When Saying “No” is Not An Option

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An ornery guest who dined at one of my tables recently sent a surly email to the restaurant when she noticed after the fact that a market price item on her bill was more expensive than she expected. She claimed in her email that the server (me) had neglected to inform tell her price of the dish and, therefore, felt entitled to some form of reparation.

When the management team approached me with her grievance, I assured them with absolute certainty that I did quote the price. The trouble was that the woman complaining wasn’t the person who ordered the market price item. Her husband did, and she may not have overheard our conversation about the price. Our staff is always careful with market price items to avoid sticker shock. I distinctly remember reviewing the market prices for all the dishes on the menu when he inquired about the dish he eventually ordered. 

It’s not unusual in the service industry for customers to contact the restaurant with improbable stories about the staff’s incompetence. Sadly, those calls vastly outnumber the ones that lavish praise. When guests have a dispute, management handles them with kid gloves. Defending the staff only fans the flames, so we use whatever tools we have at our disposal to put out the fire, even when we suspect them of arson. 

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For management, defending employees against guest complaints is a Catch 22. Even when we know we’re right, It feels inhospitable to prioritize our version of the events over theirs. In cases like these, it comes down to he said/she said and it’s a usually a no-win situation for the restaurant. When diffusing guest complaints, we always take the path of least resistance. There’s an old adage that a happy guest will tell five of their friends but an unhappy one will tell one hundred.

After she continued insisting that I had neglected to quote the price, the restaurant folded its hand. In her subsequent emails, she claimed to have spoken with her husband and he didn’t recall my telling him the price. It may be true that he didn’t remember but that doesn’t mean I never told him. In the end, much to my chagrin, management refunded her the full price of the dish. But I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. 

The restaurant business is all about giving pleasure and sometimes we have to swallow our pride to give our guests the pleasure of being right.

But, in doing so, we also set a perilous precedent that invites buyer’s remorse as long people plead their case with conviction. Reinforcing guests’ behavior in this way can extend to other scenarios where recompense is expected: Sending back food they’ve eaten but claim they didn’t like, deciding halfway through a bottle of wine that the wine is off or complaining after the meal that a server manipulated them into ordering more food than they needed. Servers are trained to preempt these maneuvers, but it’s impossible to eliminate them altogether. 

When conflicts with guests arise, restaurants focus on damage control regardless whether there is any merit to the complaint. With the power that social media platforms give individuals to spread misinformation, our alleged crimes never go to trial. One spiteful guest can permanently scar a restaurant’s reputation and that forces restaurateurs run their businesses from a place of fear. The result is that the industry has inadvertently empowered dissatisfied guests to exploit our fecklessness to get their way. That’s what happens when saying yes is the only acceptable answer. 

Don’t Sabotage Your Restaurant Experience

The initial moments of your restaurant experience can set the tone for the entire meal and you should be mindful of your role in making those moments successful. There are some common pitfalls you can avoid that might injure your relationship with a restaurant staff. Having your server on your side from the beginning will pay dividends when you need something. Cultivating that relationship is a worthwhile investment and you should start earning capital the moment you sit down. Remember: Your server is an advocate for your needs. Spoiling that relationship at any point is not in your best interest. Here are some common mistakes people make that sour their rapport with servers:

Ignoring the Waiter’s Greeting – When your server says hello, he or she is also gauging the temperature of the table. Are you friendly and enthusiastic? Do you seem to want service to play a smaller or larger role in your dining experience? If you seem unfriendly or disinterested (even if it’s not intentional), you risk the server misreading your distraction as ambivalence. Stop whatever you’re doing (for god’s sake get off your damn cellphone) and take a moment to say hello. It will make a big difference in the server’s attitude toward you going forward. 

Rejecting Your Seating Assignment – It’s impossible for every guest to be happy with their table. Some tables are nearer to speakers, some are closer to the air conditioning vents. No table is perfect. Maitre’ds and hosts do their best to seat guests where they are most comfortable, but it can be a very complicated puzzle when parties arrive late or show up in larger or smaller groups. When you walk into a restaurant and immediately start picking furniture, the staff is watching and branding you a difficult guest before you’ve even said a word.

Declaring “We Haven’t Even Looked” at the Menu – You may not like being pestered to order quickly but busy restaurants have time constraints for each booking. Part of a restaurant’s business model is moving tables along as quickly as possible while preserving excellent service. If you put yourself in an adversarial role because you refuse to order in a timely fashion you are unnecessarily casting yourself as an enemy. It’s acceptable to want to slow down, but it’s better to politely ask for more time than to sound like you’re protesting against being rushed. 

Bad Restaurant Behavior

Soliciting the WiFi Password – Restaurants don’t owe you internet service. If they offer it, it’s usually advertised. But if it’s really so important to be connected, ask the server if the restaurant has WiFi after you’re ordered food and drinks not right away. Waitstaff, understandably, can get frustrated serving smartphone zombies all night. It’s a pain in the ass trying to get people’s attention who are constantly on their phones. If you immediately ask for WiFi when you sit down, you’ve become just another zombie. 

Asking Your Waiter’s Name – Guests wrongly think that asking the server his or her name is a way of restoring humanity to the servant/recipient relationship. Tactfully executed, sometimes it can. But when guests ask servers to introduce themselves it can often feel like they need the server to be a puppet. Waiters don’t like when guests invade their personal space and sometimes coming on too strong right off the bat with your need for an introduction is a turn-off. If you need to be on a first name basis, wait until you have a more established relationship with your server before you ask his or her name. 

Making Unnecessary Demands About Water – Of course, you are entitled to your water served however you like but being demanding about the first thing you ask for suggests you can be high maintenance. Asking for water with no ice, lemons on the side, hot water with lemon or bottled water at room temperature may be important to you but understand that doing so may alienate your server. Try to keep your water service simple or ask for modifications later after you’ve already ordered your meal. 

Requesting Bread Before You’ve Ordered – Restaurants will often withhold bread service until you’ve ordered for the obvious reason that you’ll probably order less if you’re filling up on bread. As input costs rise, many restaurants have done away with bread service altogether or charge for it.  If a restaurant sends complementary bread, it’s usually as a courtesy and should be treated as such. If you’re really that hungry, order. 

Why The CNBC “Tipping Hack” Guy Made The Internet Go Apeshit

A viral video advertising a nifty “hack” to save money on tipping caused a stir last week on social media. Instead of calculating a percentage of the total bill, the video by CNBC reporter Zack Guzman encourages diners determine their tip by calculating a percentage of the pre-tax total. Understandably, his advice was perceived as a way to shortchange waitstaff rather than sound financial advice that would “help save you over $400 a year.” Even though the video was originally posted over a year ago, Food Twitter lost its shit.

In Guzman’s defense, his video and the accompanying article highlight the fact that hourly wages for tipped employees in most states are significantly below the minimum. He isn’t arguing that waitstaff deserve less money. He’s simply trying to offer an alternate way of computing gratuity. Even though tipping is a voluntary act, restaurant goers (including millennials who lack disposable income) increasingly resent having to compensate for the shortfall in restaurant worker’s income.

Ironically, a majority of people who live in states with 8-9% sales taxes look at their bill and blindly double the tax when they leave a tip. In doing so, they’re tipping on the pre-tax amount. Restaurants that host private events often institute policy to assign gratuity as a percentage of the subtotal of the bill before tax. In other words, it’s already not unusual for people to calculate gratuities exactly the way that Mr. Guzman is advocating they do. So why is everyone so upset?

Tipping shouldn’t be a thoughtless act. If the staff spent the entire course of your meal focused on your satisfaction, the least you can do as a guest is take a moment to reflect on its service when you settle your bill. Your generosity shouldn’t be predicated on a judgement of the service experience or your “scoring” the level of hospitality you received. It’s important to remember that the price of your food hinges on the willingness of a team of individuals to serve you for less than minimum wage with the hope that generous tipping will make up the difference.

The problem with Mr. Guzman’s video is that it frames tipping as a superfluous expense, one that ignores the relationship that gratuity should have with performance. In its purest form, a tip is a gesture of appreciation to a staff of people who’ve facilitated your enjoyment of delicious food in an atmosphere other than your own home for a few hours without having to clean up after yourself. When the staff does it well, a generous tip should be bestowed on those facilitators with pleasure. Saving a few bucks on your meal is always nice, but no one—except perhaps maybe Mr. Guzman—thinks it’s should come at the expense of a server’s income. 

Waiters are accustomed to being victims of schemes that shortchange them on their tips. It often occurs unintentionally. Guests who pay with gift cards or partial cash payments, for example, will often absentmindedly tip on the remaining balance after the gift card or cash is deducted. Large parties find convoluted, mathematically-impossible ways to divide the bill then forget to include a proper tip in their calculus.

Guests who don’t feel responsible for tipping on wine charges might ask to split their bottles onto a separate check. It could be they have an expense account and the company won’t subsidize their alcohol consumption (or they need a way to hide it). Other times, they want to treat the rest of their party to a few expensive bottles or just don’t want to share the expense if everyone at the table wasn’t drinking. Either way, it’s a dreaded scenario for waiters, because all too often separating the wine charges is a stealth way guests avoid tipping a percentage of their total bill.  

Of course, the tip doesn’t always suffer in these situations but any abnormalities in the payment process are usually a bad omen. Waiters are used to inconsistent tips, but it stings a lot more when the skimming is on purpose. Guests who are displeased with service have a right to tip poorly or not to leave a tip at all, but they should do so mindfully. Reducing the act of tipping to a simple mathematical equation—especially one that relies on this type of accounting gimmickry—does everyone a disservice.