversely, do you think that the baseline for tipping has gotten out of control? Would you accept being considered cheap if that’s what it takes to maintain your principles?

As always, I appreciate all of your comments and emails.

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