Unethical for businesses to sneak in service charges
March 13, 2018
Dear Aspen Chamber, Mr. Mayor and City Council,
It's not uncommon for establishments to write on their menus "We have the right to add 18 percent gratuity for parties of six or more," so imagine my surprise when Poppycocks added an 18 percent gratuity on my daughter's table for two for breakfast. So I called the manager and asked him to explain the tipping policy, and he reiterated that they add it for parties of six or more, as clearly stated on their menu. Then why, I inquired, did my daughter's bill get a gratuity automatically added? "Oh," he admitted, "we sometimes do that for kids because they don't tip." While that statement certainly doesn't apply to my teenager, I would agree that what "kids" are famous for is not checking the bill, so what this looks like to me is an attempt to get a double gratuity from this inexperienced generation.
Or, perhaps this "selective mandatory gratuity" was applied to anybody who looks like they may under-tip? This was confirmed by the owner, manager and server at Poppycocks, who in trying to defend that it wasn't just the young that were targeted by this unstated policy, admitted it was often applied to anyone who looked or sounded foreign, especially any country known to not tip well. Is tipping compulsory? I asked the owner, who admitted it wasn't; gratuity is supposed to be a voluntary gift awarded for good service. This meant to me that the gratuity "charge" on the bill, if not outright illegal, was most decidedly unethical, as it was A) not a stated policy, and B) applied unfairly across certain profiles of customers. My daughter did not have the opportunity to "gift" a lesser amount if the service had been poor, and certainly after the insult of being assessed a charge reserved for the stingy, was in no mood to tip more. If it's on the bill, then it is a service charge, not a gratuity. If it's a service charge, it cannot be arbitrarily charged to selected customers only.
Comments on Facebook revealed this issue was not just limited to foreigners and the youth, however. One person stated she was assessed without notice an 18 percent service charge for a take-out order, and another said she got hit at a bar when she failed to notice until the next day, perhaps distracted by the frivolity of the evening, that in addition to her 30 percent voluntary tip was the bar's 18 percent add-on. The moral of this tale might be for everyone to scrutinize their bill carefully every time to see if they been identified as a cheapskate or a sucker. I would prefer to see the restaurants and bars operate with a higher class of ethics, and if they feel need to asses a service charge, state the policy clearly: "We reserve the right to add 18 percent gratuity on parties of six or more, persons under 21, select foreigners (who may not understand our tipping culture), inebriated people and take-out orders." Additionally, they should be required to highlight the unexpected service charge on the bill, and be sure the guest understands that it is there. I suspect the reason this doesn't happen is the servers are hoping the guests won't notice and they will score a double tip (see: "suckers" above). I certainly hope that isn't the goal, because as a local who cares deeply about this community, I would be humiliated and incensed that this devious and unfair business practice were occurring here.