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On the Merits of “Service Compris”

On the Merits of “Service Compris”

Or: Tip? I got your tip right here!

I lunched just the other day with a friend at a local buffet that also provides a la carte service. I’ve frequented this establishment since it first opened and was, in fact, the very first paying customer through the door on the day it opened. Which is not to say I’m somehow more vested in this restaurant than you or your grandma, mind you, but just a note of my better-than-passing familiarity with the people.

Entering on this particular day, though, I noticed a new addition to the door. Amidst the “Open” sign and the near-constantly changing HOURS decal, beside the PUSH and the poster for a two-weeks-past gallery crawl, a simple note, written in heavy black marker and shaded with highlighters.

A 15% Gratuity will be added to each buffet purchase.

Say huh?

Thinking I had somehow misinterpreted it to mean “For parties of 8 or more,” I looked again. Sure enough, this was covered by the disclaimer, in ballpoint and unhighlighted at the bottom.

Also, a 15% gratuity will be added to all parties of 8 or more.

So let me get this straight. I’m going to leave my table and my friends, stand in line to prepare my own plate, a plate I’ll carry to the table myself, and then pay a 15% gratuity to the person who brought me the glass of water that has now been empty for 15 minutes?

In all fairness, I have two problems with the “automatic” gratuity. First, I almost never tip less than 20% on restaurant purchase — buffets included. Secondly, though, I really don’t appreciate an arbitrary removal of my right to decide how much my waiter was worth. If you’re going to charge the gratuity automatically, it ceases to become a “gratuity” and becomes a part of the cost of the meal.

We have a phrase for it, familiar to foodies everywhere as the height of dining elegance. Service Compris (ser-veese cohm-pree). It’s French for “tip included.” Essentially, the restaurant has factored into  the cost of your meal providing your servers with a living wage.

Before anyone goes Joseph Roberts on me, understand this: I was a waiter. A good one. And I never once “gratted” a check. Not one. Not the table of Mom, Grandma, and six kids. Not the birthday party for 26 heavy drinkers. And certainly not a single diner chowing down on a self-serve buffet. The reason? I always made sure I provided adequate enough service that it would never ever cross the mind of my customer to tip only 15%. A roll of the dice, sure. But one that paid off. Time and again.

Refusal to grat tables provided a powerful motivator for me to provide a superb dining experience and also gave the customer the privilege of deciding just how superb that experience had been for them. Allowing them to set the tip proved to be an effective barometer of my performance. Not once was I ever tipped less than 20%. One customer went so far as to tip an embarrassingly excessive 40% on a large check. We ate well that night at Casa del Michel.

But what of this mandatory tip at the buffet? “Is it not service compris in effect, if not name?” No, it’s not. It’s a gratuity, added to the bill after the fact, so that the restauranteur can continue to pay his workers sub-standard wages to provide a service for which they should be better compensated by him. If he cannot do so at the price he set, then he should raise prices adequately to compensate. Or even better, hire a busser and put a drink dispenser in the dining room — a move with which I would be perfectly content.

And if the busser was any good, I’d probably leave a tip on the table anyway.