When I was in college I worked for a little Chinese restaurant during the spring semester of my sophomore year. It was a mostly miserable experience. I have had worse jobs mind you, but there is something uniquely unpleasant about waiting tables that just sort of sticks with you forever.
The restaurant was not considered a nice restaurant. Don't get me wrong, the food was fantastic. I think it was by far the best Chinese food in town. In fact it is some of the best Chinese food I have had. When we go back to visit family up that way we always make sure to get at least one meal in at this place.
Great food aside, the atmosphere was lacking. It was in a building that had once been some sort of fast food chain with a decor upgrade to make it look more traditional kitschy Chinese restaurant. There was a drive thru at the restaurant and you ordered your food at the counter. Nothing about this screamed fine dining. It made everyone who came in think of it more like fast food Chinese and they liked to treat us as such.
While you ordered at the counter, the rest of the dining experience was more like a normal restaurant. Someone brought you your drinks and your food. A waitress (because at the time the only men in the restaurant cooked or were the owners sons who just mooched our tips) would come by to refill your drinks, get you anything you needed, and in the end clear your table. No one was assigned to a table per se, but we tended to stick to one section if we weren't busy.
We did work for tips sort of. We were paid more than a normal server but a lot less than minimum wage still. Since we weren't assigned tables we tip shared. Can I just say that tip share is evil. We had one girl that never worked. She would sit and chat with friends, stand and stare into the order window ignoring customers, or disappear completely but still get an equal cut of the meager tips that we earned. We started pocketing tips when she worked and secretly meet in the parking lot at the end of the night to tip split without her.
I remember one night, prom night to be exact, we got a couple dozen kids coming in pre prom for dinner. Amazingly these kids almost all left tips. As my coworker and I were clearing tables two girls, who were actually too young to go to prom and had just dressed up to have dinner with their friends, were still lingering at a table. As they got up to leave they saw a $5 bill sitting on the table and one girl scoffed to the other "Someone left a tip. That is so stupid, you don't tip here." and then she reached for the money.
I have moved faster in my life, but not many times. I crossed the room in a blink of an eye and snatched the money out from under her hand. I fixed the teenager with a death glare and as politely as I could informed her that yes, we do work for tips, and she should think twice about trying to steal from servers in the future. I turned and pocketed the tips off of all the other tables quickly before returning to my cleaning duties.
Aside from poor tipping habits a number of the patrons treated the restaurant like a fast food joint. I remember one day a woman came in with 5 children between the ages of 3 and maybe 9. She insisted on ordering all of them a regular portion of chicken fried rice. Our portions were huge. I almost never finished a full plate and I have a healthy appetite. Still we couldn't convince her to get a childs portion or allow the kids to share.
Now I don't have children, but even then at the age of 19 I knew what very young children were prone to do with heaping piles of rice. For the next 45 minutes my coworkers and I stood and watched helpless and horrified as these children proceeded to destroy the booth they were in. They threw the rice at each other, at the window, on the floor, at other people. They got on the floor and ground the rice into the carpet. They turned over all the sauce containers and emptied out the salt.
All the while the mother just let them do that, while also being ridiculously demanding on the staff. She would shout at us across the restaurant to bring her more drink or another fork since her kid had thrown yet another one at the floor. She was rude and snapped at us constantly. I was the one who ended up helping her, and I was as polite as possible though it was hard not to just slap her.
When she finally left, hauling her rice covered hellions with her, she did not leave a tip. I stood with a bucket and the rice scraper (it was like a squeegee for the carpet to get out ground in rice) staring at the mess and hating my life. It was the single worst clean up I ever had to do in that restaurant and it was all in the space of one booth.
After a few minutes of wiping down everything and scraping rice a man walked up to me with his 6 year old daughter at his side. He politely interrupted my rice scraping and told me he had watched the entire debauchal happen and how impressed he was with how I handled all of it. He wanted to apologize for how that woman acted. Then he handed me a $10 bill and walked out.
I was stunned. What was even more shocking was the fact that when I finally made it to his table (15 minutes later) to clear it, there was a $5 tip there as well. The man tipped me for his meal and for the woman as well. It was one of the few moments that I didn't mind working in that place.
The only other truly nice moment I remember from that job was on my very first day. I had no idea what anything on the menu was, I had no idea how to work the register, I had no idea how to work the drive thru, I had no idea how to write out an order, pretty much I was clueless and terrified. The other girls were trying to help, but not doing a great job of it.
The very first order I took was for, what I would find out later, a regular. All the girls knew this woman but they failed to tell me that they knew her well enough to know she never ordered what she wanted. She had a bad habit of ordering one thing but meant another. I want to say she ordered crab rangoon when what she wanted were won tons. This was a pretty significant difference in food and in price.
When I took her the order she immediately snapped at me that I had taken her order wrong. I was mortified. I apologized up and down and went back to fix things. I looked at the ticket to verify I had written down what came out of the kitchen. I went to one of the other girls in a panic and she chastised me for obviously taking the order wrong.
I felt like an idiot. It was my first day and I had already screwed up. I was fairly certain that I was not going to be able to keep this job for very long. It was miserable. Not really the way you want to start a job.
I corrected the order and then slunk back to the counter to wrap silverware since that seemed safe. I sort of wanted to cry. No one had told me at this point that the woman always made this mistake. Apparently they had just all forgotten this simple fact. I would have never really known if it weren't for the woman telling me herself.
As she went to leave she came up to me and apologized for snapping and for upsetting me on my first day. She said she realized after that she had ordered the wrong thing and that normally the other girls just corrected the order and brought what she really wanted. She was so very sweet about the whole thing that I suddenly didn't feel bad about it at all. She also slipped me a $5 bill before she left to further apologize. It was actually the only time I ever pocketed a tip and didn't share it with anyone else.
Overall it was an experience I would happily never repeat. Like I said, I have had jobs that were worse, but that doesn't mean this was something I enjoyed. It did however give me many insights into people in general. It made me look at my food servers in a new light as well.
Because of that job I almost always tip something. I think in the decade since I had that job I only walked away without tipping once, and that was a spectacularly bad service. I will leave 'bad' tips if the server is rude or incompetent, but even then that is a 10% tip at minimum. I typically tip between 20-30% depending on the service I get. I will leave an extra tip if I see a server get stiffed. I always am polite and apologetic if I think I am being overly fussy or needy.
Basically I learned to never be the customer who sends my server home in tears wanting to quit their jobs. I strive to be that customer that makes waiting tables just a little less miserable. I think that is a good lesson for us all.