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!"

I hope that Pastor Bell reconsiders her demand that the waitress be fired and lobbies Applebee's on her behalf, that Welch either returns to work or finds a new job, and that everyone involved returns to blissful anonymity by the end of the week. But the Applebee's incident will endure as an example of the shifting power dynamics between customers and the employees.

In many ways, the Web has empowered consumers, sometimes at the expense of the retail and hospitality workers who serve them. How many people have harshly complained about a specific waiter on Yelp?

But there's been one shift in the other direction. In America, where "the customer is always right," a confrontation between a customer and an employee, mediated by a manager, is almost never going to end in satisfaction for the employee, no matter how badly the customer behaved.

The Web occasionally enables service employees to benefit from what amounts to a change in venue: suddenly, the exasperating interaction is being judged in the court of public opinion, where the jury is far more likely to side with the worker, and often even imposes a sentence on the entitled or belligerent customer: 10,000 digital tongue-lashings and a note on their permanent record.

Are servers treated better as a result? 

The average restaurant patron is certainly more attuned to their grievances than in previous eras, precisely because industry folks are relatively savvy communicators in the digital realm -- much more so than, say, longtime manufacturing-line employees in the Rust Belt, whose take on their job interactions are seldom communicated in their own words to a sympathetic public.

As service industry jobs make up an increasingly large proportion of the American workforce, organized labor has made unionizing them a priority. Economist Tyler Cowen explains why he doesn't think that push will be successful. Either way, I expect that service industry workers are going to wrest more prestige from the culture than they've previously enjoyed, in part because we increasingly view the work done by baristas and craft cocktail bartenders as skilled, but also because folks who've never worked as a server in a restaurant or a hotel maid are increasingly exposed to the shockingly shitty behavior folks in those positions must sometimes endure.

The general rule that they ought not expose customers to Internet ridicule is sound and necessary. Still, a part of me hopes that the degree of transparency brought by technology both keeps customers on better behavior and spares employees termination in instances when the behavior they expose is clearly indefensible. Maybe 10 years from now, Applebee's suspends that waitress for a week rather than firing her. Better yet, maybe the customer of tomorrow thinks twice before scrawling entitled screeds on her receipt, and the whole thing is avoided.