Service & Tipping- Ever a Thorny Issue

lunch at Vela

A few months ago, Jonathan Gold, local foodie god, wrote a discourse on how much to tip. It boiled down to 20% each and every time. Most people disagreed with this stating tipping is for service. If we tip 20% across the board, how are we going to show our appreciation for actual good service versus bad?

For the most part, I rarely run across truly horrific service. Sure, it happens and for those moments, the ugly 15% percent rares its head. I do tend to tip 20% across the board and 25-30% for truly wonderful service. I’ve had some servers try to return what they feel is too much tip. And then I’ve had servers run after me for more when we’ve left 15%. In one instance, the server tried to argue the standard tip is 18%. Perhaps she felt that way because most people double the tip (which is 9%+ in L.A.).

Then recently Alan Richman’s review of M. Wells was an odd piece more about service than the food. He also revealed the restaurant lobbed a sexual harassment accusation towards him, possibly trying to stall or detract from the (future) review.

I feel people have their reasons for tipping the way they do and sometimes it has nothing to do with the actual service rendered. Being industry-adjacent, I tend to side with the restaurants and tip generously. Sometimes this is a problem when it’s obvious service was…bad.

Last Sunday, I was down in San Diego for Chefs versus Bloggers, a panel at the Western Foodservice and Hospitality Expo. We ate lunch at Vela, the restaurant inside the Hilton Bayfront. Seeing as this hotel is right next to the convention center, I thought they must entertain many convention guests. It was around 11 a.m. and there was an hour left for the breakfast buffet. My friend and I didn’t feel like the breakfast buffet, having driven 2 hours from L.A. We wanted fresh food. We saw there was a 4-course meal offered for $18. This included salad, soup, your choice of entree (to be selected from pulled pork sandwich, chicken sandwich or burger) and dessert.

$18 plus tax and tip is a little pricey for lunch but we all make justifications in our head. We were getting four courses. We were in a nice hotel where my friend’s mom was staying. We didn’t want to go too far from the convention center or hotel. We just wanted it.

Our server greeted us. Made a fuss about my friend and her mother for some time. We asked about the soup. The server went to see what it was (I hate that- why don’t they know?). The server comes back and had completely forgotten to ask about the soup. She leaves again to ask and eventually comes back and tells us. We order.

20 minutes go by. Not a peep from the server.

Then I see her. She spills my soup (see above picture). I just shake my head. I asked for an iced tea refill. It’s the first time I had a chance to ask for one. Most servers know iced tea drinkers need a lot of iced tea. I never get a chance to ask for more as the meal progresses because she never comes back until after we’re done. Same with my friend who just had water. She has slightly better luck getting her water refilled from roving back servers. We get the check.

Here are the reasons why I gave her $10 which was approximately 16% tip.

  • Our server was old.
  • She walked with a limp.
  • She didn’t seem mean about the non-existent service.

Here are the reasons why my friend wanted to leave her $7.

  • She was creepy about her and her mom.
  • She forgot to ask about the soup.
  • The server never came to check on us.
  • She spent all her time chatting with the buffet guys.
  • She never refilled my iced tea without being asked.
  • Our burgers were overcooked. This I would normally blame the kitchen but my friend felt she was so old, she didn’t remember what we actually ordered and put in medium-medium well instead of medium-rare. Now, that’s just speculation. But considering she forgot to ask about the soup, it was not an unreasonable supposition.

Now, my question is does it actually do anything when you leave a bad tip? In these sorts of situations, people should probably tell the restaurant of their bad experience at the time. And most restaurants want to make it up to you before it gets lambasted to an online community (yeah, anyone can be a “reviewer” these days with sites like yelp). So why didn’t I tell the restaurant? I know the service was bad but it wasn’t completely horrible. What? What am I saying? I guess I just felt bad about the limping server.

My friend who does work in the food service industry was probably was more irritated than I was over the bad service. And considering the convention we were going to– a hospitality expo– shouldn’t the restaurant have striven to give good service? Shouldn’t they always give good service?

Most people don’t care about what’s happening at the restaurant. They are spending money to go out to eat. They don’t care if the restaurant is slammed (in this case, it wasn’t). They are irritated when things like iced tea refills have to be asked for. They most certainly will be disappointed their meal wasn’t what they expected. As a result, they probably will tip less. And in some cases, they write about their experiences.

But as I mentioned earlier, sometimes it has little to do with what actually happened. Some people would have stilled tipped 20%. Some would have not tipped at all. Struggling between 10 or 15% was probably futile yet we debated it.

Stayed tuned for possible answers on my blog post about the Chefs versus Bloggers panel.

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