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If It’s Mandatory Tipping, It’s Not Tipping

Some Tennessee restaurants are experimenting with the “Autograt,” an automatic gratuity applied to diner’s checks regardless of the size of their party. Proponents say it’s appropriate given how little servers make per hour without tips.

Automatic gratuities are no longer restricted to parties of eight or more in some Tennessee restaurants. Thanks to a new trend dubbed the “Autograt” (short for Automatic Gratuity), patrons are getting bills with their tips already added, a move that began after some restaurants saw a trend in lower tips.

A server quoted in the story offers a typical complaint: “You’re getting $2.13 an hour, so really, you’re depending on 15 to 20 percent.”

Yes, that pay sucks. No, I’ve never been a server. But the reason I’ve never been a server is because I know the pay sucks. I wasn’t willing to accept a job that paid so little and then forced me to rely on customers to subsidize the rest of my salary when that subsidy is optional.

And here’s where common sense comes into play: if a gratuity isn’t optional, then it isn’t a gratuity. Call it a “service fee.” Call it a “wait tax.” But let’s at least be honest enough to stop calling mandatory tipping a gratuity.

A gratuity, in case anyone is too lazy to bother with a dictionary, is defined by Webster as “something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service.” The obligation is the price of the food itself. The expectation is 15-20% on top of that.

As a general rule, I always tip 20%. Actually, I tip slightly more than 20%, because it makes the math easier. If I go to dinner and the bill is $18.45, I slide a decimal point one position to the left, get $1.85, double it, and get $3.70. I’ll then usually just round up to four bucks. If that’s not good enough for my server, they need to find other work. Just the other day, I had lunch at a favorite Japanese restaurant; I figured up the percentage of the tip I left doing it my way, and it came to 24%. Any server who’d complain about that seriously needs to find a different career path: I’m going above and beyond my expectation.

In a perfect world, restaurants would pay servers minimum wage and increase their prices so that they’d still have their profits and servers would be better paid. But in that perfect world, servers would be compensated well enough that tips wouldn’t be necessary, and I doubt many servers would be so quick to sign up for that plan.

If restaurants would just increase their prices by 20% and pay that increase to their servers so their salaries would be more reasonable; customers would be out of the tipping business, and servers would still get what they think they’re due, anyway. Except for the fact that many servers would still expect a tip on top of the higher prices.

But as long as we call it a “tip,” it needs to be understood that tipping is optional. Under our present system of food service, it’s understood to be the right thing to do, but it ultimately stands as a choice made by the patron. I’ve seen servers say that when a customer receives poor service, that’s not necessarily the server’s fault; well that’s certainly true. The problem is that as a customer, I’m not allowed to stop the proceedings to hold an employee meeting to see which employee is failing me; my server has to be my advocate. If I have bad service, I hold the server responsible because he’s usually the only person to whom I have access.

You can argue that I can always contact the manager, but then that has the potential of getting the server in trouble with his boss, when the problem may not be the server’s fault. Calling a manager over may get me out of paying a bill altogether, but for many people, that also means leaving no tip at all as opposed to something, albeit something less than 15%.

But as long as restaurants aren’t willing to make that 20% anything other than an option, then it needs to be understood that it is an option.

Servers are quick to point out that if you can’t afford to tip, you shouldn’t go out to eat. I see their logic. Really. But if we’re going to truly be fair, they might consider that if they can’t afford to potentially not get tipped by customers who aren’t willing to play by this “rule,” then the servers shouldn’t work in the food service industry. There will always be people who don’t follow social graces. And that goes for both sides of the tipping equation.

Would it bother you if a tip was automatically added to your bill, even if you were dining alone? Would you be any less likely to tip on your own (above that 15-18%) if you knew the restaurant had already added a gratutity?

10 Comments

  1. Here’s the sham – FLSA forbids anyone from making less than minimum wage, yes? Because of this, employers are required to pay their staff the difference between what they would make at minimum wage for their hours worked, and what they make in their base pay plus tips if that comes out to less than amount. So…their “I only make $2.13 an hour” whine is a farce. If the job wasn’t lucrative, then they wouldn’t do it, plain and simple. They more often than not come out ahead and do well enough to want to work there, so I’ve no time for their complaints. Further, when they try and justify larger tips by the amount of sidework they do, or the amount of tables they have to deal with – I come out to not worry about that stuff. I don’t worry about that stuff. That’s part of the job. You don’t like it? Go work elsewhere… but this goes back to the fact that more often than not they likely make far more money than they would at another job.  Deal with it – we all would like to make more money than we’re paid, but of course, we’re all a little biased. I’ll get off my soapbox. I loathe the argument about servers not making enough money.
    That having been said, I usually tip around 20%. If you were terrible, then you get 10%. You have to be really terrible to get much less. If an autograt happens, expect nothing above and beyond that amount.

  2. Some great points, well made. In fact, your observations would apply even moreso over here in the UK – our wait staff are paid a tiny bit better, but that’s reflected by the fact that even a standard meal out costs at least $60 a head. As such, 10% is seen as the standard amount. 20% would be really making a statement about the service. Either way, the amount you tip is more seen as a method of expression more than making up someone’s wages (though that’s obviously a big part of it still).
    It’s not uncommon to be sprung with an sneaky 10% ‘gratuity’ sneakily added onto the bill, more often than not by lacklustre restauranteurs. Unless it’s policy to automatically add a service charge for large group bookings (understandable), I always make a point of asking to have it removed.
    If they do the sensible thing, I make sure to tip more than their auto-calculation would have done. If not, I steal the cutlery on the way out.

    1. Ha! I love it.
      A word of advice: just be careful where you conceal that cutlery. You might get more than you bargained for! 🙂
      For customers, you are right: the tip is an expression of service, not making up someone’s wages. For servers, it seems to ONLY be about making up wages. The fact that the two sides seem to be so far apart from each other is why these kinds of debates happen.

  3. I generally give 20% unless the service is truly awful, then I’ll make it a bit less but always at least 15%.  I don’t like the idea of the gratuity being added automatically and, if this were done, I probably wouldn’t add more.

  4. I’m like you, it is easier to give a 20+% tip so if the restaurant is adding an 18% tip, they are cheating their wait staff out of 2% or more.
    Second, I sometimes leave no tip at all if wait staff is harassing me.

  5. Would it bother you if a tip was automatically added to your bill, even if you were dining alone? Would you be any less likely to tip on your own (above that 15-18%) if you knew the restaurant had already added a gratutity?
    If the restaurant is adding in the ‘gratuity’ then no, I won’t be adding anything additional. It would bother me if a tip was added to my bill unless there was clear signage to that fact.
    I do wonder sometimes about tipping at tweener restaurants – places that aren’t quite sit down, but still above fast food (Jason’s would be an example). I guess if you don’t have a dedicated ‘server’ then there is no tip, but what’s to stop these restuarants from simply adding that Autograt for their crew?

    1. I wonder about tipping when I get takeout. The host has to check the food to make sure it’s the right order, but other than that, I don’t get the same level of attention I’d get if I dined in.
      Here’s a question about that clear signage: if you saw that sign out front, would you be more likely to leave?

      1. patricksplace I think it would depend on the situation. Most sit down places are really expensive. When we do go, it’s most likely for some special occasion-a birthday, anniversary, Mother’s day, etc. At that point, it would up to the person being celebrated. But if it was just me and the family, then the decision would be greatly influenced by how the kids were doing, and if there was a good alternative nearby.

      2. patricksplace I also wonder about take-out. I usually don’t tip with take-out, but I feel guilty. But on the other hand they do less for take-out orders. I’m in and out in less than 5 minutes.

      3. patricksplace I don’t tip those places. I had a friend who worked at Sonic, for example, they were making above minimum wage at the time…and people still tipped them under the impression they were not.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.