A reader wrote me with the following story: “My boyfriend and I were dining at Bombay Masala near Times Square when the British trio next to us got up to leave. The waiter looked at their check and told them they had left $60 on a $59 check, and that $1 was not an acceptable tip.
“They said they had paid the bill and would not pay more,” the reader continued. “In the end they added one more dollar and stopped by my table to vent about ‘this whole Americans-expect-tips thing.’ I believe they honestly felt the waiter was trying to rip them off.
“Can a restaurant legally add a service charge to the bill at their discretion?” the reader added. “I’ve heard servers bemoan the nonexistent tips of international tourists before and have wondered why restaurants in tourist Meccas don’t add the charge automatically. I was wondering if you could weigh in on this.”
I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give a definitive legal answer. I share the reader’s e-mail to me not as a springboard for a legal discussion, but as a way of opening the door — by which I mean the Comments forum — to anyone out there with big thoughts on how servers can be spared the financial cold shoulder from tourists whose countries have tipping customs different from ours.
On the legal front, though, I bet discrimination complaints would ring loud and clear — and rightly so — if restaurants, sizing up individual tables, added fixed gratuities on a case-by-case basis. How would a restaurant know that a given table comprised foreign tourists and not foreign-born people living in the city? Even if they could determine that, wouldn’t it be the grossest, most objectionable kind of profiling to make tipping assumptions based on diners’ appearances, accents and addresses?
I simply can’t imagine such a scenario, and I definitely, definitely wouldn’t endorse it.
It is indeed legal for a restaurant to have an automatic-gratuity policy applied in a uniform fashion, and this is manifest in the large number of restaurants out there that add set gratuities for parties of a given size: usually, parties of six or more.
It’s manifest, too, in the smaller number of restaurants that announce from the get-go that each and every group of diners, no matter the size, will get a bill with the gratuity already added to it. This happens at places ranging from the Red Lobster in Times Square to Per Se in the Time Warner Center.
Is a required gratuity a good thing? That’s always a heated topic of debate. It protects servers who rely on tips for the bulk of their income, so in that sense it has a real function and value. And to those diners who wonder why servers’ salaries should be our responsibility and worry, in the form of the tips we give: if restaurants were structured differently and the restaurant itself paid the server what it would have to so that tips ceased to be necessary, believe me, the cost of the dishes we eat would rise. In the end, we’d be paying the equivalent of the tip in the increased bill itself.
The problem I have with required gratuities is that they set up a system that may be less likely to reward superior service, and that denies diners a reasonable way to protest inferior service.
If a diner knows that he or she is on the line for 15 or 18 or 20 percent regardless of the service’s quality, he or she may not adjust the tip upward for exemplary service, because he or she wouldn’t have been allowed to adjust the tip downward for abysmal service.
As for how to protect servers in restaurants without set gratuities (which is the majority of restaurants) from foreign tourists who refuse to bow to local tipping customs, I just don’t know. I wish I did. Because the servers in those circumstances deserve better, because the tourists in those circumstances are behaving in a closed-minded, arrogant fashion.