Gratuitous gratuity

You’re out to dinner at a favorite restaurant with five good friends when you spot a notice in tiny print at the bottom of the menu: “An automatic gratuity of 18 percent will be added to parties of six or more.”

You might be tempted to take umbrage. Perhaps you pride yourself on tipping well. Maybe you regularly tip 20 percent unless service is a disaster. Why would a restaurant, by policy, require you to pay something that is, by definition, a gift to be given at your discretion?

Believe it or not, there are good reasons. It’s not just that some people are cheapskates. Miserly tippers don’t always hang in crowds of six or more. They sometimes dine alone or in pairs.

Think of a restaurant dining room as a little factory. The tables are its machines. These machines make two products: income for the restaurant owner and income for the servers. The restaurant owners get their income from the menu items. The servers’ income comes largely from tips. While servers do earn an hourly wage ($2.13 an hour in Kentucky), by the time taxes for all their sales — cash and plastic — are taken out of their paycheck, they often receive less than $10 every payday. In other words, the tip money they take home at the end of the shift is their income.

In a typical case, a server is assigned a section of the restaurant that includes six tables seating two to four people each, depending upon configuration. During a shift with no large parties, your risk of being underpaid is spread across these six machines, so it’s not the end of the world if the couple at Table 5 leaves a stingy $5 tip on a $60 check. In all likelihood, the couple at Table 3 will make up for it by leaving a $25 tip on an $85 check. Chances are good that things will even out, because the guests with moths flying out of their change purses are far outnumbered by reasonable, generous tippers.

On the other hand, if a large party gets seated in your section, you might have to combine some or all of your machines into one large table. This increases your risk of being underpaid (if there’s a single host), increases your service time (splitting checks at the computer, timing the courses for several guests, refilling multiple beverages, opening wine bottles, and so on). This requires all of your attention, so you’re not able to take other, easier tables. Also, when three four-sided tables are pushed together, they accommodate only six or eight guests, rather than the 12 that might be seated if the tables were separated.

Finally, some large parties suffer a cognitive disconnect: The person paying the bill sees the large amount of the check and figures, “OK, the bill is $375, and 20 percent of that is … $75!? I’ll just leave $35 … that’s plenty of money for two hours of work! That’s almost as much as I make an hour!” That might sound reasonable, until you take into account that the server likely has to tip out the bartender, the hostess and the busser from that $35 — and they probably don’t have any insurance, paid sick leave or vacation.

So don’t take offense at an auto-gratuity policy stated on the menu. Besides, many good servers elect not to add it on, knowing that guests often won’t add anything more if an 18 percent tip appears in the total when the bill is presented. They take their chances that good service will yield a better tip than the one required.

In this holiday season and beyond, reward good service with a decent tip, regardless of the size of your party. Those servers will never forget you, and you’ll get even more personalized service the next time you dine at that restaurant.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She is currently a teaching assistant at Sullivan University, her alma mater.