Last week I was at the local beer joint, having a few with my friend Scott who used to bartend there. When I was ready to leave, I tabbed out and handed the bartender a 5. “Paul, were you ever a bartender or server?” Scott asked. “You’ve always tipped well since I’ve known you.”

The fact is, I haven’t always tipped well. Around the time when I got out of college, I’d never tip waiters and waitresses more than 15%. And tip a bartender? For what, I thought, all they’re doing is opening my beer! That’s their job!

The event that opened my eyes was a spring break trip to Panama City Beach in the mid-1990s. PCB was a haven for the frat guy/sorority girl crowd, and I was appalled at how they treated the waitstaff at restaurants – ordering them around, talking about them behind their backs (but often not waiting for them to get out of earshot), generally acting like their servers were subhuman. And then they’d walk off without leaving a tip at all. I actually heard one say, I’m never coming back here again, why tip. So I made it a point to be extra nice to everyone who waited on me down there, and I tipped well. And furthermore, I asked how they were doing, how they were holding up during the spring break rush season. They really seemed to appreciate someone being kind to them.

When I got back to Memphis, I started to notice that being a server really does suck at times. Many people think that being a customer entitles them to abuse the people waiting on them, demanding this and that and then leaving a lousy (or no) tip. Maybe here in Memphis it’s not as appalling as what I observed on spring break (although the COGIC convention comes pretty damn close), but even one or two rude people can ruin a person’s day. And servers and bartenders are people, a fact many customers seem to forget.

Since my Florida trip, my tipping strategy has been something like this:

15% if the service is average.

20-25% if the service is good.

30% if the service is good and I visit the bar or restaurant regularly. If I’m going to be served by the same person over and over, it only makes sense to take care of them.

30% if I make special requests that cause the server to do extra running around to make me happy (e.g. lots of substitutions, requests for off-menu items).

10% if the service is poor.

Zero if the service is very poor.

A penny if the service is absolutely horrible. I haven’t had to resort to this in years, although I came very close a couple of weeks ago at Huey’s Southwind.

A dollar if I’m buying a regular-priced beer ($5 or under) and paying cash.

Obviously I don’t get out the calculator and compute this stuff to the penny. I round to whatever dollar total is closest.

So, when I tip well, it’s not only to help the people serving me put food on their table, although that’s definitely important. It’s also to say, hey, I know you have to deal with a lot of rude people and I appreciate you. It’s not just a monetary thing, it’s a respect thing.