Determining the ‘norm’ for good restaurant service and tips

Determining 'norm' for service and tips

Restaurant workers discuss what good service is and the tip amount that should accompany it.
Published: February 16, 2020
Customers talk and await their drinks at Faegan’s Pub.
Customers talk and await their drinks at Faegan’s Pub on South Crouse Avenue.

The line is to the door as customers file into Pastabilities for lunch on a brisk fall Thursday.

As the patrons make their way down the cafeteria style line, cooks take all sorts of individual orders, from Bolognese on top of rigatoni – a bolo rig to them – to Alfredo over penne, amongst other pasta dishes.

As they reach the cash register, they are greeted by a middle-aged gentleman, ready to take payment. A bowl sits in front of him filled with cash. At the end of the shift, he, the busser and the two line cooks will split the tips evenly.

According to, food service workers in Syracuse are paid an hourly wage of $7.85, which is well below the $11.10 hourly minimum wage in the rest of the city. Between serving tables, making sure their customers’ food is delivered on time, grabbing drinks and cleaning, servers and bartenders have to perform a balancing act each shift because their livelihood depends on their tips.

At the beginning of the year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the end of subminimum wage across miscellaneous industries. These include, but are not limited to, nail salon workers, hairdressers, car wash workers and valet parking attendants. The elimination of the tipped wage for these industries will be phased in over a one-year period. Notably absent from the list though were restaurant workers.

Alex Susskind is the director of the Food and Beverage Institute at the Hotel School at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. He has forty years’ experience in the industry, and says he judges good service on whether he receives a seamless experience.

“My expectation is that I’m going to be greeted quickly and in a welcoming and friendly manner, my order is going to be taken quickly and correctly and the food I get is going to come up quickly,” he says.

Mark Hurley, the bar manager at Pastabilities, worked at various restaurants for about ten years and started working at Pastabilities in 2013 as a waiter. He said what makes their service great is that their staff is accommodating and has a welcoming demeanor, no matter the events in their personal lives.

“Part of being a professional is putting on a mask and having a positive attitude,” he said.

Audrey Brown, a bartender at Faegan’s Pub, said the key to good service is being time efficient and anticipating people’s needs, as well as being sympathetic to the customer.

She described a time, about four months ago, when a man came in and seemed agitated the entire meal, like he was having a bad day, so she decided to pay for his meal herself. The customer returned the next day and explained that his wife was in surgery the day before, and apologized for acting the way he did, tipping her $50.

Danelle Mercuri, owner of Rise N Shine Diner, shuffled into their new location on Westcott Street on a snowy Friday afternoon. She was there an hour before opening to host a meeting with fifteen employees to go through a daily inspection to make sure that the restaurant was ready to go and that everyone was prepared for their shift. These regular inspections and meetings are what she said has helped them receive positive reviews.

In addition, she monitors restaurant review sites such as Google reviews, Yelp and TripAdvisor every morning, which she said is also helpful. She looks at the reviews, discusses them with the staff and makes the appropriate changes, following up to make sure they’re implemented.

All of these practices, she said, have contributed to the success of the restaurant and positive service experiences, which contributes to staff tips.

The average person might say that a 10% tip is for bad service and 20% is for good service, but Mercuri stated that 20% should just be the standard, adding that there should, at least, be a minimum of 15% that customers must tip.

Susskind says just like any other business, going to a restaurant is a transaction, yet running one is a very complicated operation.

“When you get treated well or you get really good service or you see things that are running well, that means you have good managers, that you have good staff in place that are doing what they need to do,” he said.

Because of this, he says most of the time when something goes wrong, he doesn’t blame the server because their managers are allowing them to act that way.

“If you are a good manager, you are looking out for your people, and your people is broadly defined as your employees and your guests,” he said.

Restaurant industry employees are also consumers at restaurants, and because of their jobs, they have a different approach to the dining out experience, which often includes tipping well and giving their server the benefit of the doubt.

Brown said she is more forgiving and the little mistakes don’t matter to her because she knows what it is like.

“People are still taking their time to care about you,” she said.

Mercuri said she always tips the standard 20% when she goes out but will sometimes tip up to 40%, because serving is what she describes as an “emotional rollarcoaster.”

“A lot of people often don’t know what goes into making a dish. There is lots of stuff that can happen that isn’t foreseeable,” she said.

Tyler Kerr is a bartender at The Inn Complete, a SU owned restaurant located on South Campus.

While the restaurant rules mandate he is not allowed to be tipped, he said there isn’t as much pressure bartending at The Inn Complete as there is at other places he’s worked.

“You are working for the restaurant, not the customer,” he said.

Many coffee shops have a tip jar on the checkout counter or an option to tip after the swipe of a card. Although employees at such places make an hourly wage, which can lead to some customers not leaving an additional tip. Susskind said that generally, people are okay with leaving an additional gratuity.

“If you feel you have been treated well and in a friendly manner, people tend to be generous,” he said.

In addition to varying hourly wages and the precarious nature of tips, the rise of food delivery apps such as Grubhub and DoorDash has also affected servers at restaurants in Syracuse.

Brown said because of this, the restaurant industry in Syracuse is on the decline, especially for family-owned businesses. But while Mercuri acknowledged these apps have made the food space in Syracuse more competitive, she said she welcomes new approaches for the restaurant industry.

“The more the merrier,” Mercuri said. “It is also part of keeping up with the times.”

Despite the juggling of a variety of tasks and the lack of consistency in income, working in the restaurant industry can still be appealing, Hurley said.

“Our work environment is a really fun social environment,” he said. “It is nice to have fun in that environment.”