Home » Tipping is so out-of-hand in NYC, even the Olive Garden adds automatic gratuities

Tipping is so out-of-hand in NYC, even the Olive Garden adds automatic gratuities

by Mahmmod Shar

By Beth Landman and Jeanette Settembre

It’s the latest tipping point! 

New York City diners have long been accustomed to having a mandatory gratuity added on to bills for large parties of six or eight. But, increasingly, it’s becoming common to see an 18% or 20% tip tacked on for parties of just one, two, three or four people — and some customers say it’s leaving a bad taste in their mouths. 

“It’s presumptuous. Our service was not very good,” said Miranda Jackson, a 39-year-old on vacation from Auburn, Alabama, who encountered an automatic gratuity while having lunch at Five Acres in Rockefeller Center on Tuesday with her parents and two children. “It’s almost like it doesn’t incentivize them to have good service. Our food came out at separate times. We waited forever.”

Restaurateurs say chowhounds should get used to it.

Amanda Jackson and family in Rockefeller Center concourse.
Amanda Jackson (back row, far right) recently encountered an automatic gratuity while having lunch with her parents and children at Five Acres in Rockefeller Center.
Five Acres receipt.
Five Acres adds 20% gratuity to all checks, regardless of party size.

“Almost every restaurant in Miami does an automatic service, and in New York it is still not common, but I think you will see it more and more,” said James Mallios, the owner of Amali on 60th Street and Calissa in Water Mill, both of which add 18% to all checks. “It’s a European approach to include service, and at least 50% might leave something small on top of it, the way they would in Europe.”

Mallios’s restaurants notify diners of the surcharge on the menu, as well as the website and the bill itself. (NYC restaurant inspections require that such charges be “conspicuously disclosed to consumers before food is ordered.”) If people take issue, he said they happily offer a refund.

Mallios claims 98% of his customers from the city and the Hamptons don’t mind. Those from the suburbs, he said, are more likely to bristle. 

Amali exterior.
Amali adds 18% to all checks.

“When they act upset, it’s really about loss of the power dynamic,” Mallios said. “They want to be able to determine a person’s wage, and this is the only industry where you can do that.”

Amali customer Sindy Levi says the policy makes things less awkward.

“I have one friend who I go out to dinner with and she is not great in the tip dept,” said Levi, a 70-year-old social worker who lives in Fairfield, Connecticut. “So [Amali] is one place I can go with her where I don’t have to be embarrassed.”

The charge appears especially common at restaurants in neighborhoods frequented by tourists.The Olive Garden Times Square does a stealth move where receipts have a total with a “suggested” 18% gratuity added in. A line with an asterisk below notes that customers should “feel free” to increase or decrease the suggested amount. 

Calissa bar, wide shot, no customers.
Calissa in Water Mill, has the same owner — and the same tipping policy — as Amali.

Jack Sinanaj, who owns three locations of Empire Steak House — in Midtown East, Midtown West and Times Square — plans to start adding an 18% gratuity to parties of all sizes right after the holidays. 

“We have a lot of Europeans and South Americans who don’t understand the tipping culture,” he said. “I used to be a waiter at Peter Luger’s and some people would leave a couple of dollars on a $200 dinner.” 

But, not all hospitality workers are keen on the idea. 

Kyung Il Lee, managing partner of Sagaponack, a seafood restaurant in the Flatiron, said he considered doing it, but staffers were against it “since most consumers will do 20 percent on the grand total.”

And, it goes against their principles. 

Olive Garden receipt.
Olive Garden customers can increase or decrease the tip amount if they like.

“At the end of the day, restaurants are hospitality,” he said. “Including tips adds another level that’s transactional rather than hospitable, so we decided against it for smaller parties.’’

Diana, a 49-year-old Manhattanite who works at Rockefeller Center and frequents Five Acres, agrees.

“Raise the prices. It’s just better that way,” she said. “Otherwise it gets too confusing and it ruins your experience.”

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