Tag Archives: Houston’s

Thoughts on Memphis Tipping

Anyone catch this gem in the Flyer? At Hit or Ms. we’re BIG tippers… jar at Cafe Eclectic counter, done. Bad service and infuriating experience, still 15%. Typical dinner without any extraordinary snafus, 22% at least.

However, this article just pisses us off. Yes, Memphians need to tip and be conscious of the fact that servers are paid squat. But, do we really need to be lectured by the restaurant owners, particularly the ones that pay their servers $2.13/hr?

And though there are some fair statements from some of the chefs (we’re talking to you, Wally Joe), our biggest complaint about this article is that Memphis has a reputation for terrible service! Excluding several of the high-end restaurants like Iris, Bari, Erling’s, and yes Houston’s, we’re regularly annoyed while dining out… Tugs, Majestic, Do… Having lived and eaten in cities all over the country, sadly Memphis service just isn’t up to speed.

Case #1: Grace: Perhaps we’ll touch on this more at a later point, but Hit or Ms. had an awful experience at this “fine” dining restaurant. Going in on a Tuesday night with only three other tables occupied, our meal unnecessarily took 2.5 hours, the table seated after us received all their courses before we did (both tables had two diners) and the Chef was too busy hanging items in his kitchen to grace us with a “hello, thanks for dining in my brand new restaurant and spending a lot of money for a Tuesday night”. Yet, our dear server received a fantastic tip, despite this awfulness.

Case #2: Tugs on Mud Island: Without fail, every single time we eat at this restaurant, the order or check is messed up. Yet, we won’t penalize the poor server who can’t do addition… we just suck it up and tip.

Case #3: Carmela’s: In theory, this could be a charming lunch spot. It’s the type of place where you order at the counter and they bring it out to you. We popped in on a Saturday morning when it was fairly empty. Short story– the order took forever (it was just a panini), and it came out wrong. Admittedly, this may have been the kitchen’s fault, but no one was in the restaurant when the order was placed, so more aggravation resulted. Disclaimer: we’ve only been to this restaurant once, so we’d definitely be willing to give it another shot.

Bottom line, we will continue to tip because we realize how important it is for these waiters’ income. And, we will continue to support local restaurants because hey, the food usually rocks. However restaurant industry, listen up! Please don’t preach about tipping appropriately if your servers consistently provide bad service… train them better and hold them to these high standards. Then, when the service is top notch in MOST Memphis restaurants, Hit or Ms. will totally support a tipping manifesto.

What are your thoughts, dear readers? Sorry we’ve been MIA…

Hey, Big Spender

An insider’s guide to tipping.


One of my favorite things is the restaurant receipt that has the 15 percent, 18 percent, and 20 percent tip amounts printed on the bottom. It provides a quick and easy way to figure out exactly how much to tip. On the other hand, I’m not so fond of the gray area surrounding counter service and their leering tip jars. I always wonder how much I should tip, if at all. To get a handle on what’s appropriate, I talked to some restaurant insiders and frequent diners.

It’s no secret that people who have worked in the restaurant business are usually the best tippers. Margot McNeeley, the executive director of Project Green Fork, has waited tables and tended bar. “It’s not easy work,” she says. “I almost always tip 20 percent, if not more, unless the server is rude. If they’re in the weeds and super busy but nice about not being as attentive, I still tip well.”

Stephen Hassinger, the innkeeper at the Inn at Hunt Phelan, is also a chef with many years of restaurant experience. “Me, I tip everybody,” he says. This includes the dry cleaner ($10 every once in a while), the guy at the car wash who wipes the rims ($3 to $5), and the barista ($1 every time and $3 to $5 sometimes). “Basically anyone who performs any kind of service, I tip $1 to $20 depending on how much work it is and whether I plan on returning,” he says.

Hassinger believes that once you add some decent gratuity, that person will remember you and how you like your coffee or whether you like medium or light starch in your shirts … whatever. “As a rule, over-tip in the beginning, and you will receive good service from that point on,” he advises.

Ken Lumpkin, the chef/owner of Umai, wants people to understand that servers get paid very little and survive on tips. (The norm for servers’ wages is $2.13 per hour.) “I know that 15 percent is the standard, but it has not kept up with the increased cost of living,” Lumpkin says. “Tipping should start at 18 percent.”

He agrees that receiving poor service is cause for a smaller tip but suggests that diners take into consideration whether or not it was a server’s error or someone else’s. “Servers have to deal with backed-up kitchens, angry cooks, angry patrons, running out of supplies, co-workers’ attitudes, etc.,” he says, suggesting that if a patron is dissatisfied, it’s better to alert the manager to the problems instead of stiffing the wait staff.

Ben Vaughn is the chef/owner of Grace Restaurant, which offers fine dining. He says that 18 percent is the average tip. However, Wally Joe, the chef at the Brushmark, says that 20 percent should be the standard for fine dining. “Service is more refined, and extra attention is required and expected,” he says, noting that there may be small touches such as tableside serving of sauces and beverages. “A server should also have full knowledge of the menu and wine list,” he adds.

Joe is very outspoken when it comes to counter service and says that tip jars really annoy him. What am I suppose to tip them on? Handing me my order that they are paid to do? That requires no effort at all,” he says, equating it to a clerk handing him a pack of gum at a convenience store.

Helario “Harry” Reyna, who owns Elliott’s, a sandwich and burger joint downtown, says the standard tip for counter and pick-up orders is 10 percent. Elliott’s has never had a tip jar, but patrons may choose to leave a tip on the table. When Reyna was part-owner of Kwik Chek on Madison, they had a tip jar and split the tips. “That’s how I started a savings account for my daughter,” he says.

Elizabeth Blondis, part-owner of Central BBQ, recommends 5 to 10 percent for counter service and to-go orders. The tips are put into a pool for all employees and divided based on total hours. “That way, everyone — from the prep cook to the busser and everyone in between — shares in the rewards of doing a good job and working as a team,” she says. Blondis notes that no one at Central is paid less than minimum wage (most are paid more), but the additional tips can add up to an extra 50 cents to $1 per hour for employees.

Vaughn says that the staff at Au Fond, his market and cafe adjacent to Grace which offers counter service, is paid a higher rate than the wait staff at Grace. “It’s a nice thing to leave a buck or two to the guys and girls cleaning up and working their butts off, but it’s not expected,” he says.

Gary Bridgman, a former waiter who “carried trayloads of plates/drinks and tracked customer satisfaction throughout the meal,” says he has to be impressed before giving a counter tip higher than a quarter. “I’m more likely to slip a dollar under a dirty dish/tray if I’m not expected to bus my own table,” he says.

It’s important to consider whether your to-go order is being packed up by counter staff making minimum wage or by wait staff making $2.13 an hour. Former restaurant staffer Lauri Smith points out that to-go orders were included in her total amount of sales that she had to pay taxes on. In other words, the server has to pay tax on it whether you tip or not. If the restaurants do not report it accurately, the restaurant and the wait staff get audited by the IRS.

“The people putting together to-go orders [in restaurants] almost always get ripped off,” McNeeley says. “Think about this: They take time, sometimes away from their stations, to put the order together, check it, bag it, ring it up.” Tipping at least a few bucks on to-go orders should be required in her opinion. At the very least, it is always appreciated.

So what about alcohol? Joe does disagree with his servers when it comes to tipping on wine. “I’m probably not going to make any friends among servers for saying this, but there is a feeling that they deserve to be fully tipped 20 percent on expensive bottles of wine,” he says. Joe explains that whether the bottle of wine costs $200 or $30, the work is the same.

Ben Carter, author of the popular blog Benito’s Wine Reviews, says wine should be tipped 20 percent just like everything else. “The only time this becomes a real issue or argument is when you’re spending $500-plus on wine at a single dinner. And even then, there’s a big difference between 10 $50 bottles and one $500 bottle,” he says. The former is going to involve a lot of work and glasses and surely deserves 20 percent, in his opinion, and for the latter, he believes 10 percent might be appropriate without throwing off the overall balance of the bill.

At a bar, 20 percent is always safe, according to Wes Fowinkle, who has been bartending for over 10 years, most recently at the Cove. He prefers 20 percent to the generic “$1 per drink” rule. “If someone orders the most complicated, expensive drink on the menu that takes five minutes to prepare, keeping you from selling five quick beers, you made $1 instead of $5,” he explains. Fowinkle offers some advice for math-challenged and/or multi-drink imbibers who don’t have the luxury of a receipt with tip suggestions: “The easiest way to figure out 20 percent at the end of a night is to divide your tab by 10, then multiply by two.” (This trick works in restaurants too, any time of day.)

When it comes down to it, customers need to be aware of the nuances involved in the restaurant business and what constitutes good service. Hassinger sums it up: “Employees who work for tips appreciate someone who appreciates them.”

Tipping Cheat Sheet

Fine dining: 20 percent

Casual dining: 18-20 percent

Counter service: 0-10 percent

To-go orders in restaurants: 10 percent

Alcohol (including beer and wine): 20 percent

Really expensive bottles of wine ($500+): 10 percent


The Houston’s Effect: Welcome to Hit Or Ms. Memphis

Why start another food blog? Don’t all Memphians have an opinion about the local food scene and know where to get the most succulent ribs, the best pre-Tigers dinner or top secret, bang for your buck? What will distinguish Hit Or Ms. Memphis and why is it worth reading this blog?

Simply, the pursuit of the Houston’s Effect.

Not quite a scientific term, this so-called effect is Houston’s winning combination of delicious food, enjoyable environment and consistent service. Oh, and the fact that it is ALWAYS packed. Think you’re getting a table at 6:30PM on a Thursday night without a wait? Think again. Houston’s is Memphis’ equivalent to the velvet rope. Unless you know someone or get there before 5:30PM, you’re waiting, period.

And, even more shocking, Houston’s is a chain. Believe it or not, there are Houston’s in other cities across the country— from NYC to Atlanta to Boston; Houston’s is more similar to McDonald’s (gasp!) than you think.

Regardless, this phenomenon can also be seen at Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill, Olive Garden, Cozymel’s and all the other mid-level chains that have figured out the winning equation: reasonably good food + consistent service and environment = a regularly packed restaurant.

Now, don’t get us wrong, we love a good spinach dip as much as the next person.

However, it saddens us that Houston’s and all the other chain restaurants in Memphis continue to thrive while locally owned restaurants are going under.

As a result, we at Hit Or Ms. decided to analyze the problem since it just didn’t make sense. Memphis diners love a new restaurant and support them wholeheartedly upon opening. Many of these local spots develop innovative menus (Las Tortugas) and creative concepts (Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar). The food is definitely delicious at most of these local spots and the prices aren’t always that different:


A Houston’s spinach dip ($11), burger  ($12) and glass of wine ($8) will easily set you back $30/person (http://www.hillstone.com/pdf_menus/houstons/Houstons_Memphis.pdf) compared to locally owned Interim around the corner where Pan Seared Crab Cakes ($12), a Interim burger ($14)  and a glass of wine ($8) are only a dollar more http://www.interimrestaurant.com/Menus/dinner.html.

However, we can practically guarantee you won’t be waiting in line for an hour at Interim, which brings us back to the question, why are these restaurants  not able to survive when the chains couldn’t be more packed? Why the discrepancy?

In a word, consistency.

Whether it’s consistency in the food, the service or even the ambiance, Houston’s offers a consistently, fantastic dining experience while several of these local restaurants flat out don’t.  It’s become apparent that Memphis diners have been burned one too many times. They have been promised by these local restaurateurs  that a night out at their restaurant is worth the splurge and then disappointed with food that wasn’t as delicious the last time they were there, service that was sloppy compared to their previous experience and management or a chef that just don’t make the environment welcoming. So they return to Houston’s.

To reiterate, Memphians love to support and rave about new restaurants (merited or not). And, they often make these restaurants believe that they’ve figured it out, that they will in fact survive after the novelty has worn off. That local diners will continue to frequent after a new, hotter restaurant emerges. And that is exactly when the quality starts to head south.

The food stops being as fresh. Corners start to be cut. Opening servers move to greener pastures, taking that fabulous service out the door with them. Then, when diners check out these new spots nine months later, they usually receive mediocre service and management struggling to keep their doors open.

Hit or Ms. is over it. It’s time for the Memphis dining scene to be revamped. Admittedly, this is a lofty goal. However, we’re willing to put the time and effort in to turning things around– inspiring our local restaurants to focus on quality control and consistency and then, encouraging Memphis diners to spend their hard-earned dollars to support these neighborhood spots. It’s time to raise the bar.

Mission Statement

Through Hit or Ms., we want to praise, get the word out and encourage our fellow Memphians to dine at these must-visit, local spots. And maybe more importantly, we want to influence these local establishments that aren’t especially concerned with elevating the Memphis dining scene to think twiceMemphians love a new restaurant and are always willing to give new eateries a shot, but these restaurants have to keep up their end of the bargain.

That being said, this blog will be a compilation of supportive write-ups, critical reviews, interesting restaurant tidbits, industry news, and perhaps our sister/father/cousin’s signature pierogi recipes.

We aren’t experts and aren’t claiming to be. However, we are local diners with high expectations, foodies that don’t eat to live, but live to eat, restaurant goers that want to support their local economy and encourage the same 1+hour waits at the South of Beales, the Pearl’s Oyster Houses and  the Interims as we see at Houston’s.

So visit often, leave comments, let us know what you think and where you want us to review. We look forward to dining and writing for you!

Happy Eating!

Hit Or Ms. Memphis