The original post was updated Oct. 5 to include current information.
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 is 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 short answer is, "You're not at home." 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%, though restaurant management will remove the automatic gratuity if requested.
Recently, one reader told TheTravelPro that a server in one of the restaurants on popular Ocean Dr. yelled at them when they asked the server to remove the automatic tip so that they could tip appropriately after eating.
More troubling was the reader's report that a server at another restaurant "[T]old me with a smile when I asked if tip was already included: NO, it is not," then explained that the "service charge" is "just a charge that is mandatory in South Beach" but that a tip was not included.
That is absolutely, unarguably incorrect.
In an effort to get a response to these charges and to let industry leaders know what was going on, TheTravelPro contacted the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. They responded promptly that they take the matter very seriously.
"Thank you for taking time to share your concerns with us regarding potential abuses of automatic gratuities," Geoff Luebkemann, the organization's vice president, said. "We have heard this from other sources ... are considering outreach and educational opportunities to raise industry awareness on this, and have contacted the state regulatory authority to explore a coordinated effort."
The bottom line is this: If a restaurant adds a "service charge" or "automatic gratuity," that is the tip. It is not "a charge that is mandatory in South Beach." As I stated earlier, guests can have the automatic gratuity removed so that they can then can leave a tip in the amount they deem appropriate.
Kicking it upstairs
In cases such as these where the server refuses to accommodate a guest's request to remove an automatic tip or provides information that just doesn't seem right, ask for the owner or manager. Do not accept poor service.
Even absent such abuses or, more charitably, misunderstandings, I am not at all sure I support instituting the practice of automatic gratuities elsewhere even though I have worked in restaurants and been on the receiving end of gratuities.
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.
Although I could have asked that the automatic gratuity be removed, 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. I have also experienced my share of mediocre service in European countries, where tips make up a much smaller portion of the server's income.
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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