Dishin' That: When it comes to tipping, do this, don't do that

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With the exception of credit card statements, the 2014 holiday season is a scant memory. Time has passed, but it’s never too late to honor the annual tradition of sharing the top best and worst tips of the previous year. Here’s what they were, and why, in ascending order:

The best tips

• A little round tin of Doc Martens Wonder Balsam. It’s smelly, yellow waxy stuff that makes my knock-off Dansko clogs look brand new. Explaining she had a full-sized tin at home, the nice woman who bequeathed it also left $5 under her plate.

• No form of bribery or blackmail could motivate my co-workers to cover my shifts when I begged for time off to see Bruce Springsteen in Cincinnati. Gratitude flowed like cheers during “Born to Run” when my then-manager uttered, “Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out.” It wasn’t cash and it wasn’t from a customer, but still priceless.

• Cash rules and most servers feel like royalty when the holiday season rolls around. Usually Scrooge-like people tip appropriately while the consistently generous go overboard. My best cash tip of the 2014 holiday season was $100 on an $87 tab.

• At my urging, two regulars switched to Tito’s Vodka, leaving Grey Goose in their dust. One dead Saturday lunch they came in with a brown paper bag labeled “Cosmo Kit,” and perched it on the bar when they left. The bag was filled with a handled jug of Tito’s Vodka, a bottle of Rose’s lime juice, a bottle of cheap triple sec (perfect) and little six-pack of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. Also included was $20 and a note thanking me for such great service over the years.

• The best tip of 2014 came from a stranger now on my phone’s speed dial. Making small talk about cars, I told the bar customer of my aging Honda CRV’s woes. Changing the subject to sushi restaurants and his pet snake, Vincent, we started talking about work. He casually mentioned he was an independant auto mechanic with a small garage, and insisted on fixing my brakes and doing a free alignment. Bonus? He vacuumed it, too.

The worst tips

• The best of the worst were the annual leaflets in lieu of cash from members of a religious sect who have been trying to save my soul for years. They visit Maine every July, and I was remembered by name. New to the mini-revival in 2014, the family of six held hands and prayed for me while I stood there awkwardly. The word “best” is tossed in because I need all the help I can get.

• I’m still shaking my head over a guy who left me an embossed invitation to a financial seminar at DiMillo’s. The seminar included a free meal as the carrot. After considering attending to learn where I should invest my next hundred grand, I remembered I’m a server and a writer. No cash tip was left to further my ascent to the 1 percent.

• Making the list for the second year in a row was a partially punched Portland Dine Around  card. Although I hoped the card was left in error, the accompanying PDA book was also left behind. Once again, no cash.

• Four passes to Funtown Splashtown USA. Even if I had small kids and could stand everyone else’s small kids, it was a rotten tip. I gave the tickets to a co-worker – who called me from the park to tell me the blurred, microscopic print on the back of the tickets said they had expired a month earlier.

• The worst tip of 2014 was the ever-unpopular “verbal tip” from a group of eight businessmen who split $750 between two credit cards, with not a gratuity in sight. Unfortunately, house policy and a murky law over semantics differentiating between a service charge and a gratuity prevented me from automatically including adding one to the tab. This factor was made clear to one of the gentleman in attendance when their table was booked in advance. Thinking cash was left on the table, I wished them a good evening as they stopped to tell the manager how fantastic everything was.

At my threatening to behave poorly, the manager called the contact’s phone number, and left a message that there must have been a “billing error.” Days later, she called a second time asking for someone to please return her call. No one did.

Peas & Q’s

Q: My husband and I go to a sports bar to watch the Celtics. We’re there for hours and even though we leave a 20 percent tip, it seems unfair to me to monopolize a table after we’re done eating and drinking when I see people standing around. My husband says I’m nuts. What’s your opinion? — Martha R., Portland

A: Martha, regardless of how long you camp out, tipping should be based upon service. Other (among many) considerations are food quality, atmosphere, and cleanliness. Unless it’s a fine-dining environment driven by reservations, guilt should never be a factor.

That said, I applaud your sensitivity to holding up table turn-over on a lucrative evening. At a sports bar, your server expects a percentage of folks to stay until the final buzzer. Hopefully, it’s balanced by the other percentage being “one-and-done” guests. That, and a Celtics win.

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Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.

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