Welcome to a new column on Fly&Dine called Screw That, in which I identify something terrible in the world of food and/or travel and tell you why it’s so terrible. Think of it like therapy for all of us. First up: the awful trend of tacking on automatic gratuity in restaurants.
“American tipping culture is out of control.” I wrote that sentence back in July in response to a hotly anticipated restaurant that opened in LA over the summer which decided to charge an automatic 18% gratuity on every check, whether you liked your service or not. I was outraged then and I’m even more outraged now because what seemed like an uncomfortable anomaly appears to be on its way to the mainstream.
Yesterday, I ate at two different restaurants and both forced me to tip my server. It’s not that I wouldn’t have tipped them on my own. I absolutely would have and probably for more than the 18% I was charged. The biggest issue I have is that the choice was taken out of my hands.
Tipping at restaurants in the US is unlike anywhere else in the world. We tip for everything just because we see a tip jar or a tip line on a credit card slip. Buy a coffee, tip. Get a shuttle ride, tip. Pay someone to clean your house, tip. How did this happen? I’ve written about tipping quite a bit and it’s become so ingrained in our culture that we barely even question it anymore. Our meals end up costing 120% of what they should and we blindly add the money in and go about our business. I used to be one of those servers that benefited from the generosity of my tipping customers, but now I have to say that we’ve reached a new boundary line on the tipping frontier and I’m worried that there’s no going back.
Automatic gratuity is not only insulting to me as a diner. It’s insulting as a contributing member of the American economy. Why do restaurants and other service industries feel that the customer is responsible for paying the employees? Why are restaurant owners exempt from paying their employees a living wage? Why do we, as paying customers, let it happen?
There’s another issue at play here and it’s about transparency. When we were handed the check, our server didn’t mention anything about the service charge included. There wasn’t anything on the check that mentioned it either (some restaurants choose to stamp the check or circle the gratuity line if they’ve automatically included a charge). In fact, the only warning was a small line on the menu written in a fairly tiny font. At least an hour went by in between the last time I saw my menu and the time the check came. I didn’t remember the miniscule auto gratuity clause at all and, in fact, the check was split three ways so all I saw was my credit card receipt with an empty tip line waiting to be filled in. Had my girlfriend not asked how much I was going to tip, I highly doubt I would have even questioned why each of our bills was so high but her question made me look at the original itemized bill. There I found the culprit: an 18% surcharge already added in.
Without checking, our server would have made roughly 38% of our bill as a tip and I don’t think his neglecting to mention the included gratuity was an oversight. This is the same dude who tried to foist an $8 bottle of water on me by asking “Would you like sparkling water or still? Or a bottle of each?” Anyone that phrases things so as to leave out the option of free tap water most likely has no qualms about collecting a double tip, too.
When I saw the included gratuity, I felt bamboozled. Luckily, I caught it before paying for my lack of close reading. Other people haven’t been so lucky. From a recent Yelp review:
About that check – I only noticed after I had tipped and signed (and I tipped 20% because even if the service is so-so, in the US this is how servers make money – I’m not heartless) that the check already included an 18% service charge. There was no mention of this on the menu that I saw, and I guess I just didn’t take note on the check until after I left.
While there actually is mention on the menu, it’s very small. I think it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to inform its customers about the charge when the bill is delivered. Either that or remove the tip line from credit card receipts. Without doing one or the other, the whole thing comes off as shady and profiteering.
I’d like to imagine a future where American restaurant workers are paid an ample wage like their European counterparts. I’d like to imagine a future where my tipping is appreciated and respected instead of forced upon me. I’d like to imagine a future where I don’t have to read my final bill as closely as I do my business contracts. Until then, I say this:
Automatic gratuity? Screw that.