Harassment and Tipping in Restaurants: Your Stories

After we published an article on tipping and the power imbalance it creates between customers and servers, hundreds of readers wrote in with their own experiences — on both sides of the equation.

Lewd comments. Groping. Requests for dates and propositions for sex. We talked to more than 60 restaurant servers about their experiences with sexual harassment from customers, and pulled it together for a project that examined the way servers balance the abusive behavior they endure against their need for tips.

Then we heard from you. When we published the article last Monday, we asked readers to tell us their own experiences in restaurants, either as diners or servers. More than 1,200 people responded in a little more than 24 hours.

“You numb yourself because dealing with inappropriate behavior from customers is just part of the job — that’s the way it feels, at least.”

We heard from a woman whose customer offered to pay her college tuition if she would have an affair with him, and a senior in high school who told of men hitting on her in front of their children as she waited on them.

And of course there was the story about the server who poured a strawberry daiquiri over a customer’s head after he kept running his hand up her skirt. But we’ll get back to that.

As we combed through the responses, we were struck by the sheer number of readers who had their own harrowing stories of mistreatment while working as servers or bartenders. Just like the scores of workers we interviewed for the article, many described the pressure to tolerate bad behavior in order to earn tips.

Especially telling: Many of you said the money made it worthwhile.

“I’ve had countless men use predatory language, grab me inappropriately and suggest that I sleep with them. If I play along and smile, they always tip well, and they always come back. As emotionally draining as it is, the trade-off is worth it because I don’t have to deal with these men outside of work, and their money allows me to pay for my education and save for my future.”

“Part of being a server is developing thick skin. The other part is knowing that if you smile and go along with diners’ jokes, you’ll make more money. So sometimes I let snide comments — “Oh look at this little Spanish mami” — slide by. The trade-off was bringing home money so I could survive.”

Ruby De Santiago, Rogers, Ark.

Some respondents urged their fellow servers to stand up for themselves, even if it meant losing out financially.

“Rewarding bad behavior is equal to consent and not speaking up for yourself and others perpetuates that cycle of abuse and control.’’

Bobby, San Francisco, a tipped worker for 20 years

But a few current or former servers questioned the severity of the problem, saying they had always worked in restaurants that did not tolerate misconduct from customers. And one reader, Ella Watson, a college student who works in a bar and grill near her campus in Norman, Okla., embraced the practice of flirting for tips.

“I flirt. I give out my number (the vast majority of times a fake one). I tell fraternity members that I ‘love their house’ and ‘will definitely come to their next party!’ This behavior gets me tips, and good ones. I am grateful for my job. I make more than enough to pay for my bills and live comfortably while going to school. To suggest that sexist power imbalances are at play, or that I am a victim of a tipping culture, is demeaning.’’

Some male readers also felt exploited sexually (hugging a customer at a gay club in West Hollywood could mean the difference between a big tip and an insulting one, a bartender said), but other men wrote in about harassment that was humiliating even though it was not sexual.

“There are a lot of people out there who really hold your tip over your head and don’t seem to understand that you are their equal. Serving is one of the hardest things I have done in my life. I’m about to graduate with my mechanical engineering degree and nothing I have done in my schooling had compared to a rough night of work at the restaurant.”

Diners weighed in too, with many expressing the need to respect the fact that servers were at work by keeping interactions professional. A few told of debating with themselves whether it would be appropriate to leave a business card or invite a server on a date. Some decided against it, but one reader said he was glad he decided to speak up.

“She said yes the second time, maybe a tad reluctantly. We were married for almost 45 years, so maybe it wasn’t so inappropriate after all.’’

One man flipped the equation, expressing annoyance at being on the receiving end of servers trying to engage him too much in an effort to extract tips.

“It’s obvious when servers are trying too hard to get a tip. I wish I could tell servers that I’m always going to tip 20 percent so please don’t feel you need to engage me in a conversation I don’t want to have.”

Fred Turatti, Potomac, Md.

Like Mr. Turatti, many diners said they always tipped at least 20 percent, though some set the baseline at 15 percent. Former servers said they often left more. “I’ve been there,” was a sentiment we heard again and again.

Other readers questioned why tipping existed at all and suggested that everyone — diner and employees — would be better off without it. This was an issue our article explored, looking at restaurants that had adopted no-tipping policies. But the experiences were mixed, and many of the servers we interviewed were against eliminating tipping because they were convinced it would hurt their bottom line. Many of the reader responses echoed that reasoning.

“The only reason I don’t accept a full-time management role or move to a more ‘traditional’ industry is because I would be taking a pay cut to do so.”

Diners also told poignant stories about realizing how much their tips meant to servers. One reader, Sheri Albrecht of Walford, Iowa, recounted a time when she and her husband had dined with another couple, who picked up the check but left a paltry tip.

“My husband returned to the restaurant the next day, found the waitress, apologized for our friend’s poor tip (she remembered it) and handed her enough cash to make 20 percent. She stared at the money for a few seconds, stunned, then threw her arms around my husband’s neck and started to cry. THAT’S how much tips mean to servers.’’

Now about that strawberry daiquiri.

It was poured in a bar in eastern Oregon in 1982. The server, Kelly Andersson, had been delivering drinks to a corner booth with about six people in it, and one of the men ran his hand up her leg and under her skirt.

“First time I just gave him the death glare,’’ she wrote. “Second time I told him (a bit loudly) that if he put his hand under my skirt again I’d pour a drink over his head. Next trip back, OF COURSE, he does it. I plucked a strawberry daiquiri from my tray and dumped it gracefully on top of his head and smirked as it ran down onto his nice cream-colored turtleneck sweater.’’

She said his friends started piling cash onto her tray to reward her, then had a better idea: they started grabbing the perpetrator’s money. She made about $125 from that one episode, she estimated.

There’s a postscript to her story.

“About 20 years later I happened to drive through that town (it’s on the interstate) and stopped at that bar for an afternoon beer. Got to chatting with an old guy at the bar.”

The episode, it turned out, had become legend. And the old man recounted it to Ms. Andersson, telling her about the time a jerk had been doused with a margarita.

“I told him, ‘Yeah, I remember that. It was a strawberry daiquiri.’”

Catrin Einhorn reports and produces narrative-driven work in a variety of media, including print, audio, video and interactive pieces. She was previously a public radio reporter and a Fulbright scholar in anthropology. @catrineinhorn