With ‘Waitress’ set to open in Utah, we asked veteran food servers for their tips for diners

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flo Blank, who has been a restaurant server for nearly 40 years, previously working in New York City and at Salt Lake City's Le Parisien and Al Forno's, works her regular shift at The Paris Restaurant at 15th and 15th in Salt Lake as she serves wine for patrons on the patio recently.

If you can remember the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally …," you know that Sally is “high maintenance,” especially when ordering at a restaurant.

Meg Ryan’s character wants everything “on the side,” from the oil and vinegar for her salad to the ice cream for the pie à la mode.

Nearly two decades later, the takeaway from that scene is this: When dining, don’t be Sally. Don’t be high maintenance.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flo Blank, who has been a restaurant server for nearly 40 years, previously working in NYC, and at Salt Lake City's La Parisian and Al Forno's, works her regular shift at The Paris Restaurant at 15th and 15th in Salt Lake City recently as she keeps a quick pace and can be heard regularly saying "ooh, la, la and forget about it."

And if you are, "you should be tipping extra,” said Dounia Livingston, a server at Fratelli Ristorante in Sandy who has served a wide range of customers in her 30-year career — from the polite and generous to the ornery and cheap.

In today’s world, where diners get to gripe on Yelp, Facebook and any other social media sites about restaurant service, The Salt Lake Tribune decided to turn the tables, so to speak, and let three Utah servers dish about the good, the bad and the cranky of customer behavior in Utah.

Their comments are timely, considering that the national touring production of “Waitress” runs Sept. 25-30 at downtown Salt Lake City’s Eccles Theater. (See box for details.)

Livingston — along with Flo Blank, a server at The Paris Bistro with nearly 40 years’ experience, and Mandi Carlson of Ruby River Steakhouse, a 20-year veteran — shared these thoughts on what diners should and shouldn’t do while eating out:

How much to tip • “Of course we would love to get 20 percent, if they have received really good service,” Carlson said. “And I know when I have given good service. Unfortunately, a lot of people who haven’t been in the industry probably don’t know we only make $2.13 an hour and rely on tips. We are one of the only industries where the pay grade hasn’t increased in decades. Customers also need to know that, at the end of the night, we share a percentage of our tips with the bussers, bartenders, hostess and other support staff.”

“It’s supposed to be 20 percent,” Blank added. While diners have a responsibility to tip appropriately, she added, servers have to earn the gratuity, too. “I really try to recommend things on the menu or suggest a wine. That’s what we are supposed to do, help them, and then they tip more.”

When something is wrong with the meal • “Definitely say something. Just don’t be rude about it,” said Livingston, adding that it’s a myth that someone in the kitchen will spit in the food if you send it back. “Remember the server didn’t cook the meal, and the mistake wasn’t on purpose. As a server, we want people to be happy, and especially at an independently owned place, we want to make it right. We don’t want you to leave and feel like the experienced sucked. You should have what you want, and it should be hot and fresh.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Waitress Dounia Livingston, at Fratelli's Italian Ristorante in Sandy, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.

“Sometimes people are scared or embarrassed to tell you something is wrong,” Carlson said. “They won’t tell you when you ask them. They’ll say everything is fine — then at the end of the meal, when I go to pick up their plate, they say something. That’s a problem for our managers. People will eat three-fourths of the plate and then say it wasn’t good and expect them to take the price off their bill. Why didn’t you tell us at the beginning? If your server hasn’t come back around, ask another employee to help. We want people to be happy with what they get.”

On getting the server’s attention • “Snapping is horrible; tapping the silverware against the glass is horrible; whistling is horrible,” Livingston said. “Just say, ‘Excuse me, ma’am.’ Just the way you would talk to a bank teller. You’d never act that way when you applied for loan; why would you treat [a server] like that?”

“Definitely, don’t interrupt if she is taking another order,” Carlson added. “Just make eye contact with your server. Put your hand up and say, ‘When you have a minute, can you get me’ … whatever it is you need? When people are really patient with me, I will go out of my way to grab it really quick.”

On special requests • While customers are making more special requests because of dietary requirements — think gluten-free to lactose intolerant — Blank believes “sometimes the requests go overboard.” Too many changes, she warned, “change the whole taste of the food.”

“If you’re going to special-order, you should be tipping extra,” Livingston said. “Just as a way of saying, ‘Sorry for being a pain in the a--.’” Sometimes regular customers get a pass, she added, recalling one gentleman who would always come into her previous place of employment and order eggs Benedict "with extra hollandaise sauce, Canadian bacon trimmed, muffin extra toasted, extra soft eggs and no onion or bell pepper. It was his standard order and he always tipped.”

On lingering too long at the table • “As long as you tip, you can stay there all day,” said Livingston, noting that there’s nothing more annoying than a group camping in a booth, which is prime real estate, especially on busy Friday and Saturday nights. “You’re taking money away from the server,” she said. “If your meal took 40 minutes and you stay another 40 minutes, you should double the tip.”

Blank agrees: “It can be hard when people sit and sit after they are done,” she said. “That may be your only table, and when they stay 45 minutes or an hour longer, that can be hard.”

On split and/or individual checks • “I’ve just learned with a large group to ask at the beginning. I say, ‘For my own organizational purposes, will this be split checks or one?’” Carlson said. “Then I know to keep things super-organized. They just have to know at the end, when I’m splitting everything up, it’s going to take a little time, and you need to be patient with me.”

“Anymore [thanks to computers], splitting checks is easy,” Livingston said. “It’s not like the olden days where we had paper tickets, and you had to be accountable for every one.” Anything customers can do to make it easier is appreciated. “You still get large parties where they want individual checks, but then say, 'I’m buying her first glass of wine, and he’s buying the appetizer.’”

Your pet peeve? • "When they are on their cellphone and they make you wait to take an order while they talk,” Blank said. “I understand business, but put the phone down.”

“When you are absolutely invisible to people,” Livingston said. “You go up to the table to take an order, and they are busy talking or on their phone and they completely ignore you. They expect you to stand there while they wrap up the conversation.” Livingston said she’s had customers order while talking on the phone. “Then when their order is wrong, they’re irritated and act like it was a service issue.”

“I have a really hard time with customers that won’t make eye contact,” Carlson said. “They won’t look up at me, won’t treat me like a person.”

Anything else? • “When people repeat Sally’s lines [imitating the movie] about everything on the side,” Livingston said. “Don’t say that joke. It’s stupid.”


What • This musical, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, was adapted from Adrienne Shelly’s film (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival). It’s the story of Jenna, a waitress and expert pie maker who dreams of finding a way out of her loveless marriage.

When • Sept. 25-30, Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City

Tickets • A limited number of tickets, ranging from $80 to $150, are still available at https://broadway-at-the-eccles.com/