This Is When It's OK to Leave a Bad Tip

A veteran waiter shares the (very) few scenarios where you'd be justified in leaving less than 20%.

A tip of a few dollars and cents
Photo:

Thongkoch Chutpattarachai / Getty Images

I worship at the altar of big tippers. I’ve been a restaurant server for the majority of my working life so tips are practically my religion. They’ve given me joy and they’ve given me pain, but they have always been there for me. Once when I saw a single set of footprints in the sand, I’m pretty sure it was because my tips were carrying me that day. 

That being said, I do believe that tips should be earned. My restaurant industry brain is broken, so I always tip too much no matter what the experience is like. If the service is bad, I convince myself the only reason I never get the glass of water I asked for on two separate occasions is because my waiter is having an off day. My abiding faith is that all servers deserve a good tip. Now, lightning may strike at my feet upon completion of this next sentence, but there are times it’s okay to leave a bad one. These occasions are as rare as a blood moon eclipse in a leap year, but they do happen every now and then.

First, let’s make it clear when it's  not OK to leave a bad tip. In cases where the server has absolutely nothing to do with the perceived bad experience, the server gets a pass. Things like overcooked or under-seasoned food, restaurant ambiance, unavailable menu items, or a lack of parking spaces should never be factored into the tip. The gratuity needs to be based on the service itself. Chalk those other things up to life experiences and keep them in mind when deciding whether or not to go back to the restaurant in the future. So, when is it acceptable to not dig too deep into the pocket for a tip?

You Don't Have to Swallow Abuse

If a server explicitly insults you about something, it’s okay to deduct from the tip. No one goes to a restaurant to be verbally abused by a stranger. That’s what social media is for. I once left a bad tip to a waiter after he told me I could take the food that he boxed up back to my trailer to eat it later. First of all, they’re called “mobile homes” and it is perfectly fine to live in one, and was he judging my choice of food or my appearance or the way I spoke? Whatever it was, it was clearly meant as an insult and he only got a 10% tip because of it. This was in 1992, so it clearly stuck with me. 

Nor Should You Stomach Apathy

I always give the server the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes it’s pretty clear they just don’t care. When you ask for a spoon for your hot soup and you see your server walk right past the spoons and go talk to a coworker instead, it’s hard to believe they care about you or your spoon. If your food is served and you tell them it’s not what you ordered, but they don’t offer to fix it, again, it’s obvious they have no interest in serving you. Requests that don’t get fulfilled can usually be attributed to forgetfulness, but after three or four times of asking for the same thing, you have to wonder if it’s their memory or indifference that’s the problem. Glaring repeated apathy by a server is grounds for a lesser tip and I say that as someone who looks at tips as the sun. My world revolves around them. 

Bias Is Never on the Menu

If a server exhibits any kind of racist behavior, that’s a hard pass on tipping. There’s no excuse for that in a restaurant or literally anywhere else. When racism rears its ugly head, it’s time to bring someone else into the picture like a manager or a restaurant owner. Or maybe just get up and leave. It’s a complicated conversation to be had. I was once accused of being racist because I took an order for one table before another one that had been waiting longer. The truth was that I had just arrived to work and was told by a very harried server to take any table, “Immediately!” I wasn’t intentionally avoiding a particular customer, but it was perceived that way. A manager was brought in and the situation was cleared up, but it made for a really awkward breakfast shift. I would have understood if they decided to not tip me. This was in 2001, so this too has stuck with me.

Like I said, things have to be exceptionally bad for me to leave less than a 20-25% tip for my server. Tipping is part of my DNA just as much as whatever chromosome gave my hair the Brillo pad texture it has. It’s part of me. If my server gives me truly reprehensible service, I’ll still tip, but only 10% and then I’ll pray for forgiveness from the tipping gods for my sin of being a lousy tipper. 

When you find yourself in a situation where you feel a tip isn’t warranted and it falls under one of the above scenarios, it’s OK. As someone who has relied on tips for many years, this is hard to admit, but tips are not always deserved. Rudeness, apathy, and beyond are the exception to the rules of tipping. Maybe that insolent server back in the late 1900s learned the error of his ways and realized that insulting a customer doesn’t encourage a great tip. Leaving 10% isn’t easy and even though he deserved it I still feel bad about it. Mea culpa.

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