Proper Tipping Etiquette: Why I Didn't Tip My Waiter this Morning (And Felt Good About It)

This morning I got into an argument with two of my roommates, both of whom work in the service industry, over proper tipping etiquette. Coming from a Chicago Greek family in which multiple family members and countless friends own restaurants, I have long believed that when it comes to gratuity payment tipping ought to be tied to performance. When people automatically tip 15% percentage without regard to how good their meal or service actually is, it disincentivizes superior service and incentivizes apathy.

If the meal and service are excellent, give a tip of at least 20-25% (or more if its superior) to reflect it. If the meal and service are mediocre, a tip between 10-18% is more than reasonable. If the meal and/or the service do not meet your expectations, tip no more than 5%. If the service and food are horrible, do not tip anything. That this conversation started while I was in the midst of having one of the worst dining experiences of my life was all the more fitting.

All up early, we decided to have breakfast at a restaurant right next to our building that we walk by daily but frequent rarely. The establishment, Bar Umbriago (6 W. Hubbard Street), sits on the location of many former failed restaurants (most recently EATT) despite occupying some of the most prime real estate in the entire city. Nestled on the corner of State and Hubbard, Bar Umbriago opened to a good amount of excitement in River North last year for those of us looking for an occasional alternative to River North's 'Breakfast Bermuda Triangle' Eggsperience (35 W. Ontario), Rockit (22 W. Hubbard), and Yolk (747 N. Wells).

After eating there for the first time last summer, I became infatuated with their chocolate chip pancakes. They tasted exactly like the ones my Yia Yia used to make me and my cousins when we were kids. The thick cut bacon, from scratch batter, and premium chocolate chips made this place a quick favorite between me and my friends.

Unfortunately, Bar Umbriago is open for breakfast only on the weekend, Saturday and Sunday so we don't get there that often. This morning we came to the restaurant only because I had told everyone how good the chocolate chip pancakes were. When I tried to order chocolate chip pancakes at 10:30am on Saturday (they open at 9am) I was told they were out of chocolate chips. To say I wasn't a happy camper would be putting it mildly.

"How the fuck can they be out of chocolate chips less than two hours into their weekend brunch!" To me this was completely unacceptable. It's not as if the place was out of chocolate chips because they had sold out of them within the first two hours of business. The restaurant was completely empty (as it normally is). This meant that the restaurant knew they were out of chocolate chips before they opened this morning an consciously chose not to do anything about it. The right thing for the waiter to do would have been to be proactive and tell me before I ordered that they were out of chocolate chips. Instead he let me order them, then told me, "we're out of those" before even going back to the kitchen.

Now in general, there are simply too many options within a 10 minute walk from my apartment to justify going to a restaurant and not being able to order exactly what I wanted to eat. The fact that there is a Jewel literally two blocks away on Grand and State added insult to injury.

At this point in the meal I had already decided I wouldn't be tipping our waiter. I told the guys (both waiters themselves) that for someone from the restaurant to not simply go walk next door and pick up a bag of chocolate chips showed that the servers, kitchen staff, and restaurant management simply didn't care enough to make sure I got the dining experience that I deserved. I argued that this laziness showed blatant disregard for me as a customer. I recommended that we leave and dine elsewhere.

The guys told me that I was being ridiculous. They tried to convince me that the waiter who was being paid $5 an hour had no incentive to walk next door to get me chocolate chips. I replied that my tip ought to be all the incentive that was needed especially because his livelihood is dependent on tips. If he consciously decides not to make a reasonable effort to give me what I want (which was to order something on their regular menu) I was going to make the conscious effort not to tip him. While they agreed it was unacceptable for the restaurant to be out of such a key ingredient only an hour or so into their weekend brunch, we were all hungry enough that we decided to stay. They convinced me to order something else. Begrudgingly, I went with the banana foster waffle with a side of pork belly hash.

Right around this time the manager stopped by our table and asked if everything was going alright. My buddies gave me a death stare in hopes that it would keep me from making a fuss about the chocolate chips. I bit my tongue. They said everything was going great, the pretty manager smiled at us, and then walked back to the host stand.

As soon as she was out of ear shot one of them said to me, "I really thought you were going to bitch to her about the chocolate chips." I told them that it took everything in my power to not blow up about it. I told them that I believed that if I'd had said something about them, I was sure that the manager would have sent someone over to Jewel to pick some up. My other friend replied that if I wanted chocolate chips so bad I should just go to Jewel myself to go get them. I told them that that wasn't the point. When you go to a restaurant and order something off their menu you are doing it because you would prefer someone else to do everything themselves and you are paying them in exchange for that rendered service.

At this point we got in a full blown argument over proper restaurant etiquette. My contention was that when you bite your tongue and don't tell the restaurant what they're doing wrong, they won't get better and will continue to make the same mistakes in the future. Moreover if a restaurant's management doesn't care enough to take immediate steps to rectify the problem than you will be completely justified in writing a poor review of the place and never spending money there again. They argued that from the server's perspective making them look bad to their bosses was not the way to get more attentive service or more palatable food. It only could get them fired. I countered that if poor service was systematic no one would eat there anymore and everyone would eventually lose their jobs when the establishment inevitably goes out of business.

As our heated discussion was winding down the runners brought some our food out. Out of the three of us that ordered, only two of our meals arrived together. The third had to wait an additional five minutes before his food came out. Of the food that did come out on time, nothing came as ordered. It was either not cooked right or the complete wrong item. My buddy's bacon was burnt to a crisp, his eggs Benedict was rubbery and overcooked. Instead of my banana foster waffle - which itself was already a backup order - I was simply brought a waffle with bananas on top. My pork belly hash never came.

At this point the manager came back over to make rounds. This time when she asked us how everything was I couldn't contain myself. "Everything is horrible." I explained to her my many issues with my dining experience. I started with the chocolate chip pancakes. I told her how my waiter had brought the wrong menu item out for me and how my other buddy hadn't received his food when the rest of us did. The boys tried to tell her everything was okay and to not worry about it but the manager, much to her credit, agreed everything that had happened to me was unacceptable and that I wasn't getting the dining experience I ought to expect. She comped my breakfast and immediately went about making sure everything she could control was good. She did the right thing and I applaud her for that.

However, as my buddies dug into their meals both realized their food was no good. Instead of complaining about what they got they held there tongue and got stuck with a $63 dollar bill for breakfast for three people (one of which was comped) that didn't even feature any alcohol. When they asked me for a $20 since I made it widely known I wasn't tipping I laughed at them and handed them a $10 bill (we'd also ordered a pizza as appetizer which was actually pretty delicious). That the guys left the waiter $70 in cash really bothered me. Here was the classic example of horrible service being rewarded. I called out my two waiter buddies for being part of the problem and we all pledged never to go to Bar Umbriago again. As we were walking out I heard a man at another table by the door trying to order chocolate chip pancakes... it made my day.

The moral of the story: vote with your pocket books. If you get great service give a great tip. If you get horrible service don't leave one. When you tip 15% no matter how good or bad your service is you're part of the problem. Don't be part of the problem. Only when people start tipping in accordance to services rendered will apathetic waiters become less common.

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