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To stack or not to stack? The absurd restaurant etiquette debate

After years of working in the service industry, I’ve been conditioned to stack my empty plates for my server. Now, an online debate has me questioning whether I’ve been wrong all along

Meredith Clark
New York
Thursday 14 December 2023 17:37 GMT
(TikTok / @smishsmofh)

It’s very rare that I find myself becoming personally invested in a debate circling online. In the fight between scooped vs non-scooped bagel, the winner was clear for a native New Yorker. When it comes to divisions among parents, I happily have no dog in that fight. And as for rows about flight etiquette, I prefer to keep to myself on planes.

However, the recent discourse surrounding a certain topic has had me questioning a long-standing moral belief of mine.

It all began on TikTok (as most moral dilemmas outside of Washington do these days, unless you’re in a GOP presidential debate of course...) when two women shared a funny video of themselves dining at a restaurant. In the viral video - which has been viewed 2.8m times since it was posted on 1 December - they took turns filming each other stacking their empty plates after they finished eating, so that it was easier for their server to clear the table.

“Two girls who work in food service cleaning up our mess,” the TikTok user wrote over the clip. She also added the disclaimer: “They hate it when we do this.”

The do’s and don’ts of proper restaurant etiquette are constantly being debated, whether it’s how much to tip your server, how baby boomers leave a restaurant table compared to Gen-Zers, or arguments over how best to split the check at the end of a meal. Perhaps it’s because we were deprived of our beloved indoor dining experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic; maybe Americans are now hyper-aware of how we dine, and the people who work towards making those experiences memorable.

I’ve always prided myself on lending a helping hand to restaurant servers when eating out. Like most highschoolers, my first job was at the only upscale establishment in my small town to make some extra cash. I worked as a busser for every Sunday brunch, clearing tables full of plates and re-setting them for the next customers. When I returned home from college (where I worked a customer service job on campus, but that’s another story for another debate), I graduated from busser to hostess, but nevertheless my duties of clearing tables remained the same.

I’ve since retired from my days of accidentally sticking my finger into someone’s glass full of orange juice, or pouring hot coffee on myself and powering through the scalding pain. Still, one habit I haven’t let up since working in the service industry is cleaning my own plates when I’m dining at a restaurant. It began as instinctive, but with my experience in the service industry becoming something of the distant past, it’s now become my own special (perhaps misguided) signal, a way of telling my server: “Hey, look. I’m just like you.”

That’s why I was so stunned to learn there are some people who prefer it if you don’t clean up after yourself. In the comments section of the video, many were divided on whether it’s simply a kind gesture, or if eager-to-please customers should stop trying to do their jobs for them.

Some servers appreciated the effort, but explained that it can often create an even bigger mess than there was before. Stuffing used napkins in bowls or drinks makes everthing soggy, and fishing out someone else’s dirty paper towel is always an unpleasant experience. Others argued that stacking plates on top of each other only dirties the bottom, giving dishwashers in the kitchen even more work to do.

However, it seemed that there was a consensus on the correct way to help your server. For starters, many people agreed not to stuff used napkins into unfinished water glasses. Others recommended making a “trash plate” - one plate topped with leftovers and napkins, so it makes for easy scraping into the garbage. As for the silverware, most servers agreed on using an empty cup to hold used knives and forks. Even if the stack of plates is wobbly, or if the so-called “trash plate” is overflowing, it’s better than leaving a huge mess behind.

There’s one essential part of the debate, however, that’s been missing from all the online discourse: you don’t need to have worked in the restaurant industry to take a moment to consider the people taking your orders. Even with my measly four years in the service industry, which pales in comparison to those who make it their livelihood, it doesn’t take much to be sympathetic to the fact that servers are often working long shifts, sometimes with unfairly low pay. This absurd-seeming TikTok debate isn’t about plates at all, it’s about being a decent human being. Whether you stack or not ultimately doesn’t matter. Whether you treat your servers with respect, however, most certainly does.

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