Squeezing Blood From a Stone

Tip Talk. Many, many non-industry folks are severely misguided in their assumption that bartenders/waiters earn a decent salary. That notion is flatly false. Unlike many of our European counterparts, gratuities (a.k.a,tips) are what we depend on to earn a living here. The whole reason the system is set up as it is (here in the U.S.) is to allow a certain degree of “compensation flexibility” for service. As we’ve all experienced, that service can run the gammut from abysmal to extraordinary. The ensuing “tip” should be reflective of that service level. As a result, gratuity-dependent servers are highly encouraged to always put on their game face, lest they shoot themselves in the proverbial foot.

Net net? Give shitty service – make shitty money. Give stupendous service – make stupendous money. Well, at least it should work that way in theory. In reality, it actually does work that way most of the time. However, like inexplicable streaks at an Atlantic City craps table, there are going to be times in your bartending career where numerous, unpredictable forces of nature conspire to fuck with your income. A string of douchebags will occupy your bar for seemingly endless hours, either refusing to tip at all, insulting you with coins, or repeatedly committing an appalling financial offense like dropping two dollars on a round of 4 Mojitos and 2 Old Fashions.

Well folks, “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” as the old saying goes. That certainly applies to dealing with cheap bastards who fall into the above categories. Before we take a look at how to address these annoyances, let’s first clear the air.

I’ve been in this industry for a very long time. One of the unfortunate side effects of being a “lifer,” is that I’ve become more and more callous and definitely more bitter over the course of my years behind the stick. I think less of, and have much lower expectations of humanity as a whole. Sad, but true. There are a shit-ton of stupid people out there. On the flip side, I have far thicker skin than I did 10 or 15 years ago. In a way, you can equate it to a career Police Officer, having been witness to horrific mutilations, grotesque murder scenes, year after year after year. A rookie might gag, pass out, barf and question his/her career choice. Not to say he’s insensitive or not doing his job, but a twenty year veteran Detective will in all likelihood, handle the situation a bit differently.

I can brush off quite of bit of stupidity and confrontation without flipping my lid. I continually strive to improve my deflection, diffusion, re-direction, and guest recovery skills. Like anyone though, I occasionally goof up and have been known to lose my cool, blow my composure and say/do things unbecoming of a professional in retail – even for a bartender, who has far more license to talk shit than – let’s say – a suit salesman. If you’ve been reading my blog a while, you’ll know that I suffer from some pretty severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in many ways. As such, I tend to dwell on my fuck ups and harbor non-constructive feelings for quite some time. I’ll replay such situations in my head over and over again for days, weeks, months, trying to determine what went wrong and how I could have handled a particular situation better. I’m loco like that.

I’ve also become very adept at reading people. Bartending for a few years will force you to become a Romanian psychic. A guest’s style of dress, the look in their eyes, their stance, gestures, speech, hesitations, grooming, interactions with nearby patrons, their watch, fingernails, how and what they order, and a myriad of other things instantly paint a picture in my mind of what to expect and what they themselves expect. Sometimes, I’m wrong, but most of the time I’m dead on. I can smell a cheap-ass douchebag, a party girl, a pimp, or a runner a mile away – sometimes, before they ever open their mouths.

Even so, my soft side often gets the better of me.  I struggle not to give the benefit of the doubt to apparently undeserving customers. My sympathy bone is huge. Even so, I usually play by the “Two Drink” rule. That rule is: if a customer doesn’t tip after two drinks, I’m likely going to stop serving him/her, one way or another. That’s a tricky road to walk for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that some folks insist that they would have tipped you at the end… that’s sometimes actually true. From a customer’s perspective (and I’ve sounded this bell numerous times) do not play that game. You’re far better off tipping right off the bat, making your tipping habits clear.

With all that said, let’s move on and see what it is, if anything, we can do to – ahem - maximize our gratuities in challenging environments, shall we?

1. Change. There are always those who like to pay for each drink or round in cash. Maybe the reason are so that the wives don’t see the expenses. Who knows? One pseudo-trick you can play to encourage people to tip when they may not have left much at all, is to make sure you give folks who pay cash mundo singles. For a single drink, never return change with less than 3 or 4 singles if you can avoid it. If they’re change is $10 bucks, and you hand the customer two $5 bills, it’s (a) insulting and a pain in the ass for the customer and (b) you’re screwing yourself out of relatively easy money. When putting change down on the bar (preferred), always put the singles on the bottom and the larger bills on top – in numerical order. Guests will be much more inclined to pull off the big bills and leave a few singles on the bartop.

2. Wet Money. To further encourage cheap asses who aren’t leaving any tip at all after 2 or 3 rounds, find (or create) an appropriately sized “wet spot” on the bar and make sure you slap his/her change in that area. They’ll be hard-pressed, annoyed, or disgusted to pick it up. This is particularly effective if the area is laden with sugar or mystery red liquid. Cash money – it’s all yours.

3. Eurotrash. Writing on Checks. One of these days, I’ll get to writing a well-deserved article on our Old World brethren. Soon, soon. As most touristy city bartenders know, many Europeans feign ignorance or blatantly refuse to leave a service charge. You’ve got to be really careful with this particular tactic as employing it in many establishments is grounds for a write-up or dismissal. You must also read your customer well and anticipate if this is the right move or not. I’ve been known to “encourage” certain gaggles of European customers to tip by simply writing the gratuity percentage on the check manually – providing the total. This proves effective 9 times out of 10. Again, proceed with caution.

4. Eurotrash. Autograt. Europeans have given themselves a bad name on this blog, haven’t they? In any case, most restaurants/bars have something called “Autograt” procedures. What that means, is that the menu, sign or whatever, will state that parties of a certain size are subject to automatic gratuity charges. That size is typically 6 – 8 customers. Depending on your management/policies, you may be able to Autograt a check on your own. In many establishments, the computer will put the kibosh on such attempts and force you to get managerial approval via their magical magnetic-stripey card.

5. Kill ‘Em With Kindness. This one is kind of self-explanatory isn’t it? Pouring your heart out to people, engaging them in earnest conversation, intently listening to what they have to say, comping them a drink or dessert, giving them partying suggestions, and generally going the extra, extra mile can yield vast dividends. It may be tiring and challenging during busy times, but pulling on someone’s heartstrings often translates into loosening their purse-strings. For these very reasons (among others), I prefer to work, and make a lot more money on Sunday – Wednesday shifts, rather than Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

6. Guilt-Trip. Few things can put the brakes on a planned romp at the Howard Johnson’s, than calling out a Scrooge at the bar for who he really is and what he’s doing. This is particularly true of a new, budding romance. When it comes time to pay the bill, and douchebag has stiffed you or left 2%,return the favor with a stare, gesture, cross your arms, clear your throat, mumble obscene cuss words, and generally look pissed off. If it comes down to it, open your mouth and call a spade a spade.

7. Ignore Mode. This one’s a favorite. However, like many tactics on this list, you can only get away with it under certain circumstances and in certain types of bars. You’ll have a lot more luck pulling this card in a dive bar or dirty pub than in a Michelin four-star, fine-dining eatery. There are obviously various shades of grey in between. The reality is that most of us work the grey area. As such, you can get away with this ploy far easier, without invoking the ire of management, when it’s really busy. When it’s slow, it’s a really tough move.

8. “AA Mode” Short them on the booze. Very simple. They’ll get the message.

9. Bluntly telling them like it is. This one’s last because it really should be your last resort. When it comes down to it, we all have to keep it real once in a while. No method of extracting (deserved, hopefully) tips from a customer is as brash as getting all up in their face and refusing service until they cough up some Benjamins. At that point, the situation will go one of two ways: terribly bad or terribly good. Either way, you’ve likely blown your relationship with the customer – and probably management if they overhear of if the customer throws your ass under the bus.

Good luck.

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2 thoughts on “Squeezing Blood From a Stone

  1. Definitely a doubled-edged sword to be face-to-face with those who shaft you on the tip. You seem to be talented in the art of the passive-aggressive FU :)

  2. Yep. I’ve definitely mastered the art at this point. Regardless, once you’ve unleashed the dogs on someone who’s stiffed you, it nonetheless makes things really, really awkward until they get their cheap asses up and leave. Part of the job I guess. Thanks Mandy!

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