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Overwhelmed Server and Tipping

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A friend and I went to a local diner, not upscale, not fancy, but the food is good, the prices reasonable, and the service is generally very good. Tonight we got our beverages quickly, and then things slowed down. The server took quite a while to come take our orders, it took a long time for the food to show up, probably 20 minutes, and when it did arrive it had cooled off quite a bit. As we both had fries, that was kind of a problem. For the first time ever there our water glasses were allowed to get empty and my ice tea was pretty close. On the upside, our server did apologize for the slow service, and - when asked - admitted that they only had 3 people working the dining room (when they would usually have 4 or 5.) And of course as fate would have it, it was a particularly busy night, with all tables occupied and people waiting (a good thing to see in this economy.) It even took an unusually long time to get our check and payment taken care of.

So how to tip? On one hand the server was still responsible to see that our food was delivered at the correct temperature, even if it was slow. The server was still responsible to see that we had beverages, and to get us out promptly so that they could turn the table. On the other hand, he was working hard, never saw him pause, he was polite and apologetic, and never used the 'sorry we are short staffed tonight' as an excuse.

I believe he really was doing his best under difficult circumstances, and that there was little he could have done to mitigate things beyond being pleasant, so I tipped as I usually would. I'm not going to get into a discussion as to what percentage that was, suffice to say it was on the liberal side of the normal range for this particular restaurant, but not excessive. Any feedback? Might I have been a little less generous? Should i have tipped higher in recognition of his extra effort? Or was figuring that it more or less evened out the most reasonable course, which is what I did.

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  1. I think you were spot on -- they were short staffed and working their butts off...and were pleasant, apologetic, and did what they could physically do. On the generous side was even better.

    Having been in that position years ago (manager let all but two of us go home because it was a slow night...it was the local high school basketball tourney, and we got BURIED when the game ended) -- your giving a normal tip was highly appreciated, because they probably got shorted on most of their other tables.

    Plus, you're a regular...so you know this was an abnormal night and you acknowledged their effort.

    3 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      +1. I totally agree with sunshine.

      1. re: sunshine842

        +2 I agree wholeheartedly. It is not the server's fault that they were short-staffed and you acknowledge that he seemed to have done his best under the circumstances.

        1. re: sunshine842

          Chances are I personally would do the same - tip as usual. But if you think about it, even if you go down a bit for slow, inattentive service (admittedly not the server's fault... but sure as hell not yours either), the server is still gonna make out pretty well that night just on the basis of having more tables.

          I certainly would never advocate tipping something insulting (less than 15%) for a server who is working his butt off in otherwise tough circumstances. But I could see a justification for going down to 15% when you normally tip 20% for flawless service, 20% when you normally tip 25%, etc. It may not be the server's fault. But are you tipping him for good service or food being a good dude?

          Again, this is pretty theoretical, and I likely wouldn't deduct from the tip in this circumstance (almost certainly not if I were a regular). But I wouldn't fault someone who did.

        2. I remember a similar situation. The server was all alone and was constantly on the move. I didn't help by asking questions like what oil they use, the dessert menu (I keep noticing no one else usually asks for this treasured list!) and stuff. I tipped extra because she was an absolute pro that day. That is, there's no way I could have kept up with everything like she did.

          1. Tipping as you usually do was just fine. I can't imagine anyone, be it a dining companion or someone observing the situation in realtime, thinking that you should've done otherwise. Good call by you... I was at a diner having lunch recently with co-workers, when the server took about 10 minutes too long to bring by artificial sweetener for a co-worker's iced tea. Said co-worker whipped herself and the other co-worker into a froth over the belated arrival of the sweetener, and came to the conclusion that everyone at our table should deny the server _any_ tip at all. I actually felt worse for my co-workers, as it seemed that their poverty of spirit toward such a small mistake should be so blatantly manifested in public, and i was embarrassed for them. They were looking for any reason to save a few bucks and not provide even a 5 or 10% tip, and they wanted all of us to join in on their shame-fest. The server sensed the hostile vibe emanating from one side of our table, and (rightly or wrongly, perhaps TMI ) apologized to the table, stating that he had lost custody of his son that morning and it had thrown him into a chaotic state of mind. Afterwards, said co-workers whispered among themselves that his family problems were not their responsibility and that they should still deny a tip. I literally became ill sitting among these co-workers and their animosity, and made up an excuse to leave the table early (parking meter running low), paid my portion of the bill, and caught up with the server near his station and did the right thing. And I am fairly certain that even had my co-workers had a change of heart (or any heart whatsoever) and tipped their usual standard, it would have come in at least 10% below what a reasonable person would leave for a server. I would have respected my co-workers more had they simply stated "we don't believe in tipping ever, so no tip for anyone" rather than scrounging for any perceived slight or service misstep in order to justify their egregious parsimony. I now remember why I infrequently go out to lunch with folks who I share nothing in common except for an office entryway... Anyway, you did the right thing...

            1 Reply
            1. re: silence9

              Wow, you are right, your co-workers are the ones to be pitied. Good for you for correcting things with the server and being so compassionate. I am not sure I really believe in karma, but if there is such a thing, they ought to be very worried.

            2. I disagree. Tips are for service rendered, and additional tip is for excellent service. Bad service gets you a smaller tip.

              Think of it this way - if your server is overwhelmed then it means they're serving more tables and getting more tips. If they're serving, say, double the amount of tables they normally do, and if everyone tips the usual, this server is in essence taking home double the pay for providing lousy service to everyone. How does that make sense?

              I've worked many jobs where I've been completely overwhelmed. I still try to do the best I can but no one has paid me extra because I was backed up. I don't see why servers should get a bonus in a situation like this.