A tennis player just served a bunch of New York City restaurants -- including Applebee's, Olive Garden and Red Lobster -- with a lawsuit alleging deceptive business practices, because they add auto-gratuities on meal tabs. The case may get somewhere, because under NYC rules restaurants may not add surcharges to listed prices except for groups of eight or more -- and the ramifications could stretch across the country. Automatically calculated tips are often controversial: Some diners fight them they don't care to be told to tip -- or how much to tip. But pre-calculated tips actually have benefits for both diners and the servers who wait on them.
Here are five reasons why automatic gratuities for large dining parties are a good thing. (Having calculators come standard on cell phones is also a bonus.)
5. It's a convenience for customers -- really
Adding an automatic gratuity on the tab for large parties is actually a plus for diners because it saves them the trouble of calculating a single tip, or several smaller tips if the diners request separate checks -- something they often do, and often do at the end of the meal rather than before, which is a huge pain in the ass for the server. Adding one automatic tip saves time and also saves brain drain.
While you are trying to say your goodbyes and your "I'll Facebook you laters!" and herding friends, relatives and kids out of a restaurant and into their vehicles, not having to think about basic math is definitely a convenience.
4. Big tables are high maintenance
Even the most polite and least demanding large parties with the most well-behaved children are still going to be in constant need of drink refills, silverware, napkins, ramekins of butter, ketchup, ranch dressing, baskets of dinner bread, appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, desserts, coffees, dish removal and cleanups. And -- newsflash -- servers aren't always fortunate enough to get polite, non-demanding large tables. With bigger parties, servers often have to run around like headless chickens with firecrackers up their feathery asses. It's a given that the check will be paid (unless something went horrendously wrong with the food) and the restaurant will get its money, but not always guaranteed that even excellent servers will be adequately compensated for their hard work.
And even if something went horrendously wrong with the food, servers should still be tipped -- because they don't do the cooking.
3. Large parties make large messes
Think about the last time you served a large family meal in your home, and how many dirty dishes piled up, how much food and drink ended up in places it shouldn't have -- the table, the floor, the walls, the ceilings, in the fish tanks and potted plants -- and how much time and energy it took to get your dining area back to rights again. Now imagine that the same scenario is taking place in a restaurant, but with the addition of diners not caring quite as much about what they mess up. Now you have what a large party leaves for the waitstaff. This isn't to say that all diners are filthy pigs in front of troughs, but isn't one of the large appeals of dining out the fact that you don't have to clean up afterward?
Making sure the staff gets paid -- and a little something extra if you left a compost pile behind -- is not only courteous, but downright humanitarian.
2. Larger dining parties take time, energy and tips away from servers
It's a raw truth, but it has to be told: Giving diners in small parties good service and turning tables that way makes for smaller tips more often, and also for a steady, smoothly-run server shift; getting a large table can screw that up. Servers must wait on customers who are seated in their sections, and don't always have control over who or what they get. But having a big top means that they can't take as many small tables, or any if the party is big enough to pull them out of the table rotation. So it becomes crucial to the server's take-home pay that the table leaves a reasonable tip.
When you're in a large group, a set gratuity of 18 or even 20 percent is reasonable, and refusing to pay it means you basically just asked someone to work for you for free.
1. Some diners are too stupid, too stingy or too distracted to tip properly
Large groups are often dining out for special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, weddings, graduations and sporting events. It's easy to get caught up in the festivities -- even easier when having a few cocktails -- and become too distracted to focus on the bill or the tip. Auto-gratuities make this a non-issue. Stinginess when dining out stinks, but unfortunately there are people who feel that tipping for good service is an imposition. For those folks, seeing an amount on a bill that is official might tempt them to just pay it rather than argue about it.
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And yes -- there are actually diners who are too stupid to figure out a tip without calculators, flowcharts, diagrams, iPhone apps and laser pointers. Sending a server away with no tip because the public school system failed restaurant diners only compounds this travesty, so sometimes it's best to let the restaurant do the synaptic lifting -- as well as provide food, beverages, carrier service and cleanup.