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Automatic tipping can trip up diners

Mayo: Restaurants need to be clear on automatic tipping policies.

It was a meal that wasn't so nice, and I inadvertently tipped twice.

That's my Twitter-size take on Fresh American Bistro at the Sole on the Ocean resort in Sunny Isles Beach, which I reviewed this week.

I suppose I can chalk up the uneven food to a bad day for the kitchen. But I have a harder time digesting the unfortunate double-tip episode for our party of four, which left an especially sour taste.

The bottom line: I ended up leaving a $60 tip on top of an automatic 18 percent gratuity ($47.70) that had been built into the check, which was hard to read. And nobody said a word.

"I'm so sorry about that," restaurant manager Zakia Sanchez says in a follow-up phone conversation. "This a resort, and the automatic gratuity is a policy of the resort. It's not the server's policy."

But the restaurant and servers could and should do a better job of alerting diners to the built-in tip, which is imposed on all checks and not just larger parties. The policy isn't spelled out on the menu, nor on the restaurant's website or Facebook page. And when credit-card slips are brought, there's still a line that reads, "tip" with a blank space.

(THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH WAS UPDATED ON AUG. 11 TO REFLECT THE $60 credit-card refund initiated by the restaurant) Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice…well, I’m reluctant to go back but the restaurant did atone by initiating a credit-card refund for the extra $60 and Sanchez also offered me comped cocktails on a future visit.

The issue of whether tipping should be scrapped entirely and replaced with higher wages for restaurant staff and higher prices for diners is a topic for another day. My immediate concern is how restaurants in tourist-heavy South Florida handle gratuity policies.

It can get awfully confusing out there, even for savvy consumers who eat out frequently. Many restaurants automatically add tips for large parties (six or more). But it seems more are adding automatic 18 percent or 20 percent tips to all tabs, especially at hotels and in touristy areas of Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. And it's not just formal restaurants doing it, but also places that sell cheaper eats. I understand the rationale: Many foreign tourists aren't accustomed to tipping, because service is included in Europe, Canada and parts of Latin America.

The key to me is disclosure. Restaurants should clearly state tipping policies on menus, checks, credit-card slips and websites. And it wouldn't hurt to have servers mention it when they bring the tab.

That wasn't the case with me at Fresh American Bistro, where it slipped by because of a smudged, faint check that the server explained was due to printer malfunctioion.

He was helpful enough to itemize all the items on my bill in handwritten ink ("APP, ENTREE, SIDE"), but he didn't point out the $47.70 line for gratuity. I didn't catch it until the next day, after I already left the $60 tip on the credit-card slip. That brought his haul to nearly $108 on a base tab of $265, 41 percent.

It was an easy score for him. But in the long run, I think it's a losing game.

Have you had any similar tipping horror stories? Let me know, along with how the restaurant handled it. mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Instagram: @mikemayoeats

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