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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The 20 percent


     I've been eating at Chicago restaurants hand over fist since 1975, since I slid my considerable teenage keister into a booth at the Blackhawk and watched them spin their famous—supposedly, at the time, if you could trust their word—spinning salad.
     Having eaten at thousands of restaurants since, little throws me. Yes, my wife and I were taken aback with the trend of tiny pieces of food lost on enormous plates in the 1990s—I remember going straight from dinner at Cafe Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue to Dunkin' Donuts on Rush Street to eat something. I never approved of the show-off-slabs-of-raw-meat tradition at steakhouses like Gibson's. Kinda gross. And some of those intentionally wise-cracking waitress places could set my teeth on edge. I remember trying to get through a meal at Ed Debevic's without saying, "Why don't you shut up and bring our food?" But I'm not the intended customer, my kids were, and they liked it plenty.
     Usually, it was nothing that couldn't be solved by never going back. When the Berghoff pretended to close in 2006, so it could fire its union waitstaff, then promptly re-opened as a sort of imitation of itself, I grieved for all the thuringer and rye that would never be eaten there, then moved on with my life. It was as if the place burned down, and for me it had, emotionally. In these cases, at least there was clarity. But I was just confused at Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark, Saturday. My wife and I were meeting a young judicial clerk of our acquaintance and his girlfriend for brunch. All was happiness; I've never been more primed to enjoy a meal. And I did, beginning to almost end. Okay, the coffee was a bit metallic. But it came in these gorgeous English cups. The beignets were thick with powdered sugar, the biscuits satisfactory. I avoided the heavier, sauce-laden fare and went for an omelet with a butter lettuce salad, which almost felt like austerity. The wait person was attentive and didn't rush us.
     Then the bill came. I grabbed it, as my role demands. About $70. Plus the 10 percent tax. Plus another 20 percent "Service charge." Which was what I would have left anyway. I'd never seen that before.
     "This is unusual," I commented to the table as I reached for my wallet. "Usually they add the gratuity only if it's a party of six or more...."
     At that moment the waitress swept in with well-practiced timing and explained that this was COVID related. The 20 percent was to cover the various plague-related challenges, and the blank tip space—which I had already drawn a line through—was for her. There was a note of entreaty in her voice. My wife suggested that perhaps they'd want to fold the COVID costs into the menu prices, and she said something about management change. So I broke a twenty—I've recently returned to the arcane practice of carrying cash—and left $15 for her.
     Walking out I felt ... well, ripped off. Slightly. Like I had been forced to leave $30 in tips on a $70 tab. More than 42 percent. I'm all for supporting restaurants, but the psychology of this is way off.
     Doing subsequent research, I see this that added COVID charges in restaurants has been an issue for well over a year. The surcharges range from 3 percent to a whopping 26 percent, which one restaurant promptly retracted when diners howled. At the very least, they should put a placard on the table, or a big red label on the menu, something to prep the diner for what is coming. I'm all for supporting restaurants during this time of crisis, but at least let us know what's coming.
     And clean your coffee pots.

    Editor's note: through a mutual friend, big jones owner  Paul Fehribach observes that the charge is also noted on the menu and web site. That is true, I later discovered after searching for it. But the menu also says the charge is "in lieu of tip," which makes me feel worse, not better. 


  1. Regarding the Berghoff's demise, your previous description that it "faked its own death" sounds more spot-on than "pretended to close". A $70 tab for four breakfasts at a two-dollar-sign place sounds like a bargain in late 2021 dollars. Could it be that they simply tacked on the "Service charge" instead of raising their base prices like the breakfast joints I've returned to post-COVID? It seems like a way they can fob off the increase on the service staff, who are likely not seeing those charges added to their tip pool. If that's the case, it's pretty underhanded; c.f. the Berghoff.

  2. my various wives and girl friends , even one of my sons have worked in restaurants serving food . I find it appalling that an establishment would put an employee in the position of having to explain that the owners were stealing the tips and the staff would have to entreat upon customers for additional payment so as to be tipped.

    I understand staying open through the shit show was tough but putting additional weight on the shoulders of their employees is Dickensian.

    lots of other jobs out there though. thank god

  3. They should just raise their prices & get rid of any surcharges!

  4. Now we know why help is so hard to find.

  5. Yeah, some sort of clearer communication about the surcharge would certainly seem to be in order. I don't envy any involved in the restaurant trade these days, but $14 in order to serve breakfast to 4 people does seem a lot "to cover the various plague-related challenges." And kgander and FME are right; it's an appalling way to treat their staff.

    The photo kinda makes me wonder what exactly the difference is between "a butter lettuce salad" and half-a-head of butter lettuce strewn on the side of a plate...

    I understand your attitude toward the Berghoff, but never returning to that gem of a place due to the offenses of the ownership 15 years ago is akin to me to never stepping inside Wrigley Field because the Cubs are owned by the freaking Ricketts clan. Principled, yes, but allowing them too much sway in keeping me from something that I enjoy. (That being said, we hardly ever go to either place anymore, and certainly haven't in the past couple years.)

    1. I go to Milwaukee to see the Cubs it's alot cheaper the park is nicer and fewer faux cubs fans.

  6. Of course, Neil's reference to a $30 tip for a $70 meal is 42% or so, but I more often think of it as paying $100 for a meal, 30% of which is a tip. Makes me feel better somehow, less ripped off I guess.


  7. I was also shocked at a 20% COVID surcharge in Austin until I noticed that almost everyone adds it there. Also, I loved Ed Debevic's as a kid and my dad, who's a big kid, did too (or at least he seemed to). I am happy to see (when I just Googled it) that it has survive so it can bring joy to future generations of kids. I miss their cheese fries, although not sure if I'd stomach them today. I had not heard of the spinning salad so had to look it up: https://abiquiunews.com/recipes/the-real-blackhawk-restaurants-famous-spinning-bowl-salad-recipe-by-otto-roth. Cool!

    1. Ed Debevic's hasn't so much survived as it's been resurrected at a different location. The original spot closed in 2015 and the new version, on Ohio east of Michigan, evidently just opened about a month ago...


    2. Would take my girls there every year for their birthdays until it closed. As four and two year olds, they really enjoyed their food and entertainment. Also, recently, found out a couple of NEO DJs had daytime gigs at debevics which affirms my love for that place.

  8. This place added a 3% charge in order to provide health insurance to employees. https://www.kvue.com/article/news/at-least-2-austin-restaurants-adding-health-care-surcharge-to-customer-bills/269-b7dfed7a-78b5-47e5-9aff-f6103e16d607

  9. Also: "Several key findings: The restaurant industry ended 2020 with total sales that were $240 billion below the Association's pre-pandemic forecast for the year. As of Dec. 1, 2020, more than 110,000 eating and drinking places were closed for business temporarily, or for good." https://restaurant.org/articles/news/new-report-measures-pandemics-effect-on-business#:~:text=Several%20key%20findings%3A,business%20temporarily%2C%20or%20for%20good

  10. I think your server snowed you. From the Big Jones website:

    Big Jones charges a 20% service fee instead of traditional tipping.

    As of June 2020, Big Jones is a tip-free restaurant. As much as we appreciate and understand the generosity of the overwhelming majority of our guests, we have come to the conclusion that it is our responsibility to make sure that each employee is treated and compensated fairly and justly.

    Traditional tipping does not work well in our current coronavirus scenario, where we have limited seating and servers are required to wear masks. It’s unfair to servers to have their compensation tied to tipping in this environment.

    Traditional tipping also is shown to result in lower tips for women and people of color. We don’t want to be part of this system.

    1. It didn't in this case. And if Big Jones is indeed "tip-free," then the big space labelled "TIP" on the credit card totals is misleading. I wouldn't go back.

    2. Wow, I can certainly see why that makes you feel worse, Neil. If they consider themselves "a tip-free restaurant," they should clearly remove the "tip" line from the check. I couldn't find the wording that Watson quotes on the website, though I guess it makes sense. But the waitstaff seem to be a little on the shady side, as well, if they're a tip-free place. I did look at Yelp and saw a comment from somebody in July who had a similar experience to yours:

      "Unless something has changed in a week, Big Jones is now adding a 20% service charge to dine in. That's a compulsory tip. And if you don't leave another 20% on top of that, your waiter will follow you outside and berate you.
      Which is exactly what Matthew, our waiter, did to us last week. I pointed out the 20% service charge, and he snapped, 'That's not how it works!'
      So, I'm supposed to tip 40%?"

  11. Sounds a lot like the "resort charges" tacked on by hotels, which are often 10% or more of the rack rate. Usually it means you get a "complimentary" bottle of water in your room. Just raise your damn rates so I can do an honest comparison.

  12. Yes - the Covid charge is often unexpected and poorly noted. Usually, restaurants have been agreeable to removing it.

    I don’t feel at all guilty about this, because I tip very generously - as I have been doing through these times. But that way, it goes where it should: to the service staff.


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