Should What Happens at Applebee's Stay at Applebee's?

An upset server, an uploaded receipt, a digital backlash -- it's all a case study in how the Web changes the power dynamic between servers and customers.

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After Friday services at a St. Louis church, Pastor Alois Bell, 37, headed to a local Applebee's for dinner. Joined by members of her congregation, she ate in a party of ten. What did she order? The Classic Clubhouse Grille? The Sizzling N'Awlins Skillet? The Smoking Gun doesn't include that detail in its version of events. What we do know is that separate checks came, each noting that an automatic 18 percent tip had been added, per the usual policy for parties of 6 or more.

That's when Pastor Bell made a mistake. Upset by the mandatory tip, she took the credit card receipt, crossed out the gratuity, wrote a zero in its place, and appended a note: "I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?"

The waitress, who presumably doesn't see her tips as a charitable grant, showed the receipt to a co-worker, whose sympathetic commiseration would've ended the matter in a prior era. But the co-worker photographed the receipt and shared it online, where it went viral. Before long, Pastor Bell, had been outed and subject to all the blowback you'd expect from the digital masses. "My heart is really broken," she said. "I've brought embarrassment to my church and ministry."

She called her actions a "lapse in my judgment and character," adding that it had been blown out of proportion by her online attackers. Imagine how unnerving it would feel to be an unsavvy Internet user suddenly subject to the profane fury of the least restrained Reddit users. Spend enough time on the Web and you grow accustom to extreme vitriol. Being initiated all at once with numerous violent, profane insults directed at you personally? That's tough medicine. Mobs of digital vigilantes are as prone to excesses as their analog analogs, which we discourage.

It's nevertheless hypocritical for Pastor Bell to plead understanding and forgiveness for a lapse in judgement even as she contacted Applebee's management, which she reportedly did, and asked that the employees responsible for the appearance of the receipt on the Internet be fired.

Chelsea Welch, the waitress terminated by Applebee's, told The Consumerist that she didn't think the signature on the receipt was legible. Why did Pastor Bell, who admits doing wrong with her snide remarks, regard the server's "lapse in judgment" to be a firing offense? Losing a job, especially at the income level of an Applebee's server, is a more significant trauma than being briefly trolled by the digital mob. Yes, some of them go too far. But lots of Redditors raise points in the relevant comments thread that Pastor Bell would do well to reflect upon. And Gakwer's commenters were characteristically entertaining. "I think the whole misunderstanding results from the fact that God's been underpricing Himself," one wrote. "Wake up and smell the COLAs, Big Guy! Twenty percent is the current standard!"

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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