Nearly everyone has stories about bad days at work, but people who work in the service industry, especially restaurants and bars, tend to have the worst tales from the front.

Servers have been bullied. They've been harassed. Their bottoms have been pinched, surreptitiously and otherwise.

To add insult to injury, often the customers who ill-treat them also shortchange them, omitting the tips that make the difference between a sub-minimum wage and earning enough to pay bills of their own.

(Moe Scance, The Denver Post )

As former barista Rebecca Wright puts it: "One bad customer has the ability to drown out the hundreds of positive or neutral customers you have had that day. I don't know if the bad customers walk away and immediately forget about us because we're too insignificant to think about, but we sure don't forget about them."

Let's start with introductions. Veteran Denver server Kevin Larson routinely greets tables with, "Hi! Thanks for coming in. My name is Kev-" when his customers interrupt him with an abrupt "Diet Coke."

"It happens a tremendous number of times," Larson said.

It also irks him when customers walk past the host and seat themselves out of turn.


"And as the bartender at the restaurant where I work, I also take to-go orders over the phone. You would not believe how many people order without looking over the menu, or even being prepared to give their order."

Then there are customers who know exactly what they want, but what they want isn't on the menu. Jacob Spreng once worked at a Water World snack stand.

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One of his regulars was a 40-something man who always ordered a burger, fries and a cup of "pickle juice." Pickle juice? Spreng was confused. At a loss, he immersed a cup in the five-gallon tub of pickles, filling it with brine. He took that to the customer, who gulped it down and asked for another.

"Three cups later, he burped, paid and left," Spreng said. When Pickle Juice Guy kept returning for more, Spreng called his boss to run interference.

Pickle Juice Guy was weird, but he kept his hands to himself. In the 1980s, waitress Lisa Trank once worked at a fern bar popular with bachelors trawling for a one-night stand. Two customers ("with sideburns and wide lapels") kept nudging her posterior whenever she turned away from their table.

"After the fourth or fifth time, I went into the kitchen and asked one of the cooks for a very large knife," Trank said.

"I returned to the table and told him if his elbow met my rear end again, this knife would meet his elbow. That nipped it in the bud. And he left me a great tip."

Which is more than server Terra Larkin could say about the young couple she served during a shift at a Denny's. Nothing was unusual until they departed, leaving a cup of warm yellow fluid "and tucked inside was my tip!"

She summoned her boss to witness the scene, got some bleach and gloves, and cleaned the table. Later, her boss asked her if she wanted her tip. She declined.

Unfortunately, the couple was long gone by the time Larkin discovered the urine-specimen tip. But other servers mistreated by customers figure out their own forms of revenge.

Take the case of Brenda Hubka, who worked at the now-defunct Chili's in Tamarac Square while she was in college. One evening, she served three adults — a couple in their early 20s and the wife's mother, who appeared to be in her 40s.

"The mother was short with me and would not give me any eye contact," Hubka recalled.

"I don't remember exactly what she was saying, but her daughter scolded her for being rude to me. To which the mother said, 'She's just a waitress!' "

Hubka maintained her composure, but inside, she reeled. She took pains to serve the three "efficiently and fast, never letting them down even though I was so insulted." When the meal was nearly finished, Hubka came up with her revenge.

"If there's nothing else I can get for you," she said, setting down the bill, "then I'll take this for you when you are ready. And," she said to the mother, "I gave you your senior citizen discount." (She'd taken 10 percent off the mother's meal.)

"She made a furious grunt at me! She couldn't be over 50, and she was angry! As I walked away, I caught the eye of her son-in-law and gave him a wink. He paid the bill and gave me a $10 tip on a $30 tab.

"And me in trouble? No. After all, who would complain that I gave them a discount on their bill? It was the best payback ever."

Claire Martin: 303-954-1477, or

Tales from the front

Restaurant servers know when you've been bad or good, and they don't forget it, either.

Don't be "that customer"

Here are tips from servers on how to get the best service, including a potential discount for being a good guy.

Treat your server the way you want to be treated. Make eye contact. Say "hello" before plunging into your order. "Please" and "thank you" are appreciated, too.

Put down the phone when you're ordering. One barista said she automatically gives a discount to customers who take the phone away from their ears or face.

Read the menu before you order, including take-out orders that you phone in. "People constantly order burgers that are made at other restaurants, and don't know how they want them cooked," says Kevin Larson.

If your party wants separate checks, tell the server when you're ordering, not when it's time to settle up.

Keep your roving eye and hands to yourself. "Guys, we notice when you only talk to female customers or female staff, and it's kind of icky," says Rebecca Wright. Lisa Trank, after being repeatedly elbowed in the rear, went to the kitchen, got a large knife, "returned to the table, and told him that if his elbow met my rear end again, this knife would meet his elbow. That nipped it in the bud, and he left me a great tip."

If you don't know the local tipping custom, ask. Cindy Kleh worked as a server for the now-defunct Razzberry's in Keystone. For a week, she waited on a British family who left no tip until their last day, when they asked about the tipping policy.

"I explained how waiters and bartenders receive half the minimum wage, and can be charged taxes on tips they never get because taxes are calculated based on total sales," she said. The Brits started tipping generously, invited her to visit them in England (she did), and they remain friends today.