Please Welcome the Rise of the Automatic Gratuity

Bars in New York are including tips in customers' bills, and that's just great

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Lots of restaurants and bars tack on an automatic gratuity for big groups -- six or more seems to be the standard -- and most people have accepted that. But a Wall Street Journal trend story on Friday pointed out that more and more bars in New York City have started adding automatic gratuities to every check, not just the particularly big ones. One manager said the practice was common in nightclubs already, and a few pointed out that their foreign patrons aren't in the habit of tipping and their servers were leaving. But of course we read these kinds of stories for the outrage, and that came in the form of one Sarah Riley, a 29-year-old Web designer who told The Journal, "I won't be coming back to pay $18 for a $15 glass of wine where I have no discretion on how much to tip." Actually, that's the exact right amount to pay for that glass of wine especially if a server brought it to your table and the check was delivered afterward (things get a bit more tricky when you order over the bar and pay in cash, but we'll get to that). L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold wrote the definitive guide to why you should be tipping a flat rate. (It's well worth the read, but if you want the summary: "Tip 20 percent.")  It's fun to hate the automatic gratuity because it seems like the restaurant is taking advantage of you, but that misses the point. We should welcome this streamlining of our social graces, and here's why:

It's easier: As Grub Street and Eater both pointed out, an automatic tip eliminates the need to do drunken math. The more automatic gratuities become standard practice, the more you'll be able to just sign the bottom of your check, slide out of your booth, stagger into a cab and breeze on home, instead of getting out the calculator and arguing with your group about who failed to put in an extra two bucks for the tip. The problem comes when you don't realize the tip's already been added in and you end up tipping double. If everybody would just engage in the practice we'd know to expect it and life would be simpler for all of us.

You should pay more anyway: The current standard of a dollar a drink, especially when paying in cash over the bar, has been in place for years, even as drink prices (and rents) keep rising. The automatic gratuity brings the tip up to the industry standard without awkward looks from jilted service staff. Back in 2009, Frank Bruni brought up the debate, pointing to a post on Down by the Hipster, where readers overwhelmingly voted in favor of the buck-a-drink rule. Bruni points out why that's outdated:

Now that many cocktails and glasses of wine indeed approach $15, the dollar-per-drink rule means that someone consuming $45 of alcohol could end up tipping $3, which is in the vicinity of 7 percent. Yes, the bartender may not have raced around quite the same way a waiter or waitress does. But the bartender’s cost of living is rising in synch with the cost of those drinks. As they become more expensive, shouldn’t his or her compensation go up?"

Two years later the cost of living is even higher, so if you're still tipping a dollar a drink you're being cheap. Besides, any place where the wine costs $15 is going to have table service, so yes the server will be "racing around."

Sometimes it works in your favor: Not all of us drink at places where a glass of wine costs $15. Some of us prefer bars in Brooklyn or the far reaches of Manhattan's Chinatown, where a can of beer with a shot of well whiskey costs $5. In that case, when you place your order at the bar and the bartender quickly opens a can and pours a short glass, you can sometimes feel just a touch of regret when you place that second dollar down. With an automatic gratuity of 20 percent, the necessity to drop two singles disappears, and you simply pay what the bartender asks.

Automatic does not mean mandatory: Bars and restaurants can call an automatic gratuity "mandatory" but they can't make customers pay it. The Journal reports that, "by law, restaurants and bars in the city are allowed to include gratuity so long as they 'conspicuously post' any mandatory policy prior to the consumer ordering." But a court case in 2004 demonstrated that customers still don't have to pay it. That's when a Long Island man who left a 10 percent tip instead of the "mandatory" 18 was arrested and charged with theft of services. He fought the charge and the judge dropped it, saying, "A tip or gratuity is discretionary, and that's what the courts have found." But don't go stiffing servers who tack on a gratuity just because you legally can. The service-industry website Tip20! suggests a compromise: "If you have experienced terrible service then you should not feel obligated to leave that 'required' amount, but you should have a discussion with the management explaining why you feel the service was under par. Under most normal circumstances the manager would wave the gratuity obligation and have a 'teachable moment' with the sever(s)."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.