ROBERT ST. JOHN: Restaurant servers rejoice! I’m a serial over-tipper

By Robert St. John

I spent seven years living off of tips. Not advice-style tips such as, “Plant your corn early this year.” No. I lived off of gratuity.
Gratuity is what paid my rent, paid the household bills, provided transportation, put food in my belly and a diploma on my office wall.
My entrée into the restaurant industry was as a server. It’s where I fell in love with the business and developed a passion for serving and feeding others.
Spending seven years in the trenches and 25 years employing thousands of servers tends to make one appreciate good service.
I am a serial over-tipper. I am a server’s dream. I know what they go through and what they deal with on a daily basis. I have worked consecutive doubles on busy weekends with barely enough time to eat between shifts. It’s tough, but for someone who loves this business, it’s rewarding.
After my 14-year-old daughter returned from spring break with friends, I was asking about her week. Other than a wicked sunburn, the time off from her studies seemed uneventful. We gave her a little money before she left to cover meals, and she took some of the Christmas money her grandmother gave her to spend on souvenir-type stuff.
It wasn’t until she returned, and we were discussing the meals she ate during her trip (always the first topic at our home), that I realized I had never had a parental father-to-daughter discussion about how and why to leave gratuity.
Between my wife’s discussions about, well, stuff that mothers and daughters discuss, and my lectures on various topics from why we need to turn off lights when we leave the room to the social impact of the Beatles over the course of the ’60s and how that has influenced today’s music (important stuff), I had never covered how and why she needs to leave a tip when she’s dining out. It’s something I have always taken care of, and something she probably took for granted.
“Did you leave a tip, Sweetie?”
“Yes, dad.”
“Did you leave 20 percent?”
“Huh?”
“You should always leave 20 percent” (I know many disagree with this, but I’ll cover my serial over-tipping in a minute). So how did you calculate the amount to tip?”
“I just leave three dollars every time.”
“No, no, no, no, no!” I said, and then took a deep breath realizing it was my fault for not explaining the system yet. “You should leave 20 percent.” Then I covered the easy way to figure 20 percent – take 10 percent of the total and then double that amount – and she had it.
Fortunately, she eats like a bird and so, more than likely, she was tipping above 15 percent the entire trip.
I over tip. I can’t help it. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I know that many times, when service is slow, the server had nothing to do with it. There are so many factors – the dining room getting seated all at once therefore overtaxing the kitchen, one cook getting behind in his station through no fault of his own, a large party’s check that was rung in just before yours, even management not setting up a good enough system to run an efficient operation. That’s no reason to penalize a server who is making $2.13 per hour.
Yep, $2.13 per hour. That is minimum wage for servers. Many are still shocked to learn that. These are young men and women, sometimes older men and women, who are working to support children, pay tuition, pay bills and feed families. Most don’t have hefty benefit packages that might be offered in full-time “career” positions.
I might leave less than 20 percent if the server was outright rude or blatantly inattentive, but I can’t remember the last time I ate somewhere and had that type of experience. But I feel guilty about it even then – most of the time.
In Europe, it’s an entirely different situation, and one I had trouble figuring out because it changes slightly from country to country. Servers are paid a salary, and tipping is done only in cases of extreme satisfaction. I still couldn’t do it. There is something deep down in my soul that requires I leave a substantial tip. So, from Copenhagen to Istanbul and Budapest to Barcelona, I left gratuity for my server.
I am sure many of them wrote it off as a “Stupid American” but I can handle that.
So what have we learned today? 1.) Robert must have been in college for a long time if he was a server for seven years. 2.) Mothers are better at explaining serious “daughter” issues. 3.) If you are a server, and my daughter is sitting in your section, you might have to help her with the 20 percent calculation. Otherwise you’re in for three bucks.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of the newly released “Dispatches From My South.”