Liz Balmaseda
Cox Newspapers

Your go-to neighborhood restaurant is running a free appetizer special and you’re eager to snap it up. You get a 10-buck starter for free. Good deal for you. But is it a good deal for your server?

Not if you’re a pathetic tipper.

You’re a pathetic tipper if you punish your server by tipping on the reduced amount on your bill. That’s assuming you had decent service, of course.

Your free appetizer plate didn’t just materialize before you. It didn’t put in its own order. It didn’t deliver itself. And after you inhaled the food, your empty plate didn’t spirit itself into the dishwasher.

Tipping can be complex, but it’s not tricky. It’s a topic worth exploring as summer deals and coupon offers ramp up. If you enjoyed your food and service, you tip your server. Your server, by the way, is likely just one member of the service team that attended to your table. Your server, more than likely, makes less than minimum wage and depends on tips for his/her living.

The gratuity topic has stirred in the national conversation since last year, when some notable restaurant groups adopted no-tipping policies. One of those companies, Joe’s Crab Shack, has scaled back on its gratuity-less endeavors. The chain’s own research found some 60 percent of its diners disapproved of the policy because they felt it might zap a server’s drive, and because they didn’t fully trust management to be fair to its workers, CNN Money reported.

There are no hard-and-fast rules on tipping, but maybe that’s because a sense of fairness is implied. And this fairness meter should kick in automatically when you use gift cards or coupons or take advantage of that special freebie deal.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen. Listen to what happened to one server, a woman we’ll call Mary.

Mary and a co-worker served a table of eight diners. At the end of the night, the bill totaled about $300. A fair tip after a night of good service might have been at least $60, 20 percent of the pre-tax amount. (Because there were two servers, I might have tipped a bit more.) If service was just OK, that tip might have been closer to $45, or 15 percent.

But Mary and her fellow server got about $10 less than that lower amount — and they had to share it. (“That’s before we had to tip out the bartender and host,” the server noted in an email.)

The culprit? After the bill was split three ways, one of the bill-paying parties used a gift card. The $75 card was applied to a $143 amount, leaving a new total of $68.

“They tipped us $13,” Mary wrote.

That $13 tip is not even 10 percent of $143. Gift card: great for diner, awful for server.

It didn’t help that at least two of the three paying factions were pretty pathetic tippers.

One coupon user paid tip on the reduced amount. Another bill-payer left a 15 percent tip. And, well, that gift card user might as well have written “TIP” on a scrap of paper.

Gift cards and coupons don’t have to spell “no tip for you” for a competent server. Not if the diner is fair.

Some establishments that offer special deals routinely encourage their customers to be mindful.

“We always encourage our guests to tip on any pre-discounted amount, or on whatever the retail price would have been,” says Jason Emmett, president of the Florida-based Duffy’s Sports Grill chain. “For me, that would be the right way.”

Whatever discount or deal a restaurant offers should not be held against the server, he said.

The Duffy’s chain makes it possible for its restaurants to offer a gratuity guideline on each check, listing amounts for 15 percent, 18 percent and 20 percent.

“However, it’s at each general manager’s discretion as to whether their store will use the feature or not,” says Sandy Nelson, Duffy’s marketing director. “If they use it, then it will appear on all guest checks. Some find it useful when they have more tourists in their area.”

Those suggested tips are calculated on the subtotal amount, before any coupons or gift card discounts are applied, she notes.

Of course, we know tipping is optional. It’s a diner’s acknowledgement of a server’s effort.

Emmett knows this and offers that his company works to make sure service is on point by emphasizing training and encouraging exceptional servers.

“To be a good server, you have to have a passion. Servers are not motivated by the hourly wage. The great ones get that they’re in charge of their own income,” he says.

If the diners they serve aren’t pathetic tippers, that is.