The other night, I met up with some friends for drinks at the bar in the W Hotel in Hoboken. Being the generous guy that I am, I offered to pick up the tab. We were there for less than an hour, and, when I went to close out, the bartender informed me a 20 percent gratuity had automatically been added to my bill. I stood there in shock for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably closer to two seconds. I looked at the check and saw the drinks totaled out to a little over a hundred bucks, which meant the tip I was leaving -- for literally sixty seconds of service -- was more than twenty-two dollars. I saw red. However, realizing this policy wasn't the bartender's fault, I politely signed the bill and left. But the idea of an automatic gratuity on a bar bill just kept bouncing around my brain for the rest of the night.
Reason being, I am of the fundamental opinion that a bartender who spends a few seconds pouring you a drink, does not deserve the same tip as a waiter or waitress who spends the entire night busting his or her butt on you and your annoying friends -- especially those bartenders who can control the pour, yet still insist on handing you a drink that makes you feel like you've been Punk'd, and charging Yankee Stadium prices for it. We've all been there.
Call me crazy, but even if they were the reincarnations of Tom Cruise and Brian Brown, I just don't see the logic in tipping a bartender twenty percent on the dramatically over-inflated cost of alcohol -- let alone being forced to do it. I was always under the impression that it's a dollar or two per drink. If you serve a group six drinks, you could easily pocket ten or twelve bucks for two minute's work. What's wrong with that? Not to mention, if the person wants to be generous, he or she may leave more. But, it's up to them. Forcing someone to leave a disproportionately extravagant tip is where you run into problems.
I was a waiter for many years back in the day, thus I always leave a good, if not great, tip. Unless, of course, the server is brain-dead and it takes two hours to get a cup of coffee. But the issue is not about being cheap or generous. There are so many things wrong with what happened in that situation at W Hotel bar, and the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of management, not on the employee.
Nowadays, virtually every restaurant that makes it their policy to add a 20 percent gratuity to your bill tells you this as soon as you walk in the door or glance at a menu. Thus, the main problem I had with this out-of-the-blue "service charge" was that I felt completely blindsided by the W's cavalier attitude of, "Here's your bill. Oh, and, by the way, you owe an extra twenty bucks because it's the W." It was the sheer disbelief that a place could be so presumptuous and continue to siphon money from its guests up until the very last second. Bad enough the drinks cost more than our meal, but to add insult to injury was just pathetic.
You can easily make the argument no one forces anyone to go to a trendy spot, but this wasn't exactly the Hudson Hotel, or some trendy celeb-filled, bottle service nightclub. It was a hotel bar in Jersey that tries to pretend it's in the meat-packing district. And, even though rents and parking are fast becoming mirror images of NYC, Hoboken still isn't New York City. And even in New York, an automatic gratuity wouldn't fly with most guests. Although, from what I'm told, more and more places seem to be doing it.
An ever-increasing number of bars and restaurants already make it their mission to charge you college tuition for a few shots of Patron -- which, when the ice is removed, could barely fill an eye-dropper. Add to this a gratuity that's more of a car payment than a tip, and one might say inhospitality is taking over the hospitality business. Case in point: How many of us are so used to paying high prices for booze that we have no problem forking over fifteen bucks for a Mai-Tai, yet, if a burger is fifteen dollars, we're like, "Whoa. This place is expensive?"
Here's a tip for those in the tipping biz: There are plenty of bad tippers out there, but there are plenty of good tippers, as well. Forcing a customer to leave an over-inflated gratuity for the bar staff will only serve to insure that that customer will think twice about choosing your venue next time he or she gets the urge for a twenty-dollar martini.