Ask The Salty Waitress: Does My Server Think I'm A Freeloader?

Dear Salty,

I'm a high school teacher in a big city. In the last few months I've gone to two different restaurants where graduates of my school work, one as a waiter, one as a runner. Both times, I said hi to the students when I recognized them, and we chatted a little to catch up. At the restaurant where the student was a runner, he comped us a dessert. I thanked him, and tipped extra. At the other restaurant, the student was actually the server for me and my dinner companion. He comped us both a vegetable side dish and a cocktail. I think this is incredibly sweet and thoughtful, and I was happy and grateful. We tipped him about 40% as a thank you.

They are both places I go to every couple of months, but now that I know that these young men work at these restaurants, and that when they see me, they will give me special treatment, I'm worried about returning because I don't want them to think that I'm taking advantage of their good will, and I don't want them getting in trouble with the management if they feel like they have to give me something extra every time I come in.

How do restaurant managers feel about waitstaff comping food like this? Is tipping extra adequate compensation for their nice actions? Should I scale back the frequency of my visits to these restaurants?

Fretful About Freeloading

Dear Discount Dodger,

A 40% tip? Come to my restaurant as often as you like, sweetie.

As I've mentioned before, restaurants budget for a certain amount of comped menu items per shift/day/month/whatever. So you're definitely not sending these establishments into bankruptcy by accepting kind gestures from the wait staff. And to answer your question, yes, a great tip is certainly "adequate compensation for their nice actions." That's the best way to thank a server for just about anything—especially since it's too late to go back and change their grades to "A+++."

It sounds like you go to these restaurants regularly, but only just ran into former students on the most recent visit. Rest assured that the treatment you received from these nice young men is probably not something they'll feel obligated to keep up each time you return. Frequent customers aren't always treated to comped dishes; often the server just applies a nice little family and friends discount. Why? Because no restaurant wants repeat business from folks who only come for the freebies. Customers should want to return again and again because of quality food, a welcoming atmosphere, and yes, the friendly and personable staff. Those are probably the reasons you like coming to these spots already, so no one could accuse you of only showing up to pressure twentysomethings into buying you drinks (unlike myself during my misspent youth).

So while it was a pleasant surprise to get your meal comped—and the 40% tip you left was a great way to express your gratitude—you haven't doomed these guys to an endless cycle of breaking the bank on you. Go ahead and visit those restaurants as often as you would normally, and if you see your students again, don't feel any pressure to hide from them. They know what they're doing.

Oh, and I'm guessing it's not just any teacher who would get this treatment from alums. You're either a fabulous educator who people want to be nice to long after you're responsible for their final grades, or you're such a witch that they'd rather send you away happy than have to feel your wrath. Either way, you walked away with free cocktails and dessert, so you must be doing something right.

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