Sunday Dinner

How I learned to tip … my hat

June 2, 2012 

If you take a large group to most restaurants today, you’ll see it: the automatic gratuity. Menus usually state that large parties will see an tip automatically added to their bills to compensate for the extra time and effort they require from servers.

With automatic tips, what recourse do you have against poor service? In the case of a Houston family, none. HLN reported that the family was locked into a restaurant and threatened with arrest after refusing to pay a 17 percent automatic gratuity in protest of what they felt was inadequate service. They eventually paid the tip to avoid trouble.

The restaurant called the police over someone not tipping? If every joint did that, the slammer would be full of cheap diners.

Working as a server is an educational experience that everyone should have. I earned a master’s degree in human behavior during the summer I spent as a server – we were unashamedly called waitresses then – at a chain pizza restaurant.

I was home from college, and it wasn’t going to be my job forever, nor was it the life’s work of a couple who was also there only for the summer. The cook and waitress broke up about six weeks in but still had to work together because they had begged for the same shifts. True love, and all that.

On slow afternoons, the waitress would punch up Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs” on the jukebox. Then the two would sigh heavily and ostentatiously ignore each other – she rolling napkins, he checking the pepperoni supply. I still can’t stand that song.

Another waitress in her 30s, for whom this was the job that supported her kids, had no patience for the foolishness of us alien visitors to her world, but she did teach me how to spot potential welshers.

One Friday night, eight high school students sat down in my section. I took their order as they carefully checked pizza prices and their wallets. By the time I returned with drinks, their attitudes had gone from to coupon clippers to lottery winners. Larger pizzas, they said, and salads, too. I knew they had decided to ditch their bill. I told the manager and tried to keep an eye on them, but as the place got busier, I lost track of the table.

Sure enough, the group headed for the door. The manager sprinted after them in the parking lot, collared the guys and dragged them inside. I was surprised that someone who smoked as much pot out by the Dumpster as he did could run so fast.

The group left no tip. Just wads of napkins, gnawed pizza crusts and mangled drink straws.

My summer experience left me with kindly feelings toward servers. They have to take a lot of junk, including the brunt of the ire for badly prepared food. Most people don’t want to stomp to the back of the restaurant and confront someone who is surrounded by sharp knives.

But as a diner, I have found that the “auto-grat,” as it’s called, is not always clearly stated and sometimes not stated at all upfront. I’ve seen percentages from 18 to as much as 20 – and, on one or two occasions, applied to all dining parties whether of two or 12.

Handling a large group isn’t an excuse for bad service. I’ve received poor service at dinners for two, and fabulous attention in a party of 10. Good restaurants who care about their patrons’ dining experience prepare for any size group.

Here’s a thought: Pay servers a decent wage so they don’t have to depend on handouts like beggars. And no one will need to call the cops.

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