Sept. 22--Two weeks ago, I ate dinner at Roger Brown's Restaurant & Sports Bar in Portsmouth with my husband and a friend.
When we got the bill, it included an automatic gratuity, amounting to 18 percent of the meal cost. That was unusual. Many restaurants add a gratuity with large parties, but I rarely see that on tabs for fewer diners.
Roger Brown's usually applies an auto-grat only for tables of six or more, on late-night meals or during big events with a full house of patrons, Rene Holst, a manager for the restaurant, told me last week. The tip added to my check was a possible mistake or might have resulted from a packed house for the beginning of football season, he said.
That evening, I added $2 to bring the total tip up to 20 percent, because our server was particularly attentive and accommodating. I've grown used to automatic tips, or "auto-grats," as those in the restaurant business call them, and keep an eye out for them when I eat with a larger group.
My general philosophy, though, is tips should be discretionary and based on the quality of service. The consumer should decide whether the service merits extra payment and how much.
Tipping is one of those consumer subjects that invokes passionate opinions. One of my editors is adamant that he'll walk out of a restaurant if it adds an automatic gratuity to his check, even for a large group.
The IRS has proposed a rule change that would classify an automatic tip as a "service charge," part of the restaurant's regular wages and counted toward its payroll taxes, starting in January. In response, Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, recently announced that it was rolling back its auto-grat policy for large tables in certain cities.
Restaurant operators say they have good reason for adding tips to the bill. Eric Stevens and Karl Dornemann, who own Bardo and The Public House in Norfolk and Still and Gosport Tavern in Portsmouth, said they give the server the option of applying an 18 percent tip on the tabs of tables of eight or more and disclose that policy on their menus.
In a large group, "people generally don't figure in the tax and the tip when they're splitting the bill," Dornemann explained. In those cases, he said, servers get stiffed.
Automatic gratuities are acceptable, as long as the restaurant operator tells customers about it, said Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas, a consulting company that specializes in business etiquette and executive training. "The restaurant is not trying to trick you," she said. "They are protecting servers who are working for less" than minimum wage.
If an auto-tip is added, "you cannot leave less," Gottsman said. Even if the experience is terrible, gratuity is often shared among many workers -- from kitchen staff to busboys -- who might have done their jobs well. Instead, she suggested that unhappy customers speak to a manager, who can decide how to compensate them.
Tipping protocol has changed over time. The standard 15 percent gratuity has edged up to 18 percent, and 20 percent for above-and-beyond service. And while the Emily Post Institute website, representing the venerable etiquette maven, still advises applying a gratuity on the meal total before tax is added, most diners today tip on the final bill amount.
It's also more common today for consumers to tip for counter service or to-go orders. At The Ten Top cafe in Norfolk, patrons order at the counter and take their food to go or to one of the few tables. A bowl up front accepts their extra cash for the staff.
If they pay with a credit card, they will see a screen pop up on the iPad payment system with the suggestion to add 10, 15 or 20 percent to the tab. They can bypass those options and add their own or no gratuity.
The Ten Top's owner, Rick Fraley, said he subscribes to the notion that the word tips stands for "to insure prompt service" (though many sources dismiss that acronym as a myth).
The counter staff delivers orders to tables or bags them to go, Fraley pointed out. They bring water to diners on request and must clean up after them. All that deserves some monetary recognition, he said. He pays his counter staff $4.50 an hour, a below-minimum-wage rate that the IRS allows for workers who receive tips.
"I've set it up the way I feel is fair for both ends," Fraley said.
Leslie Arnold, a Norfolk resident who described herself as a former waitress, said she tips for most take-out and counter service, usually about 15 percent. She routinely asks those who take her orders, particularly at chain restaurants, whether managers get a cut of any gratuity she gives. That's a tip peeve of hers.
"It does bother me when someone who is salaried and management is receiving part of a tip that's meant for the server," she said.
Arnold is one of those conscientious consumers who bothers to consider what her gratuity represents, as we all should.
"People are serving me," she said. "If they're serving me well, they deserve something for it."