Why "Service Included" Can Sometimes Feel Like a Scam

Why "Service Included" Can Sometimes Feel Like a Scam
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In my life as a slave to a food blog, and also as a consumer of far too much food media, I have come to hate a certain type of food commentary, the kind that goes: Here is a teeny tiny little part of dining culture that mildly annoys me. Let's all throw righteous indignation its way! They bother me in particular when the author is a relatively privileged person (i.e., someone who gets paid to eat for a living) whining about some small thing some working-class person (i.e., a waiter or cook) does. But even the ones about broader trends become tiresome: We all hate communal seating! We all hate small plates! Yawn.

And yet, here I am, writing a complain-y post about something that I've recently found annoying in dining. Forgive me. But I believe it's something that's contributing to distrust between customers and the restaurant industry. It has to do with the increasingly prevalent practice of including a service charge in the final bill. The charge itself is not an issue. The problem is this: The vast majority of the time, restaurants do not verbally disclose that the tip is already included in your final bill, leaving customers at high risk of double-tipping.

Aside from the benefits to the accounting and wage distribution practices of restaurants, included service charges theoretically give some relief to customers as well. Math isn't everyone's strong suit, especially a few cocktails in, and a number of owners who have adopted the policy cite "taking the guesswork" out of traditional tipping as a benefit of the practice. But the way the service-included policy is being practiced at many restaurants negates any of those benefits. You receive a bill, you give them your credit card, you get back a slip that looks just like any other credit card slip complete with tip line. No one says anything about the service already being included. My assumption is that many, many people add a full tip on that tip line, effectively tipping 40 percent or more.

Yes, the 18 percent charge is always listed on the bill. And usually, the tip line on the credit card slip reads "additional gratuity." But if we're happy and full and tipsy, these things are incredibly easy to miss. Service included is a relatively new phenomenon — many diners wouldn't even think to look out for it. And the omission of a verbal or unmissable written indication that you have already tipped makes the whole experience feel as though the server or restaurant is slyly hoping that you will miss it, and end up being overly generous.

Generosity based on misunderstanding feels like a scam.

I've left numerous restaurants recently feeling upset by this implied shakedown, and a few times it's happened at the end of meals that were otherwise lovely, ruining the experience. An example: While dining a few weeks back, my husband and I were presented with a bill that included a service charge. We were still finishing our drinks and were slightly giddy after our very good meal, and we handed over a credit card without much thought. While signing the bill and after already writing in a tip on the provided line, my husband noticed that the tip was actually included in the cost, something no one had pointed out. At the top of both the printed bill and the credit card receipt, right under the name of the restaurant, was a line that said **service charge included**. But the tip line did not say "additional tip," it just said "tip."

My husband pointed out to our server that he had mistakenly tipped extra. "Oh, that's OK," the server said. "You can just cross out the 18 percent service charge and leave in the tip you wrote there." But no, we pointed out, that would mean we were leaving a 20 percent tip on the cost of our dinner plus the 18 percent service charge included in the final price, because the tip written in (which he was suggesting we leave) was based on the total service-included bill, not the cost of food and drink alone. Does this make your head hurt a little? It sure put a damper on the end of our evening. And whether or not that server was trying to soothe us into leaving a larger tip, we left with the uneasy feeling that perhaps an attempt had been made to shake us down.

Since then, I've noticed the same thing at many, many restaurants. Some of them are aiming for the highest level of hospitality. I just don't understand why they'd risk a customer feeling this way when it is so very easy to avoid.

There are three solutions to the problem. The first is on us, the customers. It dictates that you must always look over your bill carefully at the end of each meal to see what the tipping arrangement is. And of course you should. Just as you should always read carefully over a website's terms and conditions before clicking "I accept." It's fine for restaurants to put the burden on customers. But I'm here to tell you it will lead to many people overtipping, which will lead to mistrust. In an industry based on hospitality, this is just not a good thing.

The second solution is for the server to give a clear verbal indication that service is included. This is so very easy that it makes me think any place that does not require this of its servers is hoping people won't notice and will overtip. At restaurants run by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (as well as Petit Trois, co-owned by Ludo Lefebvre), servers tell you as they drop the check that service is included; they also circle that charge on the bill in red pen. The pen mark alone is not enough — if you're distracted by conversation, you might miss it. But the verbal heads-up plus the highlighting on the check is much appreciated by this diner.

The third and maybe best solution is to stop adding an "additional tip" line, leaving no room for mistaken double-tipping. This is the way Barcito has gone about it, as well as quite a few others. Removing the gratuity line altogether means there is no way to tip extra for extraordinary service, but it also abolishes the chance that customers will feel shaken down. The extra gratuity line is a sore spot for some diners anyway — am I expected to leave an extra tip? Will I seem cheap if I don't? This solution gives the term "service included" the authority it needs to become standard practice. It means the charge is actually included and there's no room for unease or confusion or mistaken overpayment that feels like a scam.

Because, please believe me, the less service feels like a scam, the more likely fair compensation for restaurant workers will appeal to all involved.


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