waiting tables, washing feet: a lesson in gratuities

image courtesy of ethisphere.com

Overheard at a restaurant during Sunday lunch:
  • “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to feed a family of five AND leave a 20% tip?!”
  • “If I wanted to clean up after my kids, we’d have eaten at home.”
  • “We paid to eat here, and we’ll sit at this table until we’ve fully enjoyed our time of Christian fellowship.”
  • “Although I’m a Christian, I’m a stingy, selfish, inconsiderate person and don’t mind showing it in public — especially to someone as lowly as a waitress at Chili’s.  Now where were we?  Oh, yeah, I was critiquing today’s sermon…”
One of my favorite bloggers is Randy Morgan, over at Your Best Life Later.  I just read his latest post titled “The Sunday Lunch Crowd,” and wanted to send you his way.  It’s worth a read, especially if you ever go out to dinner on Sunday afternoons.  I’m going to add to his thoughts just a few of my own below.

Waiting tables pretty much paid for my last year of my undergraduate degree.  I never liked working the Sunday lunch crowd, despite the fact that they were all “like me” and Christian.  Randy addressed, in his essay, both the horrible tips and the large groups who sit forever, preventing their servers from making any cash above the miserly gratuities, which they’ve so begrudgingly given.

But one thing Randy didn’t mention was the way these “good Christian” families generally make no attempt to clean up after their kids. I’ve even heard some Christian mothers say, “If I wanted to clean up after my kids, we’d have eaten at home.”  I’m not saying these parents need to bus tables or wash dishes.  But they could at least pick up a few of the thousands of fragments of crayons that were smashed with salt shakers after being dipped in honey mustard sauce.  They could transfer some of the half-eaten french fries and chicken fingers from their tables to their plates.  Or they could utilize a few of the extra napkins they asked for in an attempt to at least begin the process of cleaning their second bottle of ketchup off the wall — or was that the first bottle, and the reason for the second?

Waiting tables was the catalyst for me to reevaluate my Christian witness through tipping.  If you are a Christian, you represent Christ everywhere you go and in everything you do — but ESPECIALLY on Sunday afternoon when you’re dressed in your Sunday best, church bulletin in hand (to get 10% off your total meal purchase).**  And just in case anyone is still wondering, leaving a gospel tract is not an acceptable substitute for tipping.

Some of the best tippers I had were big groups of drinkers and college girls with their dad’s credit cards. Next were my regulars, who were also those whom I enjoyed serving the most — real conversation and real appreciation… and sometimes leftover portions of dessert (illegal for me to eat?).

But the best tippers (far and away) are always other waiters.  I would double my tips on a Friday or Saturday night with one 8-top if the waitstaff from the restaurant next door came in for drinks after work.  There’s a lot to be said for empathy.  When you understand someone else’s situation, you’re much more likely to respond appropriately and in love.

Maybe the church should ask its members to fulfill a mandatory service requirement, waiting tables in the restaurant industry.  Funny, isn’t it (or sad), that it’s almost impossible to imagine many of our church members humbly fulfilling that position of service?

And you know what I think… if we’re not willing to wait tables, we’re for sure not willing to wash feet.

  • Randy Morgan is the man.
  • The Sunday lunch crowd DOES NOT represent Christ well.
  • As a matter of fact, large groups of alcoholics are more generous, kind, and thoughtful than are Sunday lunch Christians.
  • Gospel tracts are not suitable for tipping.  [Nor, in my opinion, are they suitable for evangelism.]
  • Servers should not eat their customers’ leftovers.
  • If I’m ever in charge of a church, there will be a mandatory requirement that all members wait tables for a period of at least one month.
  • If you can’t leave a generous tip, don’t go out to eat.  [This one wasn’t covered in the post, but should’ve been.]
  • Please think about how you act in public, and how it reflects on my God.

* Those of you waiting for a follow-up to the “definition of gospel” post will have to wait a few more days (not that waiting on a post of mine will be difficult — some of you were probably hoping to miss it altogether).  It’s just that, to be honest, I need more time and more intelligence to write that post.  It kind of overwhelms me and I feel ill-prepared.  Still, I’m working on it.  And plus, today’s Saturday.
** You know the 10% you save with that church bulletin would be a great start for a tip.  And it’s basically free.



Filed under practical advice, slightly humorous or amusing?, woe to us

35 responses to “waiting tables, washing feet: a lesson in gratuities

  1. Oh no, not the tracts…

    Thankfully I’ve only witnessed the tract thing once. It was several years ago, when an acquaintance from church took me out for lunch on a weekday. He was not quite what I would call rude, but he was cold and seemed to have a bit of a condescending air toward our server. At the end of our meal he left a very modest tip and a tract. Just “doing my part for the Kingdom” he said. All I wanted to do was snatch that tract away when he wasn’t looking.

    We definitely need to remember that we are Christ’s ambassadors wherever we go. And I think we also need to offer kudos to those who do represent the body of Christ well to their community. There are many out there who do. I think it’s just easier for us to spot those who don’t.

    • larry, i am often guilty of being critical of the bad — while not drawing attention to the good which is present.

      and i know there are some christians who are great testimonies of God’s grace while at sunday lunch; i’ve eaten with many of them.

      but the percentages are not good. at least not at the nashville green hills cooker (which no longer is in business). i cannot recall even one christian group who came in on a sunday and represented Jesus any better than some random group in a restaurant. and the overwhelming majority reflected poorly on God.

      i wrote this post largely in jest. but i really do believe this is a serious problem. but you’re right, larry; we should celebrate those who ARE being Christ in their communities.

  2. mark

    I’d say your problem isn’t with Christians, it’s with people who don’t go to restaurants enough to have quite grasped the norms. A friend who grew up in an immigrant community in New Jersey has expressed these exact frustrations with her own people’s tipping habits.

    • mark, i think i waited on some of the people you’re referring to. and i also served many an elderly person who just didn’t realize a dollar doesn’t buy what it used to — or that servers only make half of minimum wage.

      but these christians i’m talking about eat out at least twice a week, every week.

      warning — this paragraph is only anecdotal and proves nothing: there is one guy i remember that would set his tip (8 or 9 bucks, not a small tip) out on the table at the beginning of the meal. he’d then tell the waitress it was all hers if she did a good job — but that every time a glass got empty on the table, he was taking one of those dollars away. can you believe that?!

  3. Sean

    We stopped going out for large groups meals with our friends, mainly because we couldn’t afford making up for our friend’s tips. I would be so embarrassed at how people tipped I would overcompensate mine, sometimes almost paying for our meal(s) twice. (I should add: if your friend is “good with numbers” or an accountant like me, it doesn’t mean we want to arrange the 15 credit cards and cash assemblage wedged into the billfold – and then pay the difference for what is lacking. I digress.)

    A much better option has been (in the warmer months in PA) grabbing some takeout and heading to the park and (in the winter) throwing everything in the slow cooker and asking people at church to join us at home.

    In PA I encourage people to pay three times the tax amount (as a start, to gauge if you’re on track); generally a family of four should be paying for five people to eat. When you go down the price list, add the cost of the tip into the price of your meal, that will help you make a more reasonable selection. And, if you’re “just going out for dessert” (for three hours), tip your server for their time; 20% on your bowl of ice cream if not sufficient for the long conversation and glasses of water to follow. It’s much for fun to leave 2 10 or 15 dollar tip on a 5 dollar bowl of ice cream after a few hours, and 20 bucks is what it would cost to do anything, anyway.

    I agree, people who served are the best tippers and most sympathetic in restaurants (and more winsome). Although, it was the backbreaking work for no pay that kept me showing up for class and finishing up school 🙂 It is a rite of passage for many.

    • oh, sean… sorry you’re “that guy.” there’s never enough money in that pile, and if you say anything about it (or even dream of trying to figure out why, where, and how you were short), everybody thinks you’re cheap for worrying about a couple of bucks. what they don’t realize is that they’re rounding down from $6 to “a couple of bucks,” and you’ve paid that “couple of bucks” the last 27 meals you guys have eaten together. that’s $162 (or $54, depending on whose math you use), and you could’ve gone to the movies at least twice with that cash.

      good idea on takeout at the park. wish we would’ve thought of that while we were still in the states…

      also, there was some good advice in there. thanks, sean.

  4. While the disciples were arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus challenged them:
    “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
    Since they did not get it, James and John wanted the positions of prominence. Again Jesus chided them:
    “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

    Would the Sunday crowd treat their waiter/waitress better if they saw them as Jesus? We should honor the people who serve us because they give us a great mental picture of what Jesus says our lives should be like. Maybe that mandatory month of waiting tables should be longer in the discipleship boot camp!

    • “they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you busy, with mustard on your pants, carrying a large tray of dishes, trying to pay for college or take care of three children without a father in the home, and did not show you kindness with a generous gratuity?’

      he will reply, ‘i tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'”

  5. Brett, how would you apply this principle in a culture where waiting tables is a low-paying job but tipping isn’t expected, and where a 1% tip is considered generous?

    This much-appreciated critique notwithstanding, I have to say that American tipping culture is far more considerate and generous than any other culture I’ve seen anywhere.

    • i apply it here in tanzania simply by showing kindness and interest to my servers.

      and i often leave small tips — slightly larger than the 1% which is considered generous. because i figure i have slightly more money than the guy who left the 1%. so i tip in africa, not based on the price of my meal, but rather based on the amount of money in my pocket or my bank account. kind of a he-who-has-much thing.

      i’m not sure about in europe, but i assume in most of the non-western world waitstaff is paid a regular wage. part of the reason it’s such a big deal in the states is that our system of tipping has evolved to the point that servers are paid $3ish per hour. so they need the tips to get by. and many of them took those jobs because there is opportunity for above minimum wage to be made — or else it’s likely not a job worth having.

      our demand for service has brought a need for extra payment (i think).

  6. I have always cringed at the Sunday crowd mentality that says we will take your table for as long as we want, be as loud as we want, and oh yeah, consider our lack of a tip standard. I knew one couple who embarrassed me to no end when they said, “We leave no tip because they chose this job.” I argued but it did no good. I leave no less than 20% and if exceptional more.

  7. JMF

    QUOTE: “Gospel tracts are not suitable for tipping. [Nor, in my opinion, are they suitable for evangelism.]”

    Dude, that is really really funny.

    As tends to be the case, I have a few random questions I’ll ask should anyone be gracious enough to answer.

    1) What is fair for curbside? I’ve asked waitresses multiple times (is “waitress” similar to saying “stewardess”?) what is fair, and they say “I appreciate anything I get.” I say, “not good enough! I truly want to know what is generally expected. Look, I’m giving you $4. That isn’t changing. So please, tell me what is customary.”

    I’ve yet to get a solid answer. I generally curbside about half of what I’d tip if eating in. So, if eating alone, I’d prob spend $25 at Outback. I’d prob tip $8. The same order curbside, I’d tip $4.

    Give me honest feedback. I truly don’t know.

    2) Tru dat about waitresses/waiters being the best customers. I used to date a waitress and she taught me to behave…every since, I pile all of my trash, utensils, etc onto my plate to ease the clean-up process.

    3) My cousin and I often will make a long trek out into the sticks to go to a particular catfish restaurant. It is only open on fri and sat night. Here is the deal: you walk in and immediately pay (a la McD’s); the meal is a buffet…you make no choices; it is family owned, and all fam works there; it is crazy busy, waitresses come and fill your drinks but don’t talk to you, etc.

    Now, it is expensive…like $18 each for a greasy spoon-type restaurant. Our dilemma is that we have no idea if we should tip — and if so, how much? We pay up front…no opp to add tip to final bill. Waitresses don’t “seem” like they are working for a tip, if that makes sense.

    Would love some feedback.

    • 1) i have no idea about curbside service. to be honest, i don’t think i’ve ever gotten food to go from the type of restaurant in which i’d be waited on.

      2) servers everywhere thank you.

      3) i can’t say i’m sure of the protocol at these type restaurants, but i generally leave a small tip even at those places. i think those waitresses usually get paid minimum wage, and they wait on like 12-20 tables each depending on where you go. relatively high turnover, bills much higher than the service provided, etc. i usually just leave a dollar or two per person. don’t know if i’m right or not.

  8. JMF

    All of that being said, tipping/service issues seem to be centralized with older people and black people. There, I said it. Delete if needed, but it is a common stereotype that I’ve yet to here countered by a server.

    I don’t care; my guess is that it is simply cultural for some reason. I could make some guesses, but I’d probably just dig a deeper hole.

    I’m not concerned that one day I’ll turn black, but I am concerned that one day I’ll turn old. So, it behooves me to try and understand why the elderly tend to be stingy in this regard.

    I believe it just stems from the idea of becoming frozen in a point of time. My grandparents’ still feel they are being generous when they pay someone what they were worth back in 1965. I think they look at tipping $2-3 to some high school kid as creating a Fat Cat.

    Just so, they complain like crazy about the plumber charging $80/hr. But, I never hear them extolling the virtues of phone services that cost next-to-nothing for long distance services…which even when I was a kid, cost anywhere from 25cents/min on up.

    I fear becoming frozen.

    Your post is interesting, but I’m more inclined to think the tipping/poor customer issues are more relative to other norms besides Christianity.

    My mom told me about a humiliation she endured…they went out to dinner with a couple from their church to a very nice restaurant. This couple insisted on taking them out and paying…he like to be the high roller.

    At the end of the dinner, he called the waitress over and with a big smile said, “thanks for your good service”, and with some showmanship put a $5 bill in her hand. He looked at everyone else at the table with a proud grin after his display of big timin’. My mom was humiliated. But, he thought he was Donald Trump.

    And this proves….pretty much nothing. I just vote for culture over Christianity.

    • i don’t at all think that christianity is the problem with these sunday tippers, or that tipping poorly is necessarily inherent in christianity or anything. i just think christianity should be the solution.

      when i waited tables i didn’t notice any particular group that left poor tips except elderly people and the sunday lunch crowd. i’m not sure what it is about that sunday lunch crowd that make them bad tippers (and unthoughtful). maybe that they generally have multiple families with lots of kids and maybe it’s their treat to go out — and the parents are just trying to save cash, and so, are stingy with tips? i’m not sure.

      but black or white, male or female, rich or poor, the only consistently poor tippers i had were the elderly and the sunday lunch crowd (which we might could call large families with lots of kids).

  9. JMF

    I’ve need to kill a few more minutes so I’ll continue, as I’m sure everyone is riveted to their seat at this point, hungry for more pearls of wisdom.

    Stereotypes: My business offers a service…generally to a higher-end clientèle. Stereotypes are like analogies: they hold for a while until they finally break down. Yet, they usually have something of substance that backs them. Perhaps I should use “generalizations”, as it doesn’t hold as sharp of an edge as does “stereotype.”

    I’d heard many servers say that lawyers and doctors are the worst tippers. In fact, I’ve read studies saying as much. Why is this? Does it make a difference if the doctor/lawyer is a Christian?

    In your first post, you stated the a “server” at a restaurant is a true servant…if we don’t respect them, how could we ever wash feet? I am loosely paraphrasing as I understand you.

    But isn’t a lawyer a servant as well? He lowly serves man by offering him protection from law and other men.

    Dang it, I don’t have time to finish my thoughts. But they were very, very powerful. By the end of my argument, no doubt you’d have been in the fetal yelling “uncle!” and “checkmate!”, hoping I’d ease off of my unending assault of logic, reason, and persuasion.


    • although a lawyer provides a service, i don’t know that i’d call him a servant.

      i feel like there’s something to that making myself lower than the other individual that is pretty much present in servanthood. i lower myself to wash your feet; i answer to “waiter” and refill your glasses a half-dozen times; i do the job no one else wants; that kind of thing.

      the only lawyer with whom i’ve ever done business charged me like a 1/10th of his hourly fee (which was not cheap) for introducing my wife to him. we said hello, exchanged pleasantries, he made $30.

      but what i really meant with the foot-washing comment was that if i’m not willing to pour drinks for people, take orders, listen to complaints, and be talked down to (in other words be a waiter), then i’m definitely not the kind of person who would wash another person’s feet.

  10. I despise Christian tracts. Especially as tips. That’s an insult.

    Christians should be the best tippers, but we’d rather brag about tithing.

    I’d much rather give my “tithe” to somebody that needs it than to a church with a million dollar facility and $300,000 homes for the pastors.

    • i’m with you, bernard. i’m not at all against giving money to churches, but it’s funny how that’s become our go-to policy for giving and tithing and the like.

      i’m probably doing a post on tithing in the near future. you know, i don’t think there’s a single example of a tithe in the old testament that was not of food? [except for the exceptions for people who couldn’t carry their livestock as far as they had to travel — they could take money, but even then i think it was to buy the food when they got there…]

  11. randy morgan

    thank you for your gracious words, brett (and the link). i hope you don’t mind, but i tell everyone i know that we are friends (even tho we’ve never met).

    i am going to stand up in front of my church family tomorrow morning and shout, “i am the man! brett harrison says so!”

    wonder how that will go over?

    • i don’t mind being called your friend at all, randy.

      and i don’t think your church family will care if you say that at all; it might even make them feel better. because i know i tell myself that very same thing every morning in the mirror — and i always feel better after.

  12. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. As a past waitress myself, this post could not be more true. And I agree, the gospel tracts are not effective tips or witnessing tools!

    I love leaving big tips. I think everyone should do it. Yep, I said EVERYONE.

  13. Ike

    And I thought you were mennonite.

  14. Ike

    Just joking about the mennonites……what is Stone River Church?

    • stones river is the church christie and i are a part of in the states — they’re a church of christ in murfreesboro, tennessee and are our sending congregation, spiritual oversight, and keepers of our finances. i’ll let you read more about them/us (this page links to stones river’s core values) here: stones river church

  15. I loooooove that you wrote about this! You know, I was a waitress for 4 miserable months in Murfreesboro and my reason for leaving that town at the end of that four months was so I could walk away from that job! Sundays were the absolute worst – and the one that tipped the scale was Mother’s Day. I actually got a big tip that day because a lady at one of my tables witnessed rudeness of another table and found me crying in the ladies room. Pathetic, I know, but it was that bad.

    Since then, I’ve become a master tipper and so have my parents who got to hear of the horrors of that job every night. Mom still talks about it.

    So bring me your dirty, blistered, crusty, fungal feet for washing any day, but do not ask me to wait tables.

    • i did know that you were a waitress in murfreesboro, but i had no idea that’s why you left town. i thought you’d knocked over a gas station or two and been involved in a few bank robberies — and just needed to leave town… and fast.

      i never cried when i was waiting tables. i actually liked the job. i don’t mind a great deal when people are rude or mean to me. i just put shaving cream under their car door handles and post their pictures on the wall back in the kitchen — you know to get everyone psyched up for their next shift.

      • Well…those other reasons you mentioned were certainly another factor, but I wasn’t so much afraid of getting caught as I was repulsed by my job.

        If I had that job now, I would probably get fired. I’ve developed a sassy mouth in my old age.

  16. I’m late, I know, but I love this. I am always the one on my soap box when I’m out with groups, rallying for the rights of our wait staff. “Our tipping is their pay!” “Don’t you dare judge what they ‘deserve,’ noone comes to your job and adjusts your pay according to your performance at random!” I don’t understand the sense of entitlement people have when it comes to receiving services. As a former restaurant server, and a current server of God, I want EVERYONE to read your post. Can I repost it?

    • i don’t know, callie. i’m not sure i’d like things i’ve written to be read by lots of people. you know i’m trying to keep the number of people who visit my blog low. and i really try to write for a particular 10-20 people… what if people read something by me on your blog and enjoyed it, or it interested them? i’m just not sure i’m ready for that.

      just kidding. of course you can repost my little essay. do anything you want with it; i’m just glad you liked it.

  17. Pingback: God d—it! doing stuff in vain | aliens and strangers

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