How to complain - and when to tip

Last updated 08:37 17/08/2011

We in New Zealand are not overwhelmingly good at complaining in restaurants and cafes. Or rather, we're very good at complaining after the fact, but just not at the time. You could attribute it to our laid-back nature. Or you could just say we are a bunch of fearfully non-confrontational passive aggressives.

A few posts ago, I described a poached egg nightmare at a café in Napier – food that was simply not up to scratch, inedible, delivered far too slowly, which my hung-over self responded to by dropping the plate on the counter to attract the attention of the blissfully ignorant wait staff.

I have a bit of a theory about any type of service. It’s okay if it’s a tad "brusque" if it's extremely competent; similarly it’s okay if it’s a bit hopeless if it's delivered in a charming fashion. Ideally, service should be both charming and competent. What is not okay is when the service is neither charming NOR competent.

The worst service I have ever experienced in a restaurant was at a Chinese restaurant in Christchurch in the mid-90s – me, my partner, my parents and a family friend. We were seated, appropriately, at a table for six. We were then told “you’re gonna have to move”, and shifted to a gigantic 20-person table with a Lazy Susan by our scruffy, gum-chewing, ferociously adolescent waiter. He snorted, repeatedly. As we shouted to each other across the vast expanse of table, he thrust menus at us – when my Mum got a drinks menu rather than a food menu, and asked for it to be swapped over, she was told “all right, all right, keep your hair on”. He then proceeded to deliver the wrong drinks order.

At this point I decided enough was enough. Reasonably politely, I asked our waiter, “Excuse me, do you think we could have another waiter?” Disbelieving, he replied “do you mind if I ask why?”

The gasket blew. “I would have thought that was perfectly bloody obvious!” The situation was swiftly taken in hand by the maitre'd, who comped our entrees and saw to it that the offending waiter spent the rest of the evening out of harm’s way, washing dishes.

(NB: when later recalling this incident, my partner would do so with the weary disclaimer “of all Jeremy’s confrontations in restaurants, that was probably the most justified…”)

Anyway, the point is that you do not have to tolerate rude, incompetent service. But you do need to take some steps to help stamp it out, rather than just accepting it and fuming about it later. If you, if you're serving someone, mess something up – be apologetic. And do what you can to make it right! Equally, if you, as a diner, are on the receiving end of a mess-up – be reasonable. And give your host a chance to make it right.

In a lot of ways, it's a pity we don’t have a more tipping-friendly service culture – nothing improves restaurant service like the promise of a tidy top-up to wait staff wages. There is, of course, no reason why you can’t tip in this country – if you get really great service, then you totally should tip.

That said, I do think the US tipping culture has got out of hand, leading to ridiculous, Larry David-like complications. I am particularly unimpressed by the compulsory service charge applied in some eateries – why should you tip as a matter of course, regardless of whether or not you receive decent service? And then, if it is actually good, you're supposed to tip on top of that? I don’t think so.

I do think that to receive good service, you need to know how to be a good customer. You need to sort of know what you want, but also be receptive to suggestions as to what you might enjoy. If there are any problems, you need to be able to deal with any issues in a reasonable way and be receptive to attempts to make right. Eating out is about more than just not having to cook yourself, feeding your face, and then not having to do the dishes. It should be enjoyable. It should be an experience.

If things are good, tell your waiter. If they are bad, likewise. If the food is great, by all means tell the chef. Any good chef will love being told you have enjoyed his food. If it is not, I would probably mention it to the wait staff rather than the chef – sharp knives, hot elements, fiery temperaments; yeah, nah.

And of course the best endorsement you can give is to tell people if you've had a great meal and great service. It’s how I’ve heard about 90 per cent of the places that have become my regulars.

So – what’s your worst restaurant service horror story? Or, if you're on the other side of the equation, our worst horror customer? And do you tip? And if so, how much?

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C.O.   #1   08:48 am Aug 17 2011

20% if it is better than average. 10% for average and nothing for below average. Like a lot of Kiwis I have worked and travelled overseas on business and I know without question that our proud "no-tipping" culture is a big part of the reason why service levels in NZ are generally very poor by anyone's standard - we generally offer a service level marginally better than a Soviet-era state cafe in Murmansk. I can't blame the waters though. If you have never experienced good service yourself, and haven't been trained, and get paid the same regardless, then you have a recipe for poor service.

Chrissi   #2   08:49 am Aug 17 2011

My worst one was actually at a motel in Australia. There were no restaurants open in the area on the first night we were there, so we ordered fromt eh room service menu. I asked for a rare steak. It came medium well done. I apologised to the girl who brought it but said it was too well cooked for me. The chef (and manager) then came over and told me ot was cooked properly according to instructions, which was cooked for 7 minutes and then rested for about 10. He refused to redo it. He thenleft a note in my room the next day saying the girl who brought it had become very upset by me telling her it wasn't right and that he would kick me out of the hotel if I did anything like it again. I was working in the area, and there were no other hotels around at all. I made a note of it all and then complained to the chain after I left. I got no response from them. Last time I stay with that chain if I have any say in the matter.

Nigel   #3   08:55 am Aug 17 2011

Please, please don't start tipping in NZ. I was 90% of my way through a trip to the USA before I figured out why I was getting rude looks when leaving food joints.

How are you supposed to make informed buying decisions when you don't know the price before hand?

Sniffles   #4   08:59 am Aug 17 2011

Totally agree with you. If I have to put up with bad service, I think I prefer charming but slightly ditzy to competent but brusque - snooty waiters always make me feel very inadequate! There is, of course, another side to the coin. My son and daughter both worked in restaurants while they were studying and they had some horror stories from appalling customers, in particular my daughter had to put up with quite a bit of inappropriate sexual stuff from old middle aged blokes which resulted in jealous bitchiness from their female counterparts. I think we all need to behave a little.

David in Chch   #5   09:02 am Aug 17 2011

I grew up in Canada, which has a tipping "culture". I find that on average service is as good here, because the wait staff here are being paid to do a job, and if it doesn't get done then they no longer have the job.

The worst service I ever had was at a restaurant in Toronto. The supposed waiter delivered the menu but nothing else. I had to ask the busboy for help. He delivered the bread, delivered the meal, delivered the other things I found I lacked. I then afterward sought him out and handed the tip to him personally. I then found the maitre'd and pointedly told him what I thought of the service and made it clear that the busboy had received the tip and that the waiter was not doing his job.

The second worst was when I encountered a corked bottle of wine. The mustiness, the smell of damp rot, was clearly not right. The sommelier insisted that it was fine! I made it clear that I was the one who had to pay and I had to be happy with the wine.

On the other hand, most wait staff I have met have gone out of their way to be helpful.

Alice2   #6   09:02 am Aug 17 2011

The main problem I can see with the tipping culture in the US is that tips are what the staff live off - when I worked there the standard minimum wage was around $8 an hour, but the tipped wage was about $2. I'm guessing the service charges lots of places are putting in place are the restaurant's way of making sure the staff get a livable wage without scaring off customers by hiking the meal prices.

I haven't had any real horror stories, though I suspect waitstaff have groaned about my group of friends when we go out for meals. We talk over everything, shift chairs, there's always someone who can't make a decision & I can never get the group to leave once we've finished so the staff can turn over the table - everyone just sits & natters & never orders dessert or coffee to justify it!

Mike   #7   09:04 am Aug 17 2011

Funny must be something about Chinese restaurant, at a friends birthday I had a wait staff spin the lazy Susan catching a full bottle of red and it ending up in my lap, not only that but she didn't even apologise.

On a side note wait staff in the US get paid enough cash to cover there tax’s so are very reliant on tips, unlike NZ where tips are just a bonus.

ljlj   #8   09:06 am Aug 17 2011

<i>There is, of course, no reason why you can’t tip in this country – if you get really great service, then you totally should tip.</i>

Except there is a reason why you shouldn't tip and that's because once tipping becomes established then base wages go down if business owners know that a percentage of their staffs wages will be potentially supplemented by the customer. I would rather know what up-front what costs are involved, and I would rather have a person providing a service being paid a fair wage, not at the whim or the mood of the person that they're serving. Lets face it, I don't see Doctors and Lawyers and other service providers of that ilk lining up to have a percentage of their fees replaced by discretionary tipping, and there's a good reason as to why.

Flub   #9   09:13 am Aug 17 2011

The worst that comes to memory was in a restaurant in Rangiora a couple of years ago (it has since shut down).

It was mothers day and we were a party of four adults and one child. After being showed to our table, we waited 20 minutes and my husband eventually went to the bar to order drinks, where he stood ignored for five minutes (even though there was a bar man there) until he interjected. Another 15 minutes later, and the waiter came to the table to give us menus and asked us if we'd booked - we hadn't.

Sat there for another 30 minutes without being asked what we wanted to order (and the place wasn't very busy, probably half the tables were empty). In the end, we paid for our drinks and left (an hour after arriving). As it was mothers day, it was a set menu (with a couple of choices for each course) at $75 per person, so that was $300 plus the kid's food that they lost.

Spoilt what was supposed to be a mothers' day lunch for us also.

viff   #10   09:14 am Aug 17 2011

The worst service (and food) that I can remember was at a silver-service restaurant in Auckland. To my thinking, good service should be efficient and unobtrusive. This night, it was neither. When the food was eventually brought out, it was on covered dishes, which required all the waiters and several of the kitchen staff. They put it on the table then stood behind our chairs until we'd noticed they were there and stopped talking. Then the maitre'd announced in a loud voice: "Sir, Madame - may I present your meal tonight blah blah" and the staff whipped the covers off the dishes. It was very awkward, smarmy, and reeked of "look at us! Look at us giving service!" My main was pheasant smoked over green tea, and the taste was reminiscent of the smell of the smoke from the school incinerators. There was no response when I was asked by the smarmy maitre'd how my meal was, and I told him it was awful. Another time, when we went to pay, the person at the counter asked if we were sitting at table x, to which I replied, "I'm not sure which table that is, but if you mean the one where we were basically ignored most of the night, and our food was cold, then yes, that was us!" The reply was, "Uh... OK." In contrast, I've had several memorable meals that were so outstanding I asked to see the chef and complimented him on how great the food was. The latest were in Paris, Epernay and Diano Marina in April/May. The French and Italians are very good at providing great service, although one restaurant in Diano Marina did make us feel a little uncomfortable, partly because we weren't sure what was appropriate to order and the matriarchal owner sat behind a desk at the door with an adding machine and snatched our money when we paid.

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