Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: tipping

The Gratuity

The last time I was in New York City, I went upstate with my two friends, John and Eric, for the sole reason of having dinner at a famous culinary institute.

It was my idea.   John and Eric are self-proclaimed “foodies,” guys who consider going to Zabar’s or Trader Joe’s a “night out on the town.” Whenever I come to New York, we always meet one night and they take me to some hot new restaurant.  This usually means an establishment where the portions are small and the prices are exorbitant.  I’m not much of a drinker, but they are, so by the end of the night, it is not uncommon for two bottles of wine to be consumed, and two bottles of wine at these pricey New York restaurants can cost as much as 1,375 pancakes at IHOP (don’t bother to check. I worked it on the iphone’s calculator.)

This well-known culinary institute is located two hours north of the city. The graduates of the school go on to work in the restaurant, catering, and hospitality fields.  In order to give the students some real life restaurant experience, there are three fine dining establishments right on the school premises – a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and an American restaurant.  Each can be very popular at different times of the year, and it is very difficult to get reservations to your first choice of restaurant.  We were lucky enough to get a seating at the French restaurant.

Each of the school’s restaurants is overseen by professional chefs, but the students work in various roles.  A round robin method of teaching ensures that to every student gets a taste of what it is like to work in a restaurant.  One day, a student can be in the kitchen, and the next day he can be a waiter or a busboy.  Because these restaurants are part of a teaching environment, the price for a fine meal here is much less than a comparable restaurant in the city.  It is not inexpensive, but that you can hopefully manage to leave the premises with it costing more than $100 a person.

John drove us upstate in a rented car.   As we pulled up to the culinary institute campus, we quickly noted that the school looked like any other east coast college. There were ivy-covered academic buildings and dorms for the students. The main center where the restaurants were located looked like a student union.   Inside this main building were long hallways and photo displays of famous alumni.  The hallways split into branches, leading to the different restaurants.  From the hallway, everything seemed very “collegiate,” but once you walked through the door to one of the restaurant, and saw the elegant seating, the wine cellar, and the formal maître de, you were transported to a five star restaurant.

Our table was ready at the French restaurant.  There was only one seating per evening. Jackets and ties were required.  I forgot to bring a sports jacket from LA, so I borrowed one of Eric’s tight, ill-fitting tweed jacket, which made me feeling like a very preppy sausage.

Our meal consisted of several courses.  The food was rich, very French, and very good, but to be honest, I have no recollection of what I ordered or ate during the meal.  The truly memorable part of the meal was the service. It was at a level that I had never experienced. Our doting waiter was Carlos, a senior at the school. There were at also three assistants at our beck and call, all wearing black pants and white shirts, who hovered around us like helicopter parents. I’m sure each of these assistant’s positions had a specific name, but I recall them as “the guy who constantly refilled our glasses,” “the guy who brushed the crumbs off of the white tablecloth in between courses,” and “the girl who exchanged our silverware at least seven times.”

We also had a sommelier, who looked all of twenty-one years old, but spoke in that affected, pompous tone of a mini-Tim Gunn.  After the sommelier suggested the best bottle of wine to complement our dishes, we asked him how he learned about wine at an age when most kids are drinking Miller Light.  He replied that he was always fascinated by wine, but doesn’t drink much of it when he goes home. He preferred a “good martini.” I thought this young sommelier was an asshole.

As we enjoyed our meal, John and Eric congratulated me on my excellent idea of coming to this restaurant.  We were getting a lot of food and drink for our buck.  We could eat well, but not be bankrupt for the rest of the month.  When Carlos brought us bottles of the culinary institute’s own “pure well water” when we asked for glasses of water, we politely refused, and requested tap water instead.  I noticed the tinge of disappointment at that moment on Carlos’s face, as if we didn’t deserve to be served by him.

I didn’t feel quite at home in this restaurant.  Although the staff worked hard, the constant attention and attitude was anxiety-producing.  Who were all these young Top Chef-wannabees? Were the students being brainwashed by the school into looking down at their own patrons? Or was this just youthful enthusiasm, much like I sneered at my parents when I was newly-minted freshman in college and, during my Christmas break home, learned that they had never read Plato’s Symposium, or even cared to.

One of the busboys, probably the most down to earth one of the staff,  told us that this was the last meal of the semester, and that they were being graded by their teacher as they served the meal.  We learned that the stern, white haired maître de was also the class teacher.   He carefully watched his class from his position in front of the room, making notes on a tiny notepad. The girl who constantly changed our silverware went from bubbly to pale and frightened as the teacher marked something in his book.  Did she bend over on the wrong side as she exchanged our forks – to the right of each guest, rather than the left? Despite the elegance of the décor and the excellent food, being a guinea pig in a five star culinary laboratory was about as restful as a chaotic Passover Seder at my aunt’s home.

Finally, the bill arrived. As Carlos handed us the billfold containing the bill, he gave a small disclaimer.

“On the bill, there is a 20% gratuity added. It is purely voluntary,” he said.   “The gratuity is not for me, but for our school’s scholarship fund to help other students in need.  If you would rather not leave this gratuity, please tell me, and I will bring the maître de over to take it off the bill.  As for the service, especially my role in your meal, I hope it was all exemplary.”

As Carlos walked away, John, Eric, and I discussed the situation.

“What you think he meant by that statement — “I hope my service was exemplary,” asked Eric.

“I think he wants a tip.” said John.

“A tip for the scholarship fun AND a tip for him?!  We’re not going to give TWO TIPS!” I muttered, my cheapness showing its colors. After all, the whole reason we drove two hours upstate was to save money!

“Neil’s right,” said Eric. “Let’s not give the gratuity to the scholarship fund.”

“I agree,” said John. “You tell him, Neil.”

“Me?!” I shouted, startling the well-heeled couple at the next table. “Me?” I said again, this time in a persistent whisper.

I imagined the entire scenario of what would happen.  I would tell Carlos that we didn’t want to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund. He would sneer at me and head to the front to fetch the maître de . Heads would turn as the eagle-eyed maître de would leave his perch and strut over to our table.

“Can I help you?” he would ask.

I would be forced to repeat my statement about not wanting to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund for needy students. An evil grin would form on Carlos’ face as he enjoyed my humiliation. The maitre de would take the billfold and head back to the front to take off the charge. As he walked, he would hold the check in the air, attracting the attention of each patron at every table he passed.  They would all turn towards me, knowing EXACTLY what had just happened.  They would shake their heads in pity and disgust, as if they had just seen me urinate in my wine glass.

“I’m not telling Carlos,” I told my friends. “I get nervous just handing a two-for-one coupon to a server at the Olive Garden. You do it, John.”

John paused for a second and then refused.

“I’m not going to have the maître de walk all the way here in front of everyone to take off the gratuity.”

Clearly, John’s vision of the scenario was similar to my own horrific one.

We all sighed.  We would give the “voluntary” gratuity for the scholarship fund.

“What about Carlos?” asked Eric.

We looked towards the kitchen door.  Carlos was standing there like a statue, his hands folded, waiting, clad in black pants and perfectly ironed white shirt, his chin held high, dreaming of a time when he would own his own restaurant, a day when he could stop acting nice and could openly torment his staff and his customers like an American-born Gordon Ramsey.  As a senior at the culinary institute, this would be the last time serving a meal as a student.  Now he was on his way into the real world.   Would he be a sous chef on Park Avenue or a server at Burger King in Bayonne, New Jersey?  Who knew?

“We have to give him a tip,” said John.  “What kind of message would we be giving him about his future career if we stiffed him on his last meal?”

Eric agreed.   I was the only hold-out.

“He’s a student!” I protested. “This is part of his learning. It’s a school.  Did anyone ever tip you for turning in a well-written English Lit paper on Charles Dickens?”

I was outvoted.

Next week, I’m going to be in New York.  I’m sure I’ll meet up with John and Eric.  We’ll have  dinner at some fancy new restaurant that was written about in the New York Times. I’m sure it will be expensive.  But I doubt it will be half as expensive as our last outing — to the culinary institute two hours away, considering the car rental, the gas, the meal, and the 45% tip.

The Biggest Tip She Ever Got

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I’m writing some internet content for a company in San Diego and I’m staying in town for the week — at the Hyatt downtown.  I love staying in hotels.  I love seeing all the tourists and business people.  I love big hotel lobbies.  The one thing I don’t like about hotel life is all the "tipping" you have to do.  This is something I’ve inherited from my parents, who are always nervous about being seen as "under-tipping."  Even today, when my parents go out to eat and pay with their Visa card, my father always goes over to the waitress and says "I left you something on the Visa," just to make sure she doesn’t give him "the evil eye" as he leaves the restaurant.

I haven’t been in the hotel for five minutes before I’m tipping the valet guy for parking my car (which is already costing me eighteen dollars a day!).  I tipped the bellboy after he carried up my one piece of luggage.  I noticed how he kept on telling me about the "great bars" in the Gaslight District in order to make me feel like he was my buddy.  Did he really care?  No, he wanted a nice tip.   There’s nothing wrong with that.  I know that’s how this guy makes his living.  It just makes for a very phony relationship.  Couldn’t he just be honest and say "I’ll tell you where the hot girls are in San Diego, if you give me five extra bucks."

I wasn’t able to blog for half the day because the wi-fi didn’t work in the room — and I know how many people depend on me.  A technician came to my room and fixed the internet access.  I gave him a tip, even though it was the hotel’s own fault that it didn’t work.  Since they caused the problem, shouldn’t the hotel offer to tip him for me?  A half hour later, the wi-fi wasn’t working again.  The technician came up and fixed it again, and then had the chutzpah to wait around for another tip, which I never gave him (but felt guilty about, like I was Ebenezer Scrooge not giving one of my poor employees a ham for Christmas). 

Let’s see how fast this technician comes to my room the next time the wi-fi goes kaput.

Some countries don’t tip.  I’m sure that’s why this hotel’s restaurant adds a 15% "gratuity" to the bill whether you like it or not — basically to force the Japanese and Swedes to tip.  Of course, like a dock worker in the former Soviet Union, when there’s not much incentive for a waitress to work hard, she just doesn’t.  The service in the restaurant was atrocious, and I had no choice but to tip this moron 15% — which I probably would have done away, being a wimp like my father.  I couldn’t bear a waitress looking at me with an evil eye.

To read about real waitresses working hard in bars, see Mary and Kdunk.

I grew up in an apartment building in New York where we had "supers" — guys who came up to your apartment to fix things like your toilet and kitchen sink.  Even though they made a pretty good salary, my father always tipped them for their services.  What really used to bug me was how during Christmas, the apartment building gave each "super" a big bonus, and every apartment resident would give them a big tip as well.  It never seemed as if these tips were really from the heart.   They always seemed like the forced blackmail of the Mafioso.  God forbid you didn’t tip the super!  Your toilet would be overflowing all over your apartment, and the super would always be "busy."  But of course, he always had time to help someone who gave him a big tip.  Luckily, he always helped my big tipper father, but I don’t think any of the supers ever visited the cheapskate Weiselfeiffer family in apartment 3C — and I mean not even once in twenty years.

My own personal experience in tipping came at an early age.  When we were very young, my friend Rob and I were not allowed to take the subway by ourselves.  One afternoon, being adventurous (or at least Rob was), we decided to disobey our parents and took the long ride on the 7 train to Times Square.  We even had a final destination — one of the last remaining "Chock full o’ Nuts" coffee shops that our fathers used to go to.   A Chock Full of o’ Nuts cafe, for those not in the know, was like a Starbucks before its time — a place mostly for coffee and a muffin.  We sat down at the counter, thinking that people would think we were adults if we just acted like it.  We ordered two coffees.

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Waitress:  Do your parents know you drink coffee?

Rob and I:  Sure… yeah… we always drink coffee…

The waitress shrugged.  I’m sure she saw weirder things working in Times Square (this was before the Disneyfication).

Waitress:  You want it regular or black?

We said black, since it sounded more adult.

The waitress gave us our coffee and we forced ourselves to drink this awful-tasting sludge.   When we were done:

Waitress:  Anything else?

Me:  No, thank you, Miss.

She gave us the check.  Rob took one glance at it and broke out in a sweat.

Rob:  We only have enough money for the coffee and the train ride home.  We don’t have anything for the tip!

We both lived in the same apartment building as our Mafioso supers, so we knew that tipping was extremely important.  There was only one solution:  We would write the waitress a nice thank you note.

I took out the Bic pen I always carried with me and we both composed our masterpiece on the back of the Chock full o’ Nuts napkin.

Dear Waitress,

We are sorry, but we don’t have enough money for a tip.  But you were the best waitress we ever had.  If we had money, we would give you the biggest tip you ever got.  Thank you for the cofffee.

Yours truly,

Neil and Rob

We took out the money we owed and left it on the table.  We turned the napkin towards the waitress and we ran out.

To this day, Rob and I still wonder how this waitress responded to our little note.  We hope that she was incredibly touched and framed the napkin and put it on her wall at home.   Maybe she’s retired now, and sometimes looks at this napkin as the highlight of her waitressing career. 

I hope she wasn’t upset.  I would hate to think that as we ran out of the Chock Full o’ Nuts, she gave us the evil eye for not leaving a tip.  

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