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Servers Are People, Too—Here’s How to Treat Them That Way

As summer strolls into its final curtain call, local restaurants, bars and coffee shops are planning. With droves of students returning to the city and football revelers not far behind, the Athens service industry is prepping—logistically and mentally—for packed-out spaces and thousands of hungry and thirsty customers.

For many of the folks who work in these establishments, this time is bittersweet. More people means more business and (sometimes) more tips, but when the population of people going out skews younger, that can sometimes mean serving customers who either don’t know or exhibit the best etiquette.

So, consider this a primer—a quick reminder of how to be a considerate customer and ensure you receive the best dining or sipping experience you can. According to our very unscientific but well-intentioned poll of service workers, these are the top pet peeves and best tips for behaving like you have a heart.

• Servers are people. They don’t become automatons when they put on an apron. Treat them like fellow humans.

• Don’t snap your fingers or yell at a bartender when it’s busy. It’s not classy or effective.

• When the establishment is busy, have your order ready when you step up to the bar or counter, or when the server comes by.

• Restaurant employees aren’t babysitters—please mind your child or drunk friend.

• In the age of Venmo, please don’t make servers split an appetizer 10 ways. Someone should cover it and get shares paid back later.

• Know that a 20 percent tip is standard, and don’t use your tip as a bargaining tool. That’s lame.

Before this article starts to feel like a platform for food-service workers to vent, it’s helpful to understand why they care. We all have jobs we don’t like or bad days at work, but there’s an extra dynamic in food service that can make bad days truly grueling: the customer.

To Seabear bar manager Hunt Revell, it comes down to respect. “In general, you try to please the customer,” he says, “but as a conscientious person, as a human being, we ought to treat each other with as much mutual respect as possible.”

The server-customer dynamic automatically puts the server in an artificial position, where “the customer is always right”—a concept that some people take advantage of by thinking anything goes in a restaurant or bar because they’re paying to be there. Revell thinks the idea is a little outdated.

“If you’re a person that thinks the customer is always right, you’re probably not a good customer,” he jokes. Ultimately, when someone is very disrespectful, that sours the overall experience, he says. To him, the experience is part of the service.

“We’re always open to questions and conversations, and to help people have the best time possible. That’s always a priority,” he says. Once that’s the given, then knowing about the “snippy stuff”—shouting for the bartender across the bar or not having your order ready once he gets to you—is helpful.

“We’re not just complaining about that stuff,” Revell says. “It’s because we’re interested in having a good interaction and helping you have a good experience that we even have opinions about those types of things.”

Seasoned barista and former Starbucks manager Shelby Jarrett says she’s often been asked how much to tip in a coffee shop. “Personally, just having done it for so long, I put a $1 in no matter what, because it’s my karma,” she says. “There were so many times when I really appreciated it.”

Though tipping is a choice, it is the considerate thing to do, says Jarrett, because many Athens baristas are making the same wage as a server ($2.12 an hour), so they are relying on those tips. A good rule of thumb, she says, is to tip according to the complexity of the drink. So, it may be OK to leave off a tip for a cup of black coffee. But if the barista is making something more complicated, she continues, “like a latte, a mocha, and especially if you have come to your barista and say, ‘I got this drink at this one coffee shop and it tasted like it had this, this and this, but I don’t really know what it was called. Can you try to make something like that?’ Then, yeah, it’s a gesture of thanks to put a little something in there.”

If you’re light on cash or you have a gift card and can’t tip, Jarrett says just starting your interaction with a genuine “Hi, how are you” versus “I want…” can make all the difference for both your experience and the barista’s.

Her biggest pet peeve: ordering while you’re on your phone. Students are the most common offenders for talking, texting or otherwise looking at their screens when they order, she says. “It’s not that I need to be the center of your attention,” says Jarrett, but in a noisy coffee shop, she does need to repeat and confirm small details to make sure you get what you ordered. Students also tend to tip less. “It’s just a lack of self-awareness, I think,” she says.

A few last tips for the next time you find yourself at a coffee shop:

• Being rude about the wait won’t bump your drink order up the queue.

• Asking questions is fine, but just a few. There’s a line of people behind you.

• When mistakes are made, a little compassion goes a long way.

Revell sums up the lessons well: “It comes back to mutual respect. That’s the given. As long as you respect me, I’m going to respect you and your time.”