Confessions of a caterer: 7 Things to remember when tipping your server

I have worked in the food service on and off since 2002, and tomorrow am returning to catering for the one hundredth time. The following article was first published on on February 27, 2010.


You are scraping up the last bits of dessert with your fork when the check arrives, and now it is time to whip out the credit card and calculate the tip. It’s a normal routine, an opportunity to voice your opinion on the quality of the food and the service, but for a woman in North Carolina, this routine became a legal issue. In February 2010, patron Monica Covington was banned from a Winston-Salem restaurant for having left poor tips.

We’re all guilty of it. Sometimes we don’t have enough ones, or sometimes we don’t have the energy to decide whether the meal was worth 15% or 18. Monica presented the restaurant with a petition of 300 signatures and demanded fair treatment, but her situation brings up an interesting question: how low of a tip is too low?

I, as a patron of many restaurants, am not complaining of our current restaurant system that allows us to deem ourselves worthy judges of our restaurant experiences. It allows our restaurants to push for exceptional quality and service. However, also having been a caterer on and off for ten years, I believe that there are several aspects about being a server that every patron must know.

1) Behind that black apron is a story. Serving tables is one of two options: a transitional job because nothing else is available, or a lifetime career because nothing else is possible. That young man who brought you your water without a lemon? He is either in the process of applying for grad school in fine arts or hoping to a young wife’s child on the way.

2) If your waitstaff remembers all of your order, it’s a miracle. In the US, a waitress’ questions are our appetizers: what would you like to drink? what sides? how do you want your steak? with what dressing? It is enormously difficult for your server to organize this information, not only for you but for everyone else at your table. Consider that your server is not a mental filing cabinet, and that sometimes recalling your preferences are as grueling as recalling formulas for eleventh grade physics.

3) Waiting tables is like attending a mandatory, eight-hour gym session. Ever tried to balance a dumbbell stacked with steaming, sloshing cups of soup? Your server, walking more steps in her shift than the average American walks in one day, is adept at lifting like a pro and holding poses like a dancer. Additionally, her job is a theater performance, complete with lines to memorize and a stage personna. She may be exhausted.

4) No one likes cleaning up after a messy guest. Clearing tables is one profession where someone is asked to clean up after one of your most intimate behaviors–your eating. A table of shredded napkins, spilled fruit punch, half-eaten desserts smeared with dinner rolls is not appropriate in day care, and it should not be appropriate at a restaurant.

5) You are not the only person on your server’s mind. Your server is routinely serving you and at least twenty-five other customers. If you ask for a fresh water pitcher, it is likely that the person on the table next to you needs a clean fork. If your server hands you the fork and her the pitcher, consider her stress level and attentiveness before getting angry.

6) Acknowledge the forced physical intimacy between you and your server. Not only are they shuttling back and forth between you and the kitchen with your requests for food, drink, or change in temperature, they are also leaning around you, bending in front of you, and breaking the barrier between your world and theirs. This also means that they are trying desperately not to listen to the story you are telling about your upstairs neighbor and her late-night visitors. They have their own worries, such as your request for a dessert menu, to contend with.

7) Your relationship with your server is one to be respected. It is a balancing act between your time off and her time to shine. Act courteously toward your server and it is likely that she will do the same. Good food that you did not have to cook is priceless, after all.


2 thoughts on “Confessions of a caterer: 7 Things to remember when tipping your server

  1. A lot (though not all) of this applies to baristas at specialty coffee shops too. Though baristas are not keeping tracking of nearly as much data as servers, the job is also more physically and emotionally involved than it seems from the other side of the counter. Thanks for posting this, Sylvia!

    1. paindecampagne May 14, 2013 — 9:35 pm

      Greg! I was just talking to some baristas at this and think I want to write a piece about the day in the life of a barista. Half because I really want to make is good latte and the other half because the more I learn about what you do the more I think people need to know what goes into it. Too bad I can’t come shadow you 🙂

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