Ask The Salty Waitress: Am I supposed to tip on top of restaurants’ 20% service fee?

The Salty Waitress
Photo: DragonImages (iStock), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

Dear Salty, For my partner’s birthday I’m considering a major splurge: booking reservations at a certain internationally famous, A Chef’s Table-profiled, archetypal farm-to-table restaurant. The prepaid seatings are $278 a pop, which already makes me light-headed. But that’s my problem, and solvable: I just need to run a little private austerity program between now and then to sock away the money. Besides the cost of the meal, though, there’s an automatic 20% “administrative fee” in place of tipping. It’s part of this place’s progressive approach to every aspect of running a restaurant.

The worry I’m having is that the website’s text makes me uncertain about whether the fee has actually replaced tipping. “We did away with the practice of tipping, ensuring that our entire team is compensated more equitably....” Cool! But then: “This fee is not ... distributed directly to the service staff.” Okay, I maybe get it? And then there’s the way they say that tipping is “neither required nor expected.” It’s oddly not-quite-definitive.

Am I being paranoid, or does all of this read like a wedding invitation that explains, “gifts are not necessary” while also linking to a registry, “Just in case!”? I don’t want to set us up to feel like assholes. I’m worried that this is a place where only the poor or oblivious rely on the fee, while the wealthy and generous tip “just to be nice.” I also know I may be reading too much into the website text.

This is where I’m hoping you can help, SW. If we could eat here, pay the fee, and hold up our end as good customers, great. If not, I think this place is out of our reach for now.

Thanks,
Proud Over-Thinker

Dear Over-Thinker,

Take my hand as we waltz into this brave new world together. The whole concept of automatic gratuities or “administrative fees” or whatever you call them is pretty new, so you’re not the only one scratching their head. This is still mostly happening at the type of schmancy plate you’re talking about, which makes it even more confusing since most of us serfs eat at those places like once every five years—if ever.

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So, a couple things: It’s important for the restaurant to be very clear about how its automatic gratuity or fee works. I think that’s the problem here—the restaurant is trying so hard to be polite and proper that you don’t what the hell the words mean. After reading the phrasing through a few times, I think I’ve deciphered it.

The restaurant truly does not want you to tip. It’s not playing coy; it’s not saying “Oh, let’s just stay in on Valentine’s Day” but then secretly expecting you to book the best table at the overpriced fondue place. “We did away with the process of tipping” means just that. The fee isn’t given directly to service staff because it becomes general revenue that then becomes better and more predictable paychecks for staff. I’ll assume it’s being distributed to back-of-house as well—let’s hope. Now, if a restaurant just charges a small 2-5% line item at the end of your check for “employee benefits,” that’s not replacing the tip. It just means hey, there’s a little extra fee on your bill so the restaurant can offer health insurance or paid time off.

Lucky for you I have a friend of a friend who owns a schmancy restaurant like the one you’re going to, and this restaurant has a similar policy. So I asked him: Really, really no tipping? He said really, really no tipping. If a guest completely insists on it, though, his restaurant then legally has to put that money aside, separate it from the rest of the restaurant income, and divide it among the front-of-house staff who came directly in contact with the customer. He says that’s very rare.

So, good news, Over-Thinker! You don’t have to tip on top of that fee, and you can probably afford that dinner. No one will think you’re cheap unless you steal all the soap out of the bathroom.

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Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: salty@thetakeout.com

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