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20-40-60 etiquette: Should you tip at a restaurant if the service or food was bad?

The Oklahoman logo The Oklahoman 8/1/2022 Lillie-Beth Brinkman, Callie Athey and Helen Ford Wallace

QUESTION: Do you have any suggestions about bad service at a restaurant? When we complain, the management has currently been saying “we are short-staffed,” and “we can’t find anyone to hire.” Sometimes the food is not even good. They must be having trouble finding kitchen help, also. It is hard to tip people for not doing their jobs, but I don’t want my favorite restaurant to close or have waiter/waitress problems. What do you think?

CALLIE’S ANSWER: I know the service industry has been hit hard from the pandemic, especially the restaurant business and many small businesses in general. If the food is no longer good, I wouldn't go there anymore. If the food is good but the service is slow, hopefully it will work itself out eventually. You can always do take-out too!

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: You offer your own answer in the question — restaurants are struggling with staffing. With the industry’s historically low wages, pandemic-related turmoil from the last few years and inflation, everything in the food industry is upended right now. It has been a struggle for the food industry to retain workers when many either got laid off during the pandemic, got sick with COVID-19 as front-line workers (and COVID is now spreading widely again) or decided to leave on their own.

Food costs are going up like everything else in today’s economy; also, some restaurants added expensive filtration systems to keep people safer or removed tables in order to allow social-distancing during the pandemic, which led to fewer people served. Others had to cut costs and staffing just to stay afloat while diners stayed home. Now add to that diners angry over small things (like mask requirements) or impatience over slower service, and it’s no wonder restaurants are having trouble retaining workers, which translates to slower service, fewer menu items, etc.

I realize those are excuses, and I don’t know how to fix the problems you’re seeing in the short term — choose to spend your money elsewhere if you have a bad experience. However, if you do choose to dine somewhere, have grace for the workers and the owners who are doing the best they can and tip generously even if your service is slower than normal. Count a normal-sized tip (at minimum) as part of your dining-out costs. Grace and patience are really what we can give freely to everyone we encounter. Workers’ and restaurant owners’ costs and frustration have gone up just like yours, and none of us know someone else’s private struggles.

If you can afford it, keep frequenting the restaurants you love with a bit more patience to keep them open. Either diners will accept that restaurants will need to increase costs in order to pay people more and adjust accordingly or recognize that they will need to cook at home because there will be fewer and fewer restaurants.

HELEN’S ANSWER: When you go out to dinner, you hope for a really good dinner and many restaurants in the Oklahoma City area are still providing wonderful meals with very good service help. Hopefully our favorite restaurants do not close because of lack of waiters/waitresses or chefs. So, let’s try to be patient, tip happily and help people get through this time. The take-out chicken place where I go, said they were sorry they were so slow, but they were just trying to stay open. (My tip there was larger than usual).

GUEST’S ANSWER: Richard Rosser, Creator of Color Surprise and Piggy Nation: Your situation is happening at many restaurants across the country. This is a difficult time for service-based businesses and they deserve our patience. Remember a year or two ago when most of us couldn’t even go to a restaurant? Now that was frustrating. Here’s my suggestion: Next time you go out for dinner, tell yourselves that it’s going to be a fun evening, no matter what happens. Go with the flow. Expect the service to be a bit slower than you remember before the pandemic and have a great evening!

Since 2009, Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth is 40-plus and Helen is 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: 20-40-60 etiquette: Should you tip at a restaurant if the service or food was bad?


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