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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Tip at least 20% and don't no-show: New dining rules according to Kansas City restaurant workers

The custom of dining out has completely transformed over the course of the pandemic.
Crysta Henthorne
KCUR 89.3
The custom of dining out has completely transformed over the course of the pandemic.

The custom of dining out has completely transformed over the course of the pandemic. So what's the new etiquette? Kansas City servers and bartenders share their first-hand advice on how to stay cool with your wait staff, hosts and fellow customers.

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One chilly weeknight in October, in a rare break with routine, I went out for dinner and drinks with a friend. She'd just received a flurry of great news, and that called for celebration.

I grabbed a table on the stately patio at Aixois, and my friend soon appeared in a sparkly sequined blazer. We made swift drink selections — bubbly for her, red wine for me — then launched into a major catching-up session. Although we'd texted each other a lot over the pandemic, we hadn't actually hung out yet, and it turned out we had a lot to say.

The evening flew by. We talked over salads, main courses and a shared order of frites. As we finished up, everything suddenly seemed a little too quiet. Looking around, we noticed that, much to our horror, we were the only customers left. We'd been there for two and a half hours.

Hypnotized by the spell of long-overdue connection, we'd broken two of the cardinal rules of dining out: Don't bogart that table, my friend. Free it up for the next party. And whatever you do, don't dilly-dally past closing time.

We didn't overstay our reservation on purpose; it was an accident. But it happened to us, and it could easily happen to you. Collectively, our social skills have gotten rusty, and we need practice.

It's more than that, though. The restaurant industry has changed, and so has our understanding of it. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed that restaurant workers often endure punishing hours and difficult conditions without anything resembling a safety net in times of crisis.

At the same time, the pandemic revealed how profoundly restaurant culture touches our lives. We really felt the absence of these places where we could be taken care of, break bread with friends or celebrate life occasions — something that can't be fully satisfied by pulling up to a curb, popping the trunk open and speeding off with dinner as cargo.

The first time I sat down in a restaurant, post-vaccine, having someone else bring me a glass of water, and then refill it unprompted, nearly brought me to tears.

I don't want to lose that level of appreciation. It really is special to be treated so well when we go out — to not do the dishes or make your own drinks. I want to be a good customer in return.

In these late-pandemic times, have workers and customers settled on a shared understanding of what restaurant etiquette should look like now? To find out, I talked to servers and bartenders in Kansas City about what's changed — and what still needs to change.

The restaurant workers I talked with were all passionate about showing Kansas Citians a good time when they go out — they told me it brought immense satisfaction to see people celebrating over food and drink.

What I've extracted below are guidelines for keeping these spaces fun, healthy and happy for everyone — including the people who work there.

Make reservations, keep them, and don't stay too long.

You've probably heard that restaurants are short-staffed. Making a reservation (where they're offered) doesn't just guarantee you'll be seated pretty promptly — it also allows restaurant managers to appropriately schedule servers and kitchen staff, and stock ingredients too.

An unforeseeably busy night can result in delays and 86'd menu items, which in turn frustrates customers. Reservations are a win-win, paving the way for good times all around.

Chrissy Nucum, who works at Ça Va in Westport, makes one major request: "Do not do a no-show." When a restaurant holds your table and you don't show up, they have to turn away paying customers who might have liked to dine there instead. Workers might even get sent home if canceled or no-show reservations cut too much into business.

As for how long to stay: Restaurant workers want you to relax and enjoy your meal. They also typically determine whether tables will be available for later reservations using a simple calculation.

Cassie Niemeyer, a longtime Kansas City server who currently works at an upscale restaurant in Prairie Village, lets me in on that equation. "Most of the finer dining restaurants I've worked at," she says, "we would base our reservation system on an hour and a half for two people, two hours for three to four people, and then bigger parties, two and a half hours or more."

Good to know, right?

If your table isn't ready when you arrive for a reservation, the likely reason is because someone else has not moved along yet.

Learn the establishment's mask rules before heading out, and follow them without having to be told.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Wearing masks without being told helps your servers and bartenders, and it puts other patrons at ease.

It's not fun to catch people breaking rules issued by a municipality, an employer, or both. Especially when your livelihood relies on tips from the same people you potentially have to confront.

In Kansas City, Missouri, face masks are currently required inside establishments, except when you're seated and actively eating.

"Even if you're like, 'I'm vaccinated, and I had COVID, and I got a booster' or whatever," Niemeyer says. "They don't know."

Explaining your particular reasons for not following protocols isn't useful; it just spoils the atmosphere.

This applies to bars as well. At miniBar in Westport, there's one set of rules for the music venue upstairs (where proof of vaccination is required) and another for getting drinks and snacks downstairs.

Bartender Ryan Miller says that monitoring the situation can get overwhelming.

"There was a moment when it was 2:30 in the morning and the whole room wasn't wearing masks, and everyone was crowded and standing together like, 'OK, we need to rethink what we're doing here,'" Miller says.

The venue put up more signage and staff got firmer about issuing reminders, he says. But most service industry folks agree it would create a better environment if customers took the initiative on following COVID protocols.

Remember, the whole point of these rules is keeping you safe from a deadly virus, and keeping these businesses open in a pandemic.

Don't ask servers to remove their masks.

One of the awkward things about dining out right now is that, even when you remove your own mask, servers generally leave theirs on. This is true across the board in Kansas City — by city mandate — and although it varies in surrounding municipalities, masked servers remain the prevailing norm.

It's hard to hear people through their masks, though. And while that can be frustrating, good etiquette includes respecting both the rules your servers are expected to follow and the measures that protect their health and safety.

Miller says that in bars, the general loudness and inability to read lips makes it so hard to take orders, some establishments acquired dry erase boards for bartenders and customers to pass back and forth.

Niemeyer asks diners to understand that servers are doing their best to communicate, which often requires shouting through their shifts. But it's not just a volume issue: Patrons have told her they want to see her face.

At the start of summer, when mask mandates briefly lapsed, Niemeyer says her tips went up. Then the more-contagious delta variant arrived, the mandates returned, and her tips dipped again. She says that proved true for other servers she knows — and she thinks it's because people could see them smile.

"When we got to take our masks off for a while," she says, "I felt like my face hurt. I was smiling so much at people."

So remember: Your servers will smile at you as soon as they possibly can. Until then, don't hold their masks against them.

Don't corner your server or bartender into talking politics.

Jessie Palmerin has been working at Rudy's Tenampa Taqueria since she was a kid; her grandparents opened the Westport restaurant and neighborhood watering hole in 1993. She worked the host's desk and cleared tables before graduating to serving and bartending. In other words, she's very comfortable at work.

Nonetheless, talking politics makes her uneasy.

"It's like walking on eggshells because I'm just like, I don't want to say anything to make them upset," she says. "I don't want to say anything that would encourage them to, like, go online and talk about, 'Oh my God, the bartender at Rudy's, did you hear what she said?' — and all that."

Palmerin learned her lesson after making small talk with a bar customer sitting alone. A tennis match was on the television over the bar, and Palmerin thought it would be safe to mention a documentary she'd seen about one of the players. But the guest quickly changed the subject to a documentary she'd seen — about Anthony Fauci.

It got weird fast. At the end of the night, Palmerin says the patron didn't leave a tip.

"I've had to learn how to really play the fence," Palmerin says.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Jessie Palmerin works the host's stand at Rudy's Tenampa Taqueria.

Tip well — that means at least 20% — and for takeout too.

It used to be standard to give 15% tips on every dining bill. No more. Now, the baseline is 20% — and that's just the start.

"If you talk to somebody a lot and they give you great recommendations, or maybe you got a little something extra," Niemeyer explains, "or maybe you got a special drink that the bartender whipped up for you, then 20% becomes like, 'Oh. Just adequate?'"

Everyone I talked to agreed: There is definitely nothing wrong with a 20% tip. But they urge customers to acknowledge extra time and attention with a tip closer to 25%.

"People are tipping a little bit more because working in restaurants is not the safest job," says Niemeyer. "It's not the most dangerous, by any means, but it's not the safest job. If you're in a busy restaurant, you're around maybe 1,000 people a week, all with their mouth unmasked and breathing and chatting and eating."

Earlier in the pandemic, many customers tipped for to-go food just as much as they would have tipped in the dining room. For the most part, customers seem to have returned to tipping less for carryout.

But please, don't skip the tip on carryout. Someone has taken the time away from their tables to answer your questions over the phone, or to pack up your meal.

Speaking of takeout: Come get your food on time. It bums out the kitchen staff to work hard on great meal, making sure it's ready for you when you arrive, only to watch condensation accumulating on your container.

And finally: Tipping well doesn't buy customers the right to ignore any other basic courtesies.

Regardless of tip amount, Palmerin says all interactions should come back to a "mutual respect" between the server and the patron.

"I'm going to provide you service respectfully," she says. "And I expect that you give me the respect that I deserve since I'm doing that for you."

Comfort levels vary, so err on the side of compassion for more cautious restaurant-goers.

At her restaurant, Niemeyer has observed the following scenario a lot: Someone at one table notices people they know at another table.

"So you get up, maybe you forget your mask, and you're over there talking to your friends, and you're standing above their table catching up. But then the table next to those people, they're like, 'Oh, all of a sudden there's four more people in my vicinity,'" she says.

Chrissy Nucum has seen a variation on this at Ça Va: Diners physically recoil, even hold up napkins, to put space between themselves and other patrons who've gotten too close for comfort.

"You can kind of see the other party like, 'Oh no, I don't want to be this close to the next person next to me, but I also don't want to be rude,'" she says. "I think that the norm that we're going to have to get used to now is that people will be more vocal about their preferences, like 'I still want 6 feet' or something like that. And then it's just respecting those new preferences, and living with the differences."

Be patient, and say thanks!

The restaurant industry is still in recovery right now. If you haven't seen your server in a minute, they might be washing their hands — something they're doing constantly between handling everyone's dishes. If your food is taking longer than expected, the kitchen might be short staffed.

The people serving you are doing their best. Relax and just know that everything is on the way.

Going to restaurants and bars has changed, and ultimately, there's no such thing as a comprehensive playbook that covers every new scenario you might encounter.

When in doubt, be kind. Act from a place of respect.

Remember what restaurant food was like when takeout was all we had. If it felt like something was missing, that's because it was: The person chatting you up, filling your water, bringing you delicious food on a beautifully arranged plate, set right in front of you and then whisked away as soon as you're done.

The difference is the people who can transform a spaghetti carbonara or halibut filet into an experience, rather than just another meal.

So my final advice is: Say thank you before you go.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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