If you’ve been dining out recently, you’ve probably encountered something like this when the check arrives: an automatic 18-22% service charge added to the bill, plus a line for tipping. Confused? You’re not the only one.
Does your waiter still expect you to tip? How much should be added? And where does the money go? A math and etiquette quiz is the last thing you want at the end of a night out, especially after a few too many martinis.
Unlike the more typical discretionary freebie, a fixed service fee is not legally required to go to your server. In some cases, it is split between front desk staff – waiters, busses and hosts. In others, it goes toward higher salaries and sometimes health benefits for an entire restaurant, from bartenders to line cooks. Technically, however, restaurants can use those dollars for whatever they want.
The service fee model grew in popularity during the pandemic as a way to provide more salary stability to servers whose income fluctuated wildly with each new variation and Covid restriction. But for some restaurateurs, changing the pay structure is just an attempt to fix what they see as a deeply flawed system. They use fees to bridge wage disparities between employees (wages for untipped positions such as prep cooks can be abysmal) while trying to make their staff’s livelihoods less dependent on the whims and biases of outsiders. .
“I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 14,” says Hollis Silverman, a ThinkFoodGroup alum who now operates Capitol Hill spots, Duck and the Peach, La Collina and Wells Cocktail Bar. “You see a lot of things and you really realize how messy the whole business is in how people get paid and how they live compared to other professions.” Each of its three places has a 22% service fee, which is used to pay all hourly staff a base salary of between $20 and $30 an hour, as well as health, vision and dental benefits. Anything extra that customers add is distributed among all staff based on the shifts they have worked.
But not everyone in the industry is a fan. Some servers and bartenders say they can make a lot more money with a traditional gratuity system. Staff at the Red Hen in Bloomingdale’s, for example, recently pushed to scrap the service charge for the Italian dining room. “They wanted a little more control over their own financial future,” co-owner Mike Friedman said. Still, sister All-Purpose restaurants, Shaw Pizzerias and Navy Yard, retain their 20% service charge. And the fee-for-service model could become even more pervasive with new ballot initiatives aimed again at eliminating the tipped minimum wage, a system in which diners subsidize the majority of employee hourly wages through gratuity.
So, should you always tip? We hate to tell you that there isn’t just one right answer here. But after asking the opinions of diners, owners and employees, our conclusion is this: the majority of people do not offer tips in addition to the service charge, and the majority of restaurants do not expect to what they do. That said, if you’re inclined to add more for great food and service, 5-10% is considered a nice gesture.
“I appreciate the extra tips more than being frustrated by not tipping,” says bartender Dylan Curtis, who works at the Purple Patch, a Filipino spot in Mount Pleasant. The restaurant has an automatic 20% service charge, and Curtis estimates that about a third of his customers add an extra tip. When they do, it’s about 5-7% more. Curtis’ tip: add it to whatever you normally feed.
Lutèce general manager Elizabeth Parker said no tipping was expected on top of the 22% service charge at the French bistro in Georgetown. Only one in five customers do. Staff are “always surprised and grateful,” she says. “Even if they’re totally supported, it’s a compliment, basically, at this point.”
Yet, do some servers or bartenders secretly resent you for not tipping extra? Well, sometimes.
“There’s a part of me that really resents them for not leaving at least something,” says a bartender who, like others in this story, requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “I don’t think 20% is generally a big amount overall. . . . I would say 10% more. It is a very reasonable amount. »
Silverman encourages his staff to take a different approach when someone asks if they should tip. “We’d rather you come back and tell someone about us,” she said. “Let’s say someone leaves, like, $10, $20, and that’s split between all the staff. It’s not a lot per person. But if someone comes back and they have a whole other dining experience, it’s $10 versus maybe a few hundred.
Most restaurants try to make their service charges as obvious as possible, posting notices on websites, menus and checks and asking servers to remind diners. Despite these efforts, Tiki the 18 and Game Sports Pub owner Jo-Jo Valenzuela says he still receives four to five calls a week from customers who were unaware of the policy and want to adjust their checks. .
But while a former Tiki on the 18th waiter claims Adams Morgan bar staff have been repeatedly instructed to remind patrons of the charge, it hasn’t done much. “Half the servers just didn’t tell people about it, and that was around 40%. It wasn’t cool with me,” he says. “Unless it’s flashing and neon that there’s a tip included, maybe only one person in a top eight realizes that, and that’s if they’re lawyers.”
This anonymous cocktail bartender, who previously worked at Cotton & Reed, says it was sometimes “really annoying” having to remind customers of the distillery bar’s automatic 20% free rum. “When we’re really busy on a Friday, I just don’t have time to physically say to every guest, ‘By the way, by the way, by the way. . . .’ If I’ve ever dealt with anyone rude, you better believe I’m not telling you.
But being transparent about the existence of service charges is only the first step. Restaurants need to be more explicit about their expectations and how the money is used. The Little Grand, a new pizza bar near H Street in the northeast, is more blunt than most when it comes to explaining its 22% service charge. “Tipping is NOT expected,” the menu reads.
But if it’s really not expected, why do their checks always have a tip line? Perhaps counterintuitively, some restaurateurs who might otherwise be inclined to scrap it say it’s the diners who insist on keeping it. “Places that don’t allow tipping, a lot of regulars would be very upset if they couldn’t leave a little something. And it would become kind of an awkward conversation,” Little Grand co-owner Soung Wiser said. It’s really there to accommodate a handful of people, and it’s not there as a measure of guilt.”
Cathedral Heights pizzeria 2 Amys is one of the few restaurants with no service charge or tip line. Owner Peter Pastan feels tricked or guilty when he encounters the combination at other locations. Instead, her restaurant’s costs are baked into her menu prices, something others say they’re hesitant to do due to sticker shock.
“It avoids confusion,” retorts Pastan. “I think I have no idea what the difference is between a job waiting at the tables and a job at a bank or a job at a tech company or a job at a magazine. You come in and you do your job and you get paid and you go home. And if you do shitty work, your boss talks to you.