Shawna Seaton has the customers eating out of her hand at the Mad Greek Restaurant.
Well, not literally -- but almost.
"I have a lot of people who like to come in only when I'm working. One family always calls ahead to see if I'm here. Gosh, they (recently) left a $25 tip -- just a mom, dad and two kids," says Seaton, 24, a server at Mad Greek, 907 Mass., the past three years.
"A while ago, these two people came in and I served them, and they asked for my schedule, which we're not supposed to give out. They called the other night to see if I was here, and when they found out I wasn't, they said they weren't coming in."
As a server -- the preferred, gender-neutral term used these days for waiter or waitress -- it doesn't get much better than this.
Seaton, like other servers at restaurants around the city, makes her living off the tips she earns from customers.
It's like working without a safety net, because there's no regular paycheck -- or not much of one -- to fall back upon when there's a bad week.
Servers typically are paid a salary of $2.13 per hour, and even that gets eaten up by taxes. So, pretty much, they're on their own and must depend on tips to survive.
If you want to learn what tipping is like from the other side of the table, just ask a server at any Lawrence restaurant. They're more than willing to share their experiences and their thoughts on tipping etiquette.
The word "tip," by the way, is considered by many to be an acronym: "To Insure Promptness," or "To Insure Prompt" service.
So says The Original Tipping Page, a Web site about all things tip related.
'Don't take it personally'
Shannon Savoie has spent long years in the tipping trenches.
"My father had a restaurant as I was growing up, and I've been working in restaurants since I was 8 years old," says Savoie, 33, a server at Free State Brewing Co., 636 Mass., for four years.
Savoie has no trouble remembering his best tip.
"The best one I ever got was $100, when I worked at Jasper's Trattoria in Kansas City, about 12 years ago. I was waiting on a gentleman who started Wal-Mart with Sam Walton," he says. "He was a great guy, a nice fella. He left a great tip. Then he got into a stretch Mercedes limo with his initials on the front."
Melissa Witt won't soon forget her best tip, either.
"It was from Danny Manning -- $100 -- a couple of years ago. It was a pretty small order," says Witt, 27, a server for four years at JB Stouts Sports Bar & Grill, 721 Wakarusa Drive.
Julia Peterson pocketed her best tip on the day before Christmas two years ago.
"I worked lunch here, and we were really slow," says Peterson, 25, a bartender and server for a year and a half at Teller's, 746 Mass.
"We were really slow. I got this family of 10 people, and they were just really happy and really nice, and they overtipped me -- like $150. It was pretty crazy. But around Christmas, people tend to tip better."
Anyone who has been a server knows what it's like to get stiffed -- occasions when a customer leaves no tip, or next to nothing.
Those kind of experiences tend to stick in the craw of servers as an unpleasant memory.
"I got a 40 cent tip on a $42 order. I had no idea why. That's just one of those situations where you don't know what happened," says Alyssa Hill, 21, a server at JB Stouts and a junior at Kansas University.
"You have to learn not to take the tip that you get personally. You don't know what circumstances the customer is in."
Ask any server who tends to leave the biggest tips, and the answer is almost universal: customers who have toiled in the restaurant business themselves.
"Students that have waited tables or worked as bartenders are good tippers. Anybody who works in a bar is a fantastic tipper, almost to the point of embarrassing you," says Peterson.
"Definitely, fellow service industry people. If you know food service, then you know what the waiter's going through, and you know what they make," he says.
Who else tends to tip well?
"Generally people who are entertaining friends. They're not splitting the bill, they're taking friends to dinner," says Peterson. "Men are better tippers, hands down. Sometimes it's their company credit card, and it's not their money. And men are nicer."
College students here have a decent reputation as tippers, at least with Debbie Parkins, longtime server at Paradise Cafe, 728 Mass.
"You really can't tell who's going to tip the most. I thought students wouldn't tip that well when I first came to Lawrence, but they do. I was really surprised," Parkins says.
Another thing that's nearly universal among servers around town is the amount they themselves tend to tip when dining out.
"My bottom line is 20 percent. It's a thank you. If you did a good job, you get 20 percent. If you do a great job, you're going to get more," Savoie says.
Peterson tries to treat people who wait on her the same way she'd like to be treated. It's kind of like a service industry karma.
"I tip 20 percent. Because, as a server, that's what you shoot for -- you want to make 20 percent of your sales."
Anyone who's ever eaten out and gotten bad service has asked themselves the question: Is it ever OK to leave a lousy tip, or to not tip at all?
The idea doesn't go down well among Lawrence servers. None of those asked said they could remember a time when they left a server nothing.
"I'm the type of person who will raise the issue (of bad service) with the manager, away from the table -- 'Hey, we've been waiting forever for our food,' which causes a little heat for the waiter. But I still will leave a good tip," Savoie says.
"I'm more likely to take it out on the establishment than on the server. I've never stiffed anyone, but I have given 15 percent. On my scale, that's making a comment."
Dining out implies that the gratuity will be part of the experience, according to Peterson.
"This is just me. I never don't tip, even if I get terrible service. I'll leave them a 15 percent tip if I'm mad. I've never had service that's so bad that I'm not going to tip somebody," she says.
Parkins makes a plea to Lawrence diners: Be kind to your server, even if you're disappointed with the service.
"People don't realize how many things have to come together (at a restaurant). You don't order or prepare the food, you just bring it to the table. Sometimes things don't go as planned in the kitchen, and it has nothing to do with you," she says.
Hill wishes customers had a better idea of what's involved in waiting tables. It's hard work.
"People don't understand you have to multi-task, there's a lot of things going on, and you're not just waiting on them," she says.
Meanwhile, Seaton's customer service at the Mad Greek is right on the money, and customers are quick to show their appreciation.
"I usually get a lot of compliments. I just try to make people feel comfortable. I try to remember them, and even what they've ordered," she says.
"I'm nice to them, and they're nice to me back."