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What happens when the bartender thinks you're poor

Craig Birks is a bartender at Locus Lounge on Main. He's a career bartender with over 20 years experience in the industry. He's worked in every type of restaurant.

Birks was going out for dinner with his girlfriend one night at the now-defunct O'Doul's on Robson:

“So, we’re sitting in the bar area and the bartender comes up to us and says 'Excuse me. Would you guys like the bar menu? You might find it a bit more affordable.' I’m not kidding, he actually said that. So we said 'No thanks. These menus are fine, thank you.' So he walked away and we ate. The food was great and everything like that, but I turned to my girlfriend and said 'We’re never coming back here again, are we?' She said 'No,' so I said 'Great,' and I left exactly 15%.”

This was, in Birks’ mind, a punishment tip. Usually, he would leave 20 to 25%. “I tip the way I want to be tipped,” he says. The bartender was clearly profiling Birks and his girlfriend, he said. He assumed, since they were dressed very casually that they must have very little money to spend. Assumptions like that are common and, in fact, often reasonable. What is not reasonable is treating a customer differently because of it.

And the reason is simple. Birks had money in his pocket. As a bartender, he usually does. Yet, due to the way he was dressed, he was assumed to be poor. Because the bartender acted on this assumption, he cost himself a larger gratuity and the owner a repeat customer.

Just how casually, you might ask, was he dressed? I don't know and it doesn't matter. I'm pretty sure he didn't walk in with a shopping cart full of pop cans. Neither did he walk into West. He took his girlfriend out for dinner at a pub, by definition a casual dining establishment.

Here's a tip for you.

This story illustrates at least four important points. First, you’ll notice that Birks did nothing to communicate his displeasure with the service he received. As a bartender himself, he is loathe to stiff anyone on the tip or to get them in trouble by complaining to management. He will simply never eat there again, which hurts the owner more than the offending bartender.

Second, it reinforces an old adage: people go to a restaurant for the food but they come back for the service. No matter how good the food, nobody returns to a restaurant where the bartender has looked down his nose at them.

Third, the story shows how industry people tip one another. They always tip well. Sometimes, it is to a fault. So this bartender was unlikely to see less than 15%, no matter what he did. Regardless, he talked himself out of at least 5-10% by saying “Hey, you look poor. Try our budget menu.” Fail.

Which leads to the fourth point. We routinely judge one another based on appearance. Servers are no different. It is very easy for a server to judge that a table is not worth any extra effort, since the prospect of a good tip is low. However, is it acceptable to treat a customer differently based on that judgment? In principle, the answer is no. In practice, things may not be so clear cut.

Talk to me

What would you have done in this situation? Would you have made a big deal out of it? Should Birks have brought the issue to a manager’s attention?

When you go out, do you dress so as to be taken seriously as a customer? Do you care what the bartender thinks?

Does it feel like you get better service the nicer you’re dressed?

Because the fact is that you usually do.

As always, I welcome your comments and emails.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the name of the restaurant. It has now been corrected to O'Doul's. 

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