How To Earn a Two Cent Tip

Of Pie and Pennies….

If you earn your living as a server, then be happy if you see my husband seated in your section.  Before he became a minister, Brian spent the bulk of his career laboring in a variety of food service jobs.  He’s washed dishes, delivered pizza, and cooked homemade meals for elderly folks in assistant living and retirement homes.  Steak houses, greasy spoons. country clubs, casinos, you name it – if they serve food, odds are worked there.

He understands, more than anyone I know, how challenging a life in food service can be.  Long hours – often on weekends and holidays – and low wages are all too common.  Though he was usually employed out of sight behind swinging kitchen doors, he also appreciates the challenges faced by wait staff everywhere.  It’s a hard job.  Long hours on your feet, demanding customers, and a frantic pace make physical and emotional exhaustion the norm for waiters and waitresses.

Because of this, it is almost impossible for wait staff to get a bad tip from Brian.  He understands they can’t help it if the chef overcooked his steak, and he’s sympathetic if the demands of a sudden rush cause our server to forget the extra napkins.  He’s been there. You can relax, because he’s on your side.  

For twenty-five years, he’s made it his policy to never dint anyone on the tip, not by the tiniest percentage….except for one, solitary occasion.

We were in a diner, one of those chain restaurants like Perkins or Denny’s, that you find all over the nation.  We were on a date, and decided to stop in for pie and coffee after an evening at the movies.  We were the only ones in the restaurant, and apparently our arrival had interrupted our server’s plans for an evening of sitting on his rumpus.

He sighed as he approached the table, and tossed menus at us with obvious disdain.  When he returned much later to take our order, he took note of us holding hands across the table top, and mocked us.  Yes, you read that right.  Our waiter commented on our public display of affection with a sneering, “Oh, aren’t you cute?  Not.”  He followed this observation by an eye roll.

We should have left at that very moment.  I don’t know why we didn’t.  Maybe we were too shocked to respond.   I think a part of my brain couldn’t accept that anyone would act this way.  Perhaps right now even you feel tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt.  No one would intentionally insult their customers, right?  Maybe he was shooting for playful banter, but after a long day’s work, it sounded more like rude idiot.

Whatever the reason, we placed our order.  And then we waited…and waited….and waited.  Finally just as we getting ready to walk out, our food and coffee arrived.  We started to eat, but without our usual chatter and smiles.  The waiter glared at us from behind the counter.  I was starting to understand why we were the only customers in the establishment.

Before we consumed more than a few bites, the waiter brought the check.  And I think that would have been the end of an uncomfortable, but forgettable dining experience if the waiter had not paused a moment to comment on the scarf I was wearing.  “That is the ugliest scarf I’ve ever seen.  I can’t believe you go out in public like that.”  He seemed to find his observation hilarious, because he laughed and tried to draw commentary from Brian on my taste in fashion.

I was too shocked to respond.  Brian’s face turned bright red, and his fists were clenched, the skin across the knuckles white with pressure.   To his credit, Brian took a deep breath and maintained his civility.  He dug two pennies out of his pocket and laid them on the table.

We walked to the register where Brian informed the manager of the terrible service we received.  He explained that the two pennies on the table were all he planned to pay for our “dining experience” that night.  He could take the rest out of the server’s paycheck if he liked, but he wasn’t going to get any money out of Brian for three bites of pie and verbal abuse.

The waiter sputtered and argued while Brian was speaking, but the rude interruptions only acted as validation for our complaints. We left, leaving the manager to deal with his employee as he chose.

Outside, Brian and I looked at each other.  At the exact same moment, we each said, “What the heck was that about?” (We may not have said “heck.”  I can’t be sure; it was a long time ago.)  And then, because he really is a wonderful man, Brian took my hand, held it tenderly and said, “I think your scarf is beautiful.”

We laughed for a long time after that.

pennies 001
Note: NOT THE ACTUAL PENNIES. Photographic re-enactment of actual tip.

16 thoughts on “How To Earn a Two Cent Tip

  1. First of all, I just love the sweetness of your man … complimenting you on your scarf after that ugly scenario! I just laughed out loud when I read that! Bravo Brian! It takes guts to leave 2 cents … I have felt like that many times but feel awkward doing it. Just one incident comes to mind though. A friend and I were dining at a small Greek restaurant and right from the start, we smelled trouble.
    My friend ordered dolmas and the waiter (actually the owner) said “Sorry no dolmas today. We could but it will take time.” My friend replied that it was okay as we had time and wanted to relax with some wine first. He took the rest of the order and when he returned with our wine he said
    predictably, “Sorry, no dolmas today”.

    The food came all at once … salad, soup and entree. We sent the soup and entree back to be brought out later in good time after the salad. Result, pissed-off waiter. I won’t bore with you with details of how many times he kept asking if we wanted the bill, but we were high on the wine and equally pissed-off by him, so we laughed and said we would like dessert.

    He sent another waiter to bring our dessert and tea which he started to pour from high above to low into our teacups, an indication of respect for the guest in Mid-Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. My friend laughed and remarked to the waiter “If your boss had poured this tea it would have been maybe 1/2″ from the cup!”. He winked. He was on our side!

    Finally the Rude One just thrust the bill in front of us and we ignored him for a while. We needed to use the washroom on our way out, so we left the money on the table with a tip. Since my friend was treating me I offered to pay the tip and her suggestion was “Leave $4.00. That’s enough.”
    Somewhere in my wine-fogged brain I thought “That’s it? Just $4?”. But I was not about to try and rationalize because the wine won! So $4 it was.

    When we returned from the washroom, the tablecloth had been replaced, new settings PLUS a small bud vase with flowers! We were being told to leave! He said we had been there too long and others were waiting. “Where?” I asked sarcastically. He then handed me a small tray with four dollar bills on it and said “You forgot these. They are yours.” Through my fog I insisted “No, no it is for you.” My friend gently touched my arm and said “Just put it in your pocket and let’s leave.” “But it’s his tip” I said.

    We left of course and once outside his cafe, in full view of him glaring from inside, we were so hysterical and laughed and laughed.


  2. By the way, have you read a book by Studs Terkel where he has interviewed people from different professions and it is interesting to read about a day in their life. Just a thought though the 2 cents you plunked down were well-deserved!


  3. Oh my, what an experience! I’m so glad you added the picture of 2 pennies and the commentary (photographic re-enactment). I needed the comic relief! Nice post.


    1. Thanks! I have to admit, I cracked myself up over that picture. I even made sure the pennies were not minted after this story occurred. Not sure why I care about those type of details, but for some reason it is just those little things that make me happy.


  4. Gosh what a horrible experience!
    I really don’t like the US tipping culture – it sounds like you are guilt-tripped into tipping 10% for poor service because of the poor pay given to servers. In my experience in Europe, servers are better paid, and you only ever tip if the service is good (a 10% service charge is often included in the bill, which is divided among the service and kitchen personnel). The main advantage I can see with the tipping thing is that perhaps servers are going to try harder to be “nice”.


    1. I agree that tipping is an imperfect system. If someone works at a high end restaurant, it can be quite lucrative. But a position at your local diner isn’t going to bring in a lot of money. And sometimes the server can do a wonderful job, but some customers will be stingy anyway. Many restaurants do automatically add a tip to the bill for large parties (18% would standard in most places in the US), but it isn’t usually split up with the kitchen staff (kitchen usually makes a higher wage than servers who frequently only make about $2 per hour). Cooks and servers rarely receive benefits, medical or otherwise.
      Since we know first hand the challenges of living on restaurant wages, we assume a base tip of 20% when we go out – this really is the only time I’ve seen Brian refuse to tip!


      1. $2 an hour! That’s atrocious! Gosh I can see why you have to tip. In Ireland (where I was raised), minimum wage is 8.65 euros, which is $11.70, so you can see why the tipping culture is virtually non existant! I don’t see how anyone can survive on those rates.


  5. Clearly that waiter was loving his job! I’m surprised that the Manager didn’t reign him in a bit but clearly by the fact that you were the only people in there was a good indication. 2 Cents was pure genius, good on Brian!


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