I blog by day and wait tables in a New York City restaurant by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!

20080616-servedbug.jpgAt my little restaurant, there are few rules and regulations prescribing what to do in sticky situations. The tools at our disposal are each other’s advice and our own sound judgment.

I hate to card people, but my friend and former fellow server J. did so gladly. “They look twelve,” she would say by way of justification when I looked at her skeptically. “And it’s the law.” She used to work in California, where checking IDs in restaurants was typical practice. At our place, she’d ask cheerily for guests to show her some identification. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, so it was no big deal.

“Did you card those girls?” she’d ask me, eying a pair of brunettes who really did appear teenage.

“No,” I’d concede. “Will you do it?”

“You should do it,” she’d insist. “It’s not so scary.” At the time, I was not 21 myself, so it seemed somehow hypocritical. I felt for them. But my age was beside the point. “I hate to ask,” I’d say, “but do you guys have ID?”

They did, and they brandished their drivers’ licenses without drama. It was no big deal, which I learned thanks to J.

Do I Smell, Or Something?

I thought of her on Friday night. Usually, within minutes of opening our doors we are flooded with a stampede of guests. It was Good Friday, and the city was mellow and weirdly empty. A few people trickled in. Then a few more. It was looking to be a long night.

I was working behind the bar, where a group of four assembled for a drink before their show. They were perfectly friendly. I poured a beer for an older gentleman, an Alsatian pinot blanc for his younger friend. The pinot blanc was too sweet, he decided, so I came back with an aligote. Everyone was happy. They ordered a few snacks and asked for their check so they could book it to the theater.

I presented them their check for almost $67, and said, “Thanks! Have fun at the show.” I went to talk to some other guests. They were counting and recounting their cash. Finally, they made a neat stack on the bar.

“It’s all yours,” they said.

“Thanks.” A few minutes later, I counted the cash. They had left me 71 dollars. Hmm.

J. Would Be Proud

I have a script that runs through my mind in these situations: “But they were so nice! But I was so nice! Did I do something wrong? Did they hate me?

No and no, I’ve come to realize, are almost always the answers. People who are lousy tippers are lousy tippers. My big smile and good service (if I do say so myself) aren’t going to change their ways.

“I don’t get it,” I said to the other servers that night, “These guys left me less than ten percent. I thought they had a good time. Should I say something?”

I have never before said a word about a tip. Maybe my thank yous are slightly more emphatic when a tip is extremely generous, but I’ve never approached someone in the reverse situation and asked what was up.

J., of course, was the master of this. “I just wanted to make sure everything was all right,” she’d delicately ask a guest who had barely left a gratuity. I admired her ballsyness, but I preferred to let such situations slip. For every measly tip, there was usually a hefty one. Things balanced out.

But Friday night, I felt different. The place was uncharacteristically empty (we’d be hit with a colossal rush just a few minutes later). The shaky economy has tempered the frequency of juicy tips and the size of average ones.

Good Advice

“You should feel free to say something,” T., the fromager chimed in. “Just go up to them really sweetly. Say, ‘Is this what you meant to leave? Just wanted to make sure there wasn’t a mistake or anything, and that everything was OK.’”

I followed her advice. Verbatim. It was a little awkward, but I played it pretty cool. I definitely made them uncomfortable. They huddled together and recounted their cash.

“Um, I don’t get it?” One of the women in the group asked me after their pow-wow, “Is something wrong?”

“Well,” I said, “You guys left less than five dollars gratuity on a 66 dollar check. That’s less than ten percent, and I wanted to make sure everything was OK.”

She leaned over and explained how she had calculated the tip based on the amount before tax. That’s fine, even standard, but her math didn’t make sense. She was still leaving a peculiarly small tip.

“OK,” she said, “I get it, let me sort it out.” A few minutes later, she handed me a stack of money again, “this should be better.” It was: 79 bucks. Totally reasonable.

I was shaking a little, I had been so nervous. Actually shaking! I held up my wobbly hand.

“Thanks,” I said to them again on their way out.

“Thanks so much for talking to me,” the woman said, “I’m really sorry. You were right, we messed up, and that took a lot of courage.

It did take a lot of courage. My tendency is often to play nice and avoid conflict. I am learning that sometimes it is better for everyone to do the opposite. A few minutes later, I stopped shaking and had a pretty great night.

Comments

Comments can take up to a minute to appear - please be patient!

Previewing your comment: