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Should restaurants force teens to pay larger tips just because they're teens?

TODAY logo TODAY 11/13/2017 Megan O. Steintrager
Teen girls eating at a restaurant.Teen girls eating at a restaurant. © Shutterstock Teen girls eating at a restaurant.Teen girls eating at a restaurant.

Over the past week, the Wayne Hills Diner in New Jersey has found itself in the middle of an ongoing controversyafter news broke that they were adding a mandatory extra gratuity to the bills of kids and teens.

But the diner's owners insist that they are just applying a longstanding policy of adding gratuity for most large groups. Manny Tsambounieris, the son of one of the diner's owners and a restaurant manager, told TODAY Food that the uproar is stemming from a "big miscommunication."

Tsambounieris says that the restaurant's gratuity policy applies not just to younger patrons, but to any large group (generally more than eight people), regardless of age. The goal is to "do good by everyone," said Tsambounieris. "We are trying to take care of our employees and our customers at the same time."

But parents claim the policy isn't being applied uniformly.

"My daughter was coming to me, telling me that every time she and her friends went to the diner, they're being charged the gratuity," local parent Melissa Desch told NBC News New York. "And when I asked her why, she said, 'Because they're children.'"

Desch also told CBS New York that she thinks her daughter and other young people are being "targeted." She'd like to see a consistent policy for kids and older patrons.

A lawyer who represents Wayne Hills told CBS New York that kids have been coming to the diner in groups of 20 to 30, staying for an hour or two, and not tipping and added that this policy helps ensure waitstaff is compensated fairly. Nick Tsambounieris, a co-owner of the restaurant, said that teens had run around the diner and broken bathroom doors, according to NorthJersey.com. But he added that he thinks the situation is being blown out of proportion. "I have no problem with the kids," Tsambounieris told the site. "We love the community and the kids."

Restaurant industry experts say adding adding gratuity to the bills of large parties is pretty standard.

"It's not uncommon for restaurants to add gratuities to large parties, and I've also seen restaurants automatically add gratuities if they serve communities that aren't accustomed to tipping, such as Europeans," Bret Thorn, senior food editor for Nation's Restaurant News, told TODAY Food. "However, those restaurants add gratuities to every party's checks, they don't target specific groups, and thus avoid looking like they're discriminating against someone based on their accent or appearance."

Now, a debate between supporters of an automatic-gratuity policy for children and those who say it's unfair has heated up on social media, including on the diner's Facebook page, where some commenters "fully support the decision," while others suggest a boycott.

"We have been getting calls, emails, reviews and Facebook messages from all over the country in support of our business," Manny Tsambounieris told TODAY Food, adding that about 75 percent of the feedback they've gotten has been positive:

But the diner has also gotten a few negative reviews since the story broke:

While it's not unusual for restaurants to add an automatic gratuity to large parties, the perception of selective reinforcement — whether or not it is true — is what's troublesome to some:

How restaurants choose to deal with younger patrons has been a constant source of debate throughout the industry. Some eateries have banned kids altogether: One restaurant in Virginia banned kids under 18, saying that parents need a break, while another in Florida put up a "no children" sign after parents failed to supervise their children.

In addition to the perception of discrimination based on age, another hot button issue this brouhaha has brought up is whose job it is to teach kids how to tip. Many commenters on Facebook agreed that if parents taught their children about tipping and good restaurant behavior in general, this would be a non-issue.

When kids don't tip, it's often out of ignorance, not maliciousness, says etiquette expert Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette.

"Sometimes children and young adults are simply unaware of what tipping is because their parents or the adults they are with usually take care of money transactions when dining," Meier told TODAY. "I recommend as soon as a child is old enough to go out to a meal on their own or with a group, to educate them on what tipping is and what is customary.

"For instance, it is not customary to tip counter service at a large fast food chain, however it is customary to tip service at a restaurant that has a server who comes to your table."

Of course, how a young person behaves in a restaurant has a lot to do with how their parents behave.

"I think the best way to teach kids or anyone else good behavior is to behave well yourself," Thorn told TODAY Food. "Explain to your kids that you're tipping and why you're doing that. Always make sure that you treat your servers with respect and dignity, and your children will likely behave the same way."

Thorn and others also question whether a selective gratuity is really the best way to teach kids about tipping and restaurant etiquette, in any case. "I understand why a restaurant would want to slap a surcharge onto the checks of young people, but ultimately if a restaurant wants to be successful, it has to make its customers feel welcome," says Thorn.

"Singling out specific groups because you expect them to behave badly is no way to win them over."

With the help of Thorn and Meier, we've put together a few general guidelines parents can use when teaching their kids about tipping and good restaurant behavior:

1. A gentle reminder never hurts. When your kid is old enough to go out with a group of friends, remind him or her to always be on their best behavior — even if their buddies start goofing around.

2. Call ahead to clarify policies. Tell kids and teens planning to dine out in groups that it's always ok to ask a restaurant beforehand if there is a gratuity for large parties. This will help avoid any last minute surprises.

3. Lead by example. Children often learn behaviors from the adults around them so use any dining experience as a potential teaching lesson. At restaurants in the U.S., it is recommended to tip between 15 to 20 percent for good service at an eatery where a server brings food to your table. If your son or daughter likes math (and even if they don't!), let them try calculating the tip during your next outing.

4. It's ok to talk about money. Many teens, and even some adults, don't understand that many servers depend on tips since they often make below the minimum wage. In the event of bad service, one should never feel obligated to tip but older kids and teens should know why tipping exists in the first place.

5. The golden rule still applies at restaurants. Remind kids that waiters and servers are people, too, and they will provide great service to patrons who are respectful, regardless of age.

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