Tipping Point

Bad service? Whatever your peeve, don't get mad, get management.

"The smallest of the smallest goes to management here," explained Schoenig. "Any time we do a pre-shift [meeting] we convey to our staff the importance of keeping in mind that situations can go awry very quickly, and we don't want our staff to be putting out the fires, we'd much rather have that in our hands. It's the name of the restaurant on the line, and we'd much rather have a salaried employee making those decisions for us than an hourly employee."

What is the smallest of the smallest? "If someone says, 'My Diet Coke tastes like Coke,' it would be easy enough to simply go to another bar gun and get a different Diet Coke," says Gillquist. "But even in that instance we want the server to get a manager, because it might be that something bigger is messed up, and we need to know." Likewise, if there's a beggar annoying guests on the patio, if a guest reports a steak was delicious but a hair overdone, if a loudmouth at table 43 is obviously making guests at table 42 uncomfortable, the Zelo managers want to know.

"The 'get a manager' philosophy is preached on a shift-by-shift basis," explains Gillquist. "From our perspective we don't want a server to be distracted by a problem, we want them to be working at the best of their ability for all the rest of their tables, and for the guest, a free dessert to cure a problem is never nearly as satisfying as knowing that the person who has the power to really hear the problem and solve the situation is right here in front of me."

Zelo manager Jason Gillquist gets tip-top service from Erin McFarland (left), and Jake Malmberg
Kathy Easthagen
Zelo manager Jason Gillquist gets tip-top service from Erin McFarland (left), and Jake Malmberg

To that end, Zelo typically has three—count 'em, three—managers "floating" the floor on a busy night. Three managers: that's a lot of money to spend on salaries for people who are neither preparing, carrying, nor cleaning plates of food. "This stems from Rick Webb's philosophy," explains Gillquist. "We have more management coverage than most restaurants, because of his belief in the importance of management in the guest's experience." I actually hadn't ever heard it put that way, but when Gillquist said it, it does seem to me that the difference between restaurants with good service and bad service is in fact the owner's philosophy.

One part of Zelo's management philosophy has to do with "server sequence," the way a server brings the drinks in the first go-round, the entrees in a later one, and so on. "One-timing" a server throws off his or her sequence. For instance, let's say the first delivery of drinks consists of four glasses of water and a beer. When those hit the table a second guest decides yeah, he'd like a beer too. And when the second beer is delivered, the third guest decides, yeah, he'd like a beer also. At this point the server has made three trips for one drink order, her sequence is off, and her other tables are having less time devoted to them than is ideal.

"This should be something that management is in tune with," says Gillquist. "Here, management does our best to maintain server sequence, and we will leap in to help if things get off track." And how exactly does management keep in tune with that level of detail? By staying in visual contact with all servers and guests, throughout every meal.

Because of all this, Zelo is able to make most guests very happy, even through disastrous acts of God that would trip up other restaurants. For instance, last summer one of Zelo's light-control boards blew up, plunging the dining rooms into total darkness in the middle of dinner. "We offered to find other [restaurant's tables] for everyone, but almost all decided not to go anywhere," Gillquist recalls. "We ended up having a full night, with candles on all the tables. It was essentially a party atmosphere."

That said, Gillquist estimates that 75 percent of Zelo servers get an across-the-board 20 percent on the whole bill, including tax—no small thing downtown, where all the Convention Center taxes hit, and food tax is 10 percent, and liquor 12 percent. Most of the remaining diners, he says, typically don't tip on either wine or tax, and then there are the jerks.

"We're very aware of the level of talent we have in this building," says Gillquist. "Our servers truly care about the guest experience top to bottom, but of course we're human and we do stumble occasionally, and we do whatever we can in those instances to make things right. That said, it's frustrating for a server when they're being treated by the guests as if they don't care, as if they're just a money-hungry vulture waiting for the tip. There are people who think it's okay to be rude because servers don't do real jobs, and so they're subhuman, and it's okay to scream or swear at them."

Egad! Is that common? "I wouldn't call it common," Gillquist notes dryly. "But I wouldn't call it uncommon."

But back to the issue of tipping. Gillquist told me another thing I hadn't realized about tipping, namely, how the IRS approaches it these days. The IRS considers an 18 to 20 percent tip standard, and also assumes the server will be tipping a third of that to server's assistants, sushi chefs, the bar, and such, and so taxes, as income, 13 percent of any server's net sales. Net sales include wine. So, when Zelo and other big restaurants cut their servers' checks they factor that 13 percent into their withholding, and cut them not checks, but accountings of what they owe to various governments. This means that if you stiff your server on a $1,000 bill, he or she is still going to have to pay income tax on the $130 the government assumes you paid them. They're not just stiffed, they're out an additional $30 or more.

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