To Grat Or Not To Grat Large Parties

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QUESTION From: Tattia in IN

“How do you all feel about automatic gratuity?

My clientele are mostly university students. I'd say around 65% of them, the rest are a mix of local folk in the age range of 20-35, families & maybe a few tourists. The tips are ghastly. I feel for my servers. On a slammed weekend night they are taking home around $25-40 each. I often see big parties of 10 people leave around $5-10 on a $200 bill.

I'm planning on coaching everyone into better service but I feel like they need some kind of incentive to do so. If I put myself in their shoes & try to make a living off of what they make here as a server, including the tips, I'd starve!

I'm thinking of adding automatic gratuity to all parties of 6 or more. Just 15%.

What have been your experiences with auto grat?”

HH ANSWER:

I just received another request for advice from an operator considering grat protocol when it comes to dealing with “bar only” big tops and their tabs that run up anywhere from $500 - $1000 only to completely stiff the bartender.

As a general rule of thumb I would say, never address the guests’ lack of tipping. By doing so, you’re rolling the dice on offending someone. That being said, every concept is different and every manager/owner/operator has a unique relationship with her/his guests.

Ultimately no one better than you knows what the most appropriate policy or course of action might be in cases like these but I am a fan of auto-grats at tables only. Forget about the fact that putting a gratuity on a bar tab discourages people from spending a lot of money on high profit items... the bartenders usually do alright when you avg the month out and should be making an increased wage + receiving tip outs from the floor anyway.

Of course it depends on your concept but if you’re an upscale casual + concept, you should auto grat big tops / parties of 8 or more...and I’d go to 18% (if not 20%) instead of 15%.

Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose... not that it’s a game but, I’ve found that giving my servers the autonomy to decide whether or not they auto grat a large party adds an element of fun/chance to the night. Not only that, but it puts some of the onus on them as well as it gives them the opportunity to “hook up their new friends” and point out the fact that they did NOT add the gratuity. There are multiple philosophies when it comes to such server discretion and that’s a good thing because Not every system works the same for every server. Sometimes the autograt can backfire and sometimes it results in an even bigger tip. Giving your servers the ability to decide how to handle it is just another way to encourage them taking ownership of their section and your restaurant.

If you do decide to auto correct large parties… Adopt a policy where “An automatic gratuity of 18% MAY be places on parties of Xppl or more”, you should make sure it’s prominently disseminated in multiple places and verbally upon seating/accommodating a large group of people and then again when presenting the check.

And that last part is imperative IMHO. When adopting an auto policy - the person presenting the check to the guests should mention/point out the fact that a gratuity has already been added. You definitely don’t want to be in the position where any guest feels as though they’ve been duped into tipping twice (as was the case in this NYC Daily News article).

Post the new policy on all sides (or at the bottom of every side/page) of your menu, on your website and be sure host/ess staff knows as well as all mgmnt and servers / FOH staff so that it can be disseminated over the phone when taking a reservation.

On a side note - you mentioned that you’re “planning on coaching everyone into better service”. Instead of planning on it, why don’t you just start coaching everyone now? While I understand the incentive for them to do so is monetary, having your restaurant be better today than it was yesterday should be your incentive.… And not providing better service because the tips aren’t there is faulty logic if not self for filling prophecy in action. That would be like being understaffed and saying you would put more people on the floor - if only you had more business...But the business will never build and tipping will never improve if you’re not taking the best care of the guests you have now.

There are also some simple operational steps you can take when it comes to handling large parties to ensure the service is a little more seamless like:

  • Pace the flow / seating at the door. Coach your host team how.

  • Give the line and the bar a heads-up when a large party books and when a large party arrives so that they can push through and re-stock their stations appropriately.

  • Consider pushing pre-ordered apps, limited menus and/or family style service for parties of 8 or more to ensure the best service possible. (family style can be sold as either a great economical option or as a fun way to try your best / most popular dishes…or both)

  • Coach the staff NOT to hold orders (make rounds through the restaurant taking orders and then entering them all in the POS at one time) and Order/Firing large tables in sections (or by families/payors) to pace the line so you’re not flooding the kitchen with one giant ‘skee-ball chit’.

  • Consider having a back waiter or manger available so that servers can hand off orders per section as taken and those orders can be entered asap.

  • If splitting the check (which you should never protest IMHO) be sure to split it AFTER the auto grat is added

Regards and Good Luck!

Josh