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The 20% Solution?

March 22, 2010

by Monsieur Anton

Many restaurants automatically add a gratuity, be it 18% or 20% to parties of 8-10 or more. This surcharge is a way for the restaurant to safeguard against their servers from being stiffed by large parties. This becomes an issue for servers because when they are tied up with large parties, they are normally unable to take other tables. If the large party leaves a small, or god forbid no tip, the server has worked for little to no wages on that evening. The automatic tip is the house’s way of looking out for their employees, but that could end if a Maryland lawmaker has her way.

Baltimore City Democrat Cheryl Glenn has introduced a bill to the Maryland General Assembly that would make such fixed tips punishable by a fine of up to $5,000. The first offense would receive a warning. The second infraction results in a fine of up $500. The third, and all subsequent occurrences triggers the big money fine.

Glenn insists that it is a consumer protection issue, and on the surface it is hard to argue, but is it? Where does consumer protection end, and free market begin. After all, nobody is forcing the diner to patronize a restaurant that practices automatic gratuities. As long as the policy is clearly outlined, is it government’s job to protect diner’s from such charges? If legislation is really needed to protect diners from themselves, maybe McDonald’s should be outlawed.

Let me preface my position by stating that when I was a server, I never added the automatic tip. I felt confident in my own abilities, and in turn it usually worked out in my favor, but that was me. As a manager, I’ve seen many able servers stiffed on both small and large tables. It is the big ones that hurt though, because they account for large chunks of dough at a time.

Tipping is a hot button issue. The last time I raised the subject on this blog, it produced some heated comments. I contended then, and nothing has happened to change my view, that most diners do not know the difference between good and bad service. If you have not worked in the business, can you really be sure that the bad service you get is the result of an indifferent wait person, or an overwhelmed kitchen? I maintain that very few customers can truly tell beyond doubt where the fault lay, so why punish the sub-minimum wage employee?

I’ve seen many a patron take out bad food on the server. Why should they tip 18% for an overcooked steak, or because they had to wait 45 minutes for a table? Don’t think it happens? Try working for a week in a restaurant. The way to handle this situation is not to take it out on the server, who in Ohio is payed $3.65, but to raise your concerns with the manager. In most cases management will address legitimate complaints by “comping” an appropriate amount of the meal, or otherwise compensating you. If they do not, then you’ve got a gripe with the establishment, and can, and should respond accordingly by taking your business elsewhere.

Restaurants do have a responsibility to clearly state their policy on tacked-on gratuities. When you order a meal at a dining establishment, you enter into an unwritten contract. If government wants to really look out for consumer protection, then I have no problem with requiring restaurants to post their policy either at the door, or on the menu, or both. Most eateries that have such policies already do that. If the diner has any questions, they should ask the server or manager for clarification.

Equal protection under the law is a principle we all learned in grade school Social Studies, so how about some protection for the servers? The restaurant industry represents four percent of the nation’s workforce. Compare this to the auto industry, which received government bailout protection, and accounts for roughly three percent of the workforce. How about bailouts for the servers who get stiffed by big parties?

Chef Gusteau says: Definitely a tough topic. As a guest, I felt bothered by seeing the automatic tip on the bill. I knew how to tip appropriately, so that might account for the sense of disgust. Also, I hoped that the server wouldn’t slack off since they knew that regardless of the performance, they were getting a 20% tip. On the other hand, running a large table is a lot of work and coordination…just think how many times they come to the table. Inevitably at least 40% of the guests begin asking for extra drinks, sugars, more napkins, etc. Tough work. As far as punishing the server for back of the house issues (kitchen issues, heaven forbid!), a skilled server will know how to handle that in such a way that they neither bash the kitchen, nor make ridiculous excuses. A simple “Sorry, but the kitchen has been particularly busy this evening, and is working hard to get your food done to our Chef’s satisfaction. May I bring you some bread or additional drinks in the meantime?” works wonders.

Another big issue is whether or not the server acknowledges the automatic tip. I am sure there are some servers out there hoping that their large party gets all “drunk and goofy” and doesn’t notice the automatic tip, hoping to get an additional tip on the bill…netting a total tip of 40% or something. I know it’s buyer beware, even in restaurants, but it seems wrong to take advantage of the guests that way. I always tip extra when the server acknowledges the automatic tip as a reminder and expresses their hope that everything went well with the meal.

In summary, I don’t mind seeing an automatic tip, nor do I think it wrong for an establishment to utilize one for larger parties. In most cases, the server clearly works harder and forgoes smaller tables with faster turnovers. I truly appreciate servers that acknowledge the automatic tip as both a reminder as well as a point of honesty. Finally, your server must have been pretty awful if you have an issue with a 20% tip, regardless of the party size.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 9:18 pm

    Our forums from have been debating this since November of 2007, and still posting comments today… Tipping. The most over posted topic in foodservice…for a reason..

  2. canyoukeepup permalink
    July 25, 2010 11:34 am

    This isn’t a government issue. As a consumer, if you disagree with the mandatory gratuity, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE!

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