Tipping Point

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

"Stiffing somebody? That's the biggest insult in the world..." This time I called up Tim Niver, a co-owner of new hipster hotspot Town Talk, the diner with fine-dining accents. I wanted to get his perspective on service, as he was once general manager of the Minneapolis Aquavit, and now can be seen many nights in a server's black jacket on the floor of his bustling diner-with-benefits. "It's just classless," he concluded eventually, and I could tell he was sifting his words carefully, trying not to curse. "Honestly. I would never suggest not tipping. If you're not going to tip you just shouldn't pay the bill, it's that bad."

So what should diners do if they're not happy, if the much-repeated solution of not tipping is not acceptable? Above all, ask for a manager, say both Gillquist and Niver. "When I get a letter or a phone call a day later, that's frustrating to me," says Gillquist. "We spend so much time trying to see problems before they get out of control, but if we miss something you have to speak up, because we are willing to take care of any problem immediately, and if you leave angry you didn't give us the opportunity to fix things. When I ask people [in those instances of delayed complaints] why they didn't say something [before leaving the restaurant] they usually say, 'I didn't want to make a stink in front of everyone,' or, 'We were pressed for time and just wanted to go.' But my advice is you'll feel better, because you won't be pissed off, and we would rather hear it right away. In fact, we will thank you for the opportunity to right a wrong."

Niver concurs: "Don't leave angry. Don't get in your car and tell 30,000 people your experience was bad. Call over a manager immediately. If you leave pissed off, how effective is it for me to improve my business, or fire that stupid server?" In fact, says Niver, if you're having a problem at your table and the server hasn't already told his or her management, that itself is a bad sign. If there isn't any management, that's the worst one. "It's a circus without a ringleader!" says Niver. "There are no final answers or satisfying resolutions to any problems."

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

It makes me think that if you really want to assure good service, you should call ahead to make sure there's a manager in the house when you are. I thought I'd end this story in a sneaky, insider-y way, calling up some of the restaurants I've gotten the most complaints about, and asking to speak with their managers, to find out their management philosophy. I reached the worst offender before lunch on a Thursday, and learned there wouldn't be any management onsite until dinner Friday. Now I've got a new mantra: There's no such thing as bad service, just bad management.

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