Tipping Point

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

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

Dear Dara,

In the past, you have run letters from diners frustrated at the poor quality of service at local restaurants. I am writing from a different point of view: that of the server. I work at a very busy local restaurant that has been characterized by some as an institution. I recently calculated that in the past few years, I have waited on as many as 10,000 people.

Naturally, it's expected that I take care of the guest. But it seems a great many of the dining public don't understand that monetary compensation is expected in return for quality service. I have worked long enough in this industry to be able to safely conclude that there is absolutely no relationship between the level of service I provide and the tip I receive, and I have accepted this. Nonetheless, I always do my best to deliver the highest quality service.

I hope you would be willing to enlighten the local dining public on a few points:

1. Some people feel entitled to treat their servers with as little respect as they like, but these same individuals want us to treat them kindly and respectfully. Servers are not slaves, nor are they punching bags.

2. The standard tip is 20 percent. If you cannot afford to tip your server, you cannot afford to eat in a restaurant that offers table service. The reasons servers deserve 20 percent are the very demanding physical nature of the job and the constant disrespect and degradation we endure with a smile on a daily basis, as well as the knowledge of food and drink that we provide.

3. I, like most servers, am required to tip the bar staff and my assistant, which totals 30 percent of my tips at the end of the night, another thing most customers don't seem to appreciate or have any awareness of at all.

4. There is a reason why your mother always said to keep your elbows off the table. It is difficult to set a table with flatware, and to serve drinks and food when your elbows are occupying the surface in front of you.

5. The bar is for drinks and tables are for food. If you are only getting drinks during dinner hours, it is recommended that you do so at the bar instead of taking up valuable table space.

6. Please and thank you: use them.

It might seem like I am simply venting, but I guess I'm actually searching for a reason why some people find 10 and 15 percent tips acceptable when I have done everything I can to offer them good service. Last night, for example, a couple left me $10 on a $150 tab. I couldn't think of a reason in the world why people who can afford a $75 bottle of wine cannot afford to leave a decent tip—especially when I assisted them with selecting the bottle. Clearly, they're the kind of people who don't feel obligated to tip on wine. But they didn't even leave me a decent tip on the meal that I served them to the best of my ability on a busy Saturday night. I can't quite figure out what these sort of people expect from me. A lap dance?

In the end, I would like all of them (bad tippers and rude customers) to know that the one thing I've concluded in my years of service is that the tip reflects more on the guest than it does on me.

—Andrea, Sick of Crappy Treatment



Are people really not tipping out there? I almost can't believe it. Let me tell you about the worst service I ever had. It was in a small Italian restaurant in south Minneapolis, and Dude was coked out of his gourd. After describing dishes so quickly I couldn't keep up, and after working a glorious up-sell of a wine that the restaurant ultimately didn't even have, Dude proceeded to hallucinate imaginary objects beneath my table, dove down after them, and passed out. Acting as if this happened every day, which it well might have, the rest of the staff gathered round and carried Dude off, one server at each shoulder, and the server's assistant, who might better have been called the server's enabler, carrying his feet. The server's enabler then brought the dessert tray, and, soon enough, the check. I tipped, in a flummoxed, giggly sort of way, 20 percent—though why was not entirely clear. For the widows and Hazelden, I suppose. I just kind of assumed everyone was as goofy as I. No?

To find out, I called up managers at one of the Minneapolis restaurants regarded as having some of the most flawless service in town—Zelo, the downtown Rick Webb-owned restaurant that is sister to suburban Bacio and Ciao Bella (Zelo; 831 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; 612.333.7000). What exactly is it that they do at Zelo that they don't do at other restaurants? I spoke to both the general manager Jason Gillquist and manager Scott Schoenig, and they both emphasized that what sets Zelo apart is not the training and the excellent staff, though they do have lots of training and an excellent staff, it's the management support for both server and guest.

"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."

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.

"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."

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.