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Ethical Question About Tipping

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Ethical Question About Tipping

mattylip | Jan 14, 2002 09:40 AM

On Saturday night, I went out with my wife and her brother and mother to celebrate a birthday. We went to a very nice BYOB in Northern NJ. I brought three bottles of wine (which we finished) and had a great meal.

When the check came, I grabbed for it, but my mother-in-law insisted on paying. Of course, I protested, but my mother-in-law started to make a scene and I had to give in. I already had noticed that the bill was $191.

Because my mother-in-law had had a lot to drink, I noticed that she was staring at the check and it took her a while to compute the tip. When she did, I clearly saw that she left a $20 tip on her credit card, barely more than 10%.

The meal had been excellent, the service superb and I certainly would have given a tip of $35 or more. I didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, I could call her on it, but that would embarrass her. On the other hand, I could slip the waiter a $20 on the way out and that would be the end of that.

I chose the latter. As we got up to leave, I excused myself and went to the restroom. While there, I took out a $20 and folded it into my hand.

When I left, however, the rest of my party was still at the table reviewing the bill. Apparently, upon seeing the tip, the waiter had shown it to the owner who came over and asked if we had enjoyed the meal. My wife, brother-in-law and mother-in-law nodded in approval. The owner asked why such a small tip had been left if we had enjoyed our meal. My mother-in-law turned beet red and quickly grabbed for the check.

This is when I came back to the table. Though my mother-in-law was tipsy from the wine, she continued to claim that the tip was adequate because she “doubled the tax.” In NJ, sales tax on food is 6%, so this would equal a tip of 12%. Usually, my mother-in-law dines in NYC where the tax is (I think) 8½% which doubled is a fair 17%. Further, she rarely has to calculate tips.

Ultimately, she changed the receipt and left a $35 tip. Then, we got up and left. This incident completely spoiled what had been a great night. My mother-in-law felt very embarrassed and self-conscious and barely said a word on our drive home.

The real question, though, is whether the restaurant’s conduct was proper given the circumstances. If someone wants to leave a 10% tip shouldn’t she be able to do so, no questions asked? However, can’t a restaurant (though thinly disguised as a question regarding the overall service) ask whether a party enjoyed its meal? (It should be noted that there was a note on the menu that stated that 20% would be added as gratuity to parties of six more. This, to me, suggests that tipping is a very important issue at this restaurant.)

The bottom line is this: May a fine dining restaurant ask a patron to increase the gratuity?

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