Like most people, I have very strong opinions when it comes to tipping rates for various services that expect them. For example, I staunchly believe that 15% is completely acceptable for good restaurant service.
It used to be that tipping was meant to reward and encourage your server for exemplary service. Unfortunately, with the advent of tipping pools, mandatory gratuities and general tip inflation, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Indeed, one of my biggest pet peeves with respect to tipping is the “mandatory gratuity” (talk about an oxymoron) of usually 18% that most establishments now tack on to any bill for large parties.
What is the logic behind enforcing a mandatory gratuity, especially for large parties comprised of at least six to eight people, and just how did this practice ever come to be in the first place? Anyone? Anyone?
Have rigorous academic studies been conducted that conclusively prove the collective intelligence of large parties drops to such a degree that they become incapable of figuring out a proper tip based upon the service they received? Bueller?
Several years ago, one restaurant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had two people arrested for refusing to pay a mandatory 18% gratuity. The diners had to endure an inattentive waitress who spent more time smoking than serving, and they had to wait more than an hour for a simple order of salad and wings.
That sounds like crap service to me too. They should have walked out 30 minutes after placing their order.
It’s hard to believe that these dubious scofflaws had criminal theft charges filed against them for failing to leave a tip — but they did. That doesn’t mean the two diners didn’t have options available to them; they just chose the wrong one.
As a customer, you have a lot of leverage — especially with respect to the highly competitive restaurant industry.
Here are several suggestions you can use to avoid paying a mandatory gratuity for diabolical service:
1. Request the mandatory gratuity be waived. As a preemptive move, you can ask the restaurant if they’ll waive the mandatory gratuity. Why would they do that? Because you have a large party and they may not be willing to risk losing your business, that’s why. Here’s another reason: Some restaurants may jump at the chance to see their servers earn an even bigger payday. Suggest to the manager that, in lieu of waiving the mandatory gratuity, your party will tip more than 18% for excellent service.
2. Break up your party into separate tables. Breaking up your party into two or three smaller adjacent tables is another preemptive move that has the added benefit of ensuring you’ll probably get better service. Think about it. When you’re with a large party, a table for eight has to wait longer than a table for four because more meals have to be prepared. A table of 16 requires an even longer wait. And let’s face it: If you are in a party with 16 people, are you really able to converse with Aunt Edna who is stuck at the far end of a chain of four tables? The reality is, most people only socialize with the folks who are sitting adjacent and across from them anyway.
3. Talk to your server. Okay, enough for the preemptive suggestions. Let’s assume you’ve already sat down with your large party and your server is off to a bad start. Tell them about it! Of course, do it tactfully and with a smile (as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar). In my experience, this step is usually enough to nip any problems in the bud before they get too bad and you’re forced to pay good money for bad service.
4. Inform the manager you’d like a different server. So you’ve talked to your server but you’re still not getting results? Then talk to the manager about the poor service and request another server. Although it is doubtful the manager will comply with your request, the odds are you will get him to help ensure the rest of your time at the restaurant goes as smoothly as possible. Often times, when well-founded, a talk with the manager will result in some sort of compensation for your troubles such as one or two comped appetizers or meals — which often offsets a portion of the mandatory gratuity.
5. Dispute the tip with your credit card company. Let’s assume the manager has been unsympathetic to your plight, your meals were delivered cold, you never got those drink refills, and the server had an attitude. Now you’re looking at an 18% mandatory gratuity for the, um, fine service. Calmly pay for the entire bill, including the mandatory gratuity. Just make sure you use your favorite credit card. When you get home, immediately send a polite letter to the offending restaurant complaining of the poor service you received and requesting your tip money back. Then call your credit card company and dispute the mandatory gratuity.
Those Philadelphia diners aren’t the first people this has ever happened to. A similar event occurred in Lake George, New York, but charges were dropped when the District Attorney said the man couldn’t be forced to pay a gratuity even though the restaurant said tips of 18% were mandatory for parties of six or more.
By the way, the charges were eventually dropped in the Philadelphia case too.
So the next time you’re faced with potentially having to reward incompetent servers with an 18% gratuity for pitiful service, don’t be a martyr and expose yourself to a potential criminal or civil trial by withholding the tip.
Remember, there are plenty of other options available — you just need to plan ahead.
Photo Credit: Adikos
This is an updated version of an article that was originally posted on December 8, 2009.