I hate to talk about tips. For the initiated, it’s one story. For the ones outside the restaurant industry, it’s another. There are arguments for keeping the tipping system as is, and then, there are arguments for completely getting rid of it, with a few solutions that try to bridge the extremes.

I worked in restaurants where every receipt for any party of six customers or more had an added mandatory gratuity of 15%. In my mind, it’s smart thinking, as I worked many company Christmas bashes.¬† Normally, the employees would arrive at the restaurant on company-provided buses. A few hours in, the euphoria caused by surf-and-turf and plenty of booze would leave everyone, including the responsible CFO holding the purse, giggling from too many shots. By the time the “get-out-of-my-establishment” coffee was served, most of the partiers could not walk the straight line from the restaurant door to the bus, let alone calculate the percentage for the tip. But they could sign on the dotted line on the credit card receipt and that was enough.

These days I work in a diner that forbids even suggesting a gratuity. Monday through Friday we mostly get business people, housewives with kids, and local blue-collar workers who all pretty much treat us decently. But once in a while, we get hit in the plexus with a really hard punch. Last Monday I waited on a party of thirteen people in their late twenties – early thirties, men and women, all the colors of Benetton included. I took their order, the food came out really fast, everything just the way they ordered, they were happy, finished up pretty fast, left withing an hour, which is miraculous for a busy restaurant at lunchtime. Their tab was $175.00. They paid with a credit card and left me nothing. Zero. Nada.

I know I am a conscientious, hard-working professional who cares not only about the place that employs me but also about the total experience my guests might have in our diner. Many times my customers comment positively on my smile, my attitude, or my aptitude. I know I am doing a good job. But I also know that no matter how good I am, some people do not care. Or they do not know what is the right amount to tip. I have to accept that, as I don’t have a choice, even though we have to declare our tips each day based on our sales, not on the real situation.

Weekend stories are much worse, as we get many big parties, and a big majority of them do not tip well – $5.00 is a standard on $60.00, $70.00, $80.00, and on. Just this last Saturday I received a $3.00 tip on a bill that was $75.00, and a $2.00 tip on a bill of $48.00. Unfortunately, I had to claim more money than I made, which means I had to pay taxes on the money I had not made.

Our diner is very fast-paced and if there is any cash left on our tables, our busboys place it into the caddy that holds jellies, condiments, and sugars. Sometimes we don’t have time to collect out tips from the caddies before a new party is seated. But we know it’s there. To reach out and collect it while the new party is seated seems like we don’t trust them, so most of the time we leave it there.

One time, a regular customer was seated at one of our really deep booths. I saw the cash left over by the previous patrons, but it felt awkward to reach out and get it. He ate, I gave him the bill, he left to pay, and when I walked by the table, the money from the caddy was gone. His tip on the credit card was less than the cash left in the caddy.

On a Sunday a few months back, there was a $20.00 bill in the caddy before a party of six was seated. When I looked again, the money was gone. I asked if anybody saw the money. A teenager pulled it out of his pocket and gave it to me, prompted by his mother who saw him take it.

Last week a grandmother treated her twenty-something grandson to lunch. She paid and left a cash tip. He went to the bathroom, came back to the table, and while she was waiting for him at the front, he pocketed the tip. We all saw it and wondered if he took advantage of her in some other ways. A couple of days later they returned and we recognized them. But this time, we were on alert. As soon as they left the table, the busboy took the tip money and gave it to the waiter. When the grandson came back, there was nothing for him to pocket.

These things happen all the time. Every single day. And every single day I leave the diner¬† I feel depressed, as there is nothing I, or any of my colleagues, can do. Oh, you can get mad, and rant, and curse, and cry, but, in the end, nothing really matters. Your livelihood depends on the mercy and whims of your customers, not on your abilities, expertise, knowledge, or kindness. And that fact is enough to keep you waking up in the middle of the night sweating and your heart beating as if you are in mortal danger …