September 19, 2006

Mandatory Tipping in Philadelphia Restaurants?

The Inquirer ran an AP story out of New York on Sunday entitled “Strategies for Getting All Waiters Their Due.” It discussed the measures some are taking to ensure that restaurant servers are being tipped adequately. As an extreme example, the article noted that the restaurant Per Se in New York caused a public outcry last year when it began the practice of automatically charging a 20 percent gratuity, or “autograt” as it is sometimes called, on every single check, not just on checks for large parties.

Apparently, at least one Philadelphia restaurant employs the practice of automatically charging a 20 percent gratuity on every check. What troubled me, though, was the way I learned about it.

On Labor Day, my wife and I had dinner at Pizzicato at the corner of 3rd and Market. It was just the two of us. Pizzicato is located in a heavy tourist area, so you might not expect that the food would be anything to write home about. But the food at Pizzicato, in fact, is quite good (the sausage ravioli in a rich cream sauce was impressive). When the check came, though, I noticed that a 20 percent gratuity had automatically been added to the bill. I was surprised because I do not believe the menu disclosed that a 20 percent gratuity would automatically be added to every bill. Given that this practice is uncommon, one would expect that a restaurant would take extraordinary care to make sure its customers are fully informed of the policy long before the check arrives.

What happened next was even more interesting. Normally, when the server returns with the credit card slip for you to sign, he or she leaves the check in the jacket. In this instance, when the server returned with the credit card slip, the check had been removed from the jacket. The check was the only evidence showing that we had already been charged a 20 percent gratuity, and we did not have it when we were presented with a credit card slip that had a line for a tip. Had I not examined the check carefully when it was first presented, I would have left what would have been a second tip. Granted, there could be perfectly reasonable and innocent explanation for why the server removed the check from the jacket. But the fact that it was missing when it came time to the fill out the credit card slip was troubling to me in light of the apparent failure to disclose this uncommon tipping policy earlier in the evening.

I’m sure I’ll return to Pizzicato; the ravioli was good enough to get me back in the door (it was in a cream sauce, after all). Going forward, though, here are a few suggestions for restaurants and customers.

For restaurants:

  • Fully disclose your tipping policy. If, for example, you charge a 20 percent gratuity automatically on every check, make sure your customers know about it before they place their orders. Set forth the policy clearly in your menu. Instruct your servers to tell your customers about it. Whatever it takes. You don’t want your customers to be surprised; there are too many other restaurants out there for us to choose from.

  • Keep the check in the jacket when you return it to the customer to get his or her signature on the credit card slip. If you have an uncommon tipping policy, it will help to remove the appearance of any impropriety.

For customers:

  • Make it your responsibility to learn the restaurant’s tipping policy. Ask about it when you make reservations, ask your server about it when you are seated, and/or review the menu for disclosures about the restaurant’s tipping policy.

  • Carefully study the check to determine if a gratuity was added automatically. If it was and you feel that the gratuity is sufficient, just write the word “included” on the tip line of your credit card slip.

  • Finally, leave a respectable tip. The 2007 Zagat guide says Philadelphians are the nation’s highest tippers (19.4 percent of the bill), so I know I’m preaching to the choir. But this reminder may help to keep your name out of databases like this one.

Photo credit: Gothamist


Anonymous said...

I hate to admit this, but I tip generously irregardless of the service.

Have eaten at Pizziacato, I know they definitely got a double tip from Russ and I.

Didn't realize it at the time. Glad I read this post!

BTW - Can I blog link you? Oh yes, another Philly blog is in town :)

PhilaFoodie said...


Like you guys, I tend to overtip even when service is less than stellar.

People should tell the management if they receive poor service instead of leaving a bad tip. But the reality is that many people are unwilling or unable to engage in that type of confrontation, especially if they're supposed to be on a relaxing night out.

Please feel free to link to me. Welcome to the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the welcome :)

I just addded you to my blog listing.

Had a fabulous dinner last night at The Texas Roadhouse and a not so stellar breakfast at The Suburban Diner.

Anonymous said...

I'm a generous tipper. I've worked in the business, and lets face it, this is just plain sneaky. I've eaten at Pizziacato and thought the check seemed a little high, but didn't really question it. Now I know why. I'm not sure why you say you'll return to Pizziacato when they obviously tried to dupe you into tipping twice. I definately won't. It's quite obvious that they know what they're doing, and it's just plain deceptive. I, for one, will never return simply for that fact, and will be sure to recommend anyone else NOT go there.

Christine said...

That's so shady of Pizziacato. I generally tip in the 20% range in any case, so the actual automatic charge does not offend me...but one would think that they would advertise.

Also, while completely inappropriate, and I don't know if you even review should try The Flying Monkey Patisserie at Reading Terminal Market. In the spirit of full disclosure I recommend it because a friend owns it. But fantastic.

PhilaFoodie said...

Joek: Thanks for posting! I'm glad you asked that question. I'll return because the food we had at Pizziacato was good. There are two reasons the autograt issue won't keep me away. First, I generally tip 20%, even when service is sub par (I'm not afraid to complain if the service is truly bad), and I don't find autograts inherently offensive. Second (and this is the important one), I caught it. I caught it because I read the fine print. The reason why this tale should not deter you or others from going is because, now, you also know what to look for.

PhilaFoodie said...


You're right; they should have been more candid about the autograt.

Thanks for the recommendation on Flying Monkey. I do have a sweet tooth now and again.

Anonymous said...

Pizziacato - hit or miss. And next time, we'll be careful with the check.
But Flying Monkey's cupcakes and blondies . . . really something. Absolutely wonderful and worth every calorie.
-- FCB's Friend in Philly

Anonymous said...

I tip well if the service warrants it, and not at all if it doesn't. I leave nothing extra when a restaurant adds the gratuity to the bill, no matter how great it was, so for those establishments that add 18% they are essentially screwing their servers out of the additional 2-5% I would normally leave.

Maybe if the absurd restaurant industry would pay servers an honest wage tipping could become what it was originally meant to be: a small personal acknowledgment of a job well done. This is how it works in New Zealand and many other countries, with great success.

Anonymous said...

A quick addedndum to my previous comment:

If I decide that service was so poor that a tip is not warranted, I do not simply walk out. A conversation with the manager, preferrably with the server present, is always in order. They need to know *why* they did not receive a tip, not just the feeling that they just got stiffed.

I simply cannot abide by inadequate service. You are there to serve me, that's why I came out. Do your job even adequately and you will be rewarded. If you can't even muster the strength to do that then you should look for a new line of work that suits you better.

(And I do not tip at all if it is not a sitdown meal with a server. Dunkin Donuts, Subway, the local piuzza shop. Sorry guys, no tip is warranted for you.)

Anonymous said...

Having done my time as a server and still having friends and family who make ends meet with tipping I do consider myself a generous tipper, even when the service does not warrant it. You never know what is going on in a person’s life. I also do not tip at all if it is not a sit-down meal including any take out from restaurants.
On 10.24.07 I walked into Calabrisella in Bensalem, Pa. there is nothing special to note it just happened to be close and able to provide some friends and I with a late dinner. I used a debit card to pay for my purchase which came to $20.66, later I noticed I was charged $24.79…exactly 20% more than my bill. I have since confronted the pizza shop and they assure me that they do not need my $4.13 and that the charges would have disappeared? My question is on my receipt I left both the tip and total lines blank and just signed the receipt. Did I give them permission to charge a tip by not filling them in?