Of Bars, Booze, and Bartending - Proving "Coughlin's Law" Invalid Since Feb '05

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Art of the Auto-Grat

You know this already, but there's a thing in the business called an auto-gratuity, a restaurant policy that says if you have a party of six (sometimes eight) or more, an automatic gratuity of 18% of the bill will be included in the final total. It's printed on the menu of any restaurant that enforces this policy.

It's necessary because large parties occupy a waiter's time, and, as in almost any other business, time is money. In fine dining, when you are part of a six-top or more, you're likely the only customers a waiter attends to from the time you arrive until the time you leave. The automatic gratuity ensures that the waiter will be compensated fairly for dedicating their service to your party. The busser and bartender share in this gratuity; it's a team effort for certain. If you're especially pleased with your service, if you really believe it was over-the-top, there's even a line on the final check that allows you to add onto the 18% gratuity.

To be honest, few hosts add to the 18% gratuity; it's appreciated, even celebrated, but not at all expected. However, it would be shocking if someone actually subtracted.

So, it was shocking and insulting to the entire front-of-house staff when a party decided to strike through the auto-gratuity line on a sizeable check Saturday night, adjusting the auto-gratuity down, bringing it to 15%. Their waiter was delightful and attentive, and was hurt by the crossed-out and clumsy notation, so of course she shared her copy with the entire front-of-house staff, as we gasped in sympathy.

Why would a customer feel that they have the option to adjust the price of the service they have received? This patron never approached a manager (or a bartender, they usually come to us first looking for a manager; it's how we end up so in on all the dish) to complain about the quality of the meal, service or experience. With his pen, he changed the amount and final price of his evening, because he thought he could, and why not, I guess. It's the first time I've seen it, and it's one of the most arrogant things I've ever experienced in a dining room.

If a customer can change the posted menu price of the service he received, what's to stop him from changing the price of the Veal Picatta to something more within his budget and preference? When did the American restaurant become a haggling bazaar?

On an unrelated note, this song has been in my head all evening, probably because one of our hostesses was humming it throughout dinner. I'd like to thank her for planting it in my head.

Kathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America

- Simon and Garfunkel, "America"