Thursday, April 9, 2015

MIAMI BEACH: No tipping necessary (it's included!)

If you're traveling to Miami Beach, Florida, you may find it helpful to know that most of the bars and restaurants in the area add an automatic gratuity (tip) to their checks. The establishment's tip policy is usually noted somewhere on the menu and, if an automatic gratuity is included, it will be indicated on the bill by the word "gratuity," "service," or something similar.

To avoid over-tipping or under-tipping, it's a good idea to read the menu carefully or look for a line-item on the bill before filling out the credit card slip or laying down cash and then leaving before your change can be returned.

An automatic gratuity makes some sense in Miami. That area of the United States attracts a relatively large number of European tourists and in Europe, service staff receive a substantially higher base wage than their counterparts receive here, so tipping is far less a part of the culture than in the U.S.

Many of those European tourists failed to inform themselves about the local culture and local practices (which is always a good idea when traveling to another country) while others simply refused to leave much of a tip under the short-sighted rationale of, "I don't do it at home, so why should I do it here?"

The answer is, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." But I digress.

As a result, food service workers were bearing the combined brunt of low base wages AND low tips. In self-defense some years ago, food and beverage establishments started adding an automatic gratuity of between 15 - 18%.

Even though I have been on the receiving end of gratuities, I'm not sure I support instituting this practice elsewhere.

Over the course of a few days spent visiting the area, I patronized a number establishments that served food and beverage and all but two added an automatic gratuity.

While management will remove the automatic gratuity if requested, service would have to be truly abysmal for me to make such a request. But the counterpoint is also true: service would have to be absolutely stellar for me to add much of an additional tip.

I believe the practice of adding an automatic gratuity leads to mediocre service, which is what I experienced in all cases except one. In that singular instance, my waitress had recently moved to Miami from the Midwest and was no doubt displaying the Midwest values she'd brought with her, and which hadn't yet been eroded by her environment.

The reason to expect mediocrity is simple, really. If a waitperson is virtually guaranteed 15 - 18%, what's their incentive to go above and beyond simply taking your order and bringing your food? Of course, if they can convince you to have another drink or dessert, that will increase the bill and therefore increase their tip, but checking back periodically to ensure that a guest is happy with their meal, has everything they need, or to keep the water glasses and coffee cups full won't add anything to their tip.

On the other side of the transaction, if the customer is automatically assessed a 15 - 18% service charge, what's their incentive to leave anything in excess of that?

True, an automatic service charge would prevent instances like the time I poured $75 worth of drinks for two couples who then left me a $2 tip. But it might also preclude other, more positive instances, including the fellow who felt I'd taken particularly good care of him and left a $20 tip with his $26 check.

Maybe I'd have made a bit more money if a gratuity was automatic, or perhaps I wouldn't. And while I might be spared the frustration that goes along with being under-tipped, I might also be deprived of the satisfaction and validation (shown through a generous gratuity) that I truly had taken excellent care of my guests.

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