Dine and Punishment
February 17, 2009 3:34 AM   Subscribe

What happens if you eat at a restaurant and then can't pay the bill? I'm looking for experienced answers from people that know better, not conjectures.

Let's say you're at a restaurant, and eat a big meal, but when the time comes you realize you forgot your wallet. In what ways will the restaurant respond to this? Will they call the police? Will they trust you to leave and "bring the money back", with zero real assurances you will return? Will they make you wash dishes?

This seems like it would be a common occurrence, but some friends and I were stumped about what would happen. The restaurant seems to be at the mercy of the patron.

Having the police come and escort away a patron seems like it would really have a negative effect on the image of the restaurant to other diners, especially in higher end restaurants that would incur enough of a loss from the meal cost to warrant such measures. On the other hand it seems strange to me to think that they would just let someone leave on the honor system for $50-$150. And what if the patron says that they just can't afford to pay?

MeFites with restaurant experience please share with me how you dealt with these situations, or were supposed to deal with them. In what circumstances did you ever rely on the police? (e.g. only when people intentionally try and exit the door without paying, or even if they tell you they are unable to pay)

Patrons are encouraged to share their stories too. How did they deal with you when the bill came, and you couldn't cut it?
posted by fucker to Food & Drink (38 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on the place. I've worked at restaurants where the manager would ask for some token of collateral (and then pretty much write off the bill and toss the collateral in a box that was already full of CDs and textbooks and the like). I've also worked at higher-end eateries that would not even allow a patron to leave something for collateral and simply assume that the debt would be settled. The return rate was virtually 100 percent in those places.

When it happened to me once the other direction (more accurately, it happened to the person who had asked me out, and I had foolishly brought no money with me), I sat at the restaurant and had a nice conversation with the waitresses until my date returned with enough for the bill and the two extra drinks I'd consumed in the meantime.
posted by Etrigan at 3:43 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was at college I worked in a place where this happened (a UK chain kinda like Applebees only with breastfeeding being ok). It was left to the patron to return and pony up the dough (which they duly did the following day). This was at the manager's discretion but I think appropriate in the circumstances. He left a good tip too!
posted by ClanvidHorse at 4:45 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's not difficult to dine and ditch. The people who actually go as far as telling you that they forgot their wallets are usually telling the truth. Even in situations where I expected to never see the customer again I've been surprised at how often people do come back to settle their bills.

Calling the cops generally doesn't happen, unless a customer is being loud and argumentative or physically aggressive. An abandoned $100 tab at most restaurants or bars is probably only a loss of $20 or less, so for the most part the person who served you will be more upset than the management or owners since they've missed out on their tip.
posted by ryaninoakland at 4:45 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

At the coffee shop I worked at, I would tell people either to not worry about it or come back the next day. Surprisingly, most of them did.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:53 AM on February 17, 2009

This has happened to me a couple times actually, as the patron. Both times were when I lived in NYC. In both cases, it was at high-end places and I had a little cash but had left my credit cards at home.

In both cases, it was just an amiable discussion between us and the host. How would we like to settle the bill then? In one of the two cases, I was asked whether I lived in NY (I did) and that I could just come back tomorrow and pay the bill. I declined and instead when to an ATM to get cash.
There was no "collateral" although I left my friend behind to enjoy dessert.

The other case was similar. I said I'd go get my wallet and return. They took my name down and nodded. But as I was about to leave the restaurant to go get money, I saw a friend waiting to get in and he lent me the cash ($100 or so). In both cases I was wearing a suit, if that matters.
posted by vacapinta at 4:58 AM on February 17, 2009

I've seen situations where the restaurant manager tells the customer to call someone (a relative, friend, anyone) and have them bring payment to the restaurant. Embarrassing for the customer, no doubt, but at least the restaurant gets paid.
posted by LightMayo at 4:58 AM on February 17, 2009

I dined at a Mexican restaurant in the States a few years back, and, not having verified the credit card policy in advance, blithely placed my card on the bill. We were told that only checks or cash were accepted. I quick check of my pockets showed that we were out of luck in both departments.

However, the restaurant allowed us to settle the bill the next day, no questions asked. And no collateral taken.
posted by Gordion Knott at 5:01 AM on February 17, 2009

I had this happen at Genny's Diner in Louisville a few years ago. My very first visit, too.

Was taking my brother there for a late lunch and realized too late that they didn't accept debit cards. We were the only people in the restaurant at the time, but we'd spent our time there chatting and laughing with the staff there, so they were cool when I said I'd run out to the nearby cash machine.

My brother stayed (he had no cash, either), as did my car, so they were confident that I'd be back. Turned out that the cash machine next door was out of service, and I had to walk a block to get to the next one. But beyond that, absolutely no worries.

I suspect it depends on the establishment.
posted by magstheaxe at 5:20 AM on February 17, 2009

My dad has mentioned a few times that when he was younger you'd have to stay and wash dishes! He's from a small town and until this moment I'd never questioned whether he meant that literally, though now that sounds a little silly.

At the places I've worked (mostly lunch, no alcohol...so smaller bills) we've just trusted people to come back. While I've been working nobody has actually been dishonest that I remember. Many people in fact try to set up their own ways to reassure us (like leave us something of theirs or even their kid). Its seemed the (honest) customers were more worried about it than the employees or management. Then again, a larger bill or more frequent dishonest customers would probably have provoked a harsher policy.
posted by nzydarkxj at 5:21 AM on February 17, 2009

I have done this at a place where I am a regular customer and they know me; they just said don't worry about it and come back when you can to settle up. Needless to say, I went straight to an ATM and got the money and settled up the same day out of embarrassment. I know a lot of people in the restaurant business and they all have stories of how easy it is to skip out on a bill (for example, get a cheap thrift store purse and/or sport coat, leave them at the table so it looks like you just went to the bathroom, and leave without paying your $100 plus tab), so anyone honest enough to say they can't pay probably will come back. The dishwashing thing is pretty much an urban legend as far as I can tell; I have never heard of it in real life and there is no telling what sort of labor laws and liability would be involved in making someone wash dishes to pay their check (and from my days as a dish washer I can assure you that at dishwasher pay it would take several shifts to pay for a really expensive meal). The person who is really potentially losing money in these scenarios is the server, who depends on their tip more so than the owner, who is only out the cost of the food, which is a realtively small portion of the bill in most restaurants.
posted by TedW at 5:39 AM on February 17, 2009

Not a restaurant per se but at gas stations here in Poland, the SOP is for clients to show a form of ID - their info gets jotted down and they have a day or two to settle the bill.
posted by jedrek at 5:55 AM on February 17, 2009

If it's a place where you're a regular, they're usually cool about it and ask you to drop by tomorrow or come back that day, with no collateral needed.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:58 AM on February 17, 2009

I am sure the staying and washing dishes thing has happened, but I am also sure it hasn't happened nearly as often as the meme is spread.

As a former restaurant manager, indeed it was up to my discretion. The only time I would consider calling the cops would be if it was a large party and I felt like I was getting played. Which never happened. The worst I ever saw were the situations where a party would show up, have a tremendous time, and then when the bill came they'd start with the nit-picky complaints. "Yeah, I ate the whole thing, but it wasn't up to my expectations." Thanks. This was the beginning of the age-old dance where I was getting worked for coupons or a discount.

It's pretty easy to tell when a situation is a real mistake and when you are getting the business.

An abandoned $100 tab at most restaurants or bars is probably only a loss of $20 or less

In cold cash, maybe. Depends on the product mix of what was eaten and what the markups on them are. Many entrees are sold at a very thin margin which is made up for in the appetizer/fries/drinks. But there is also opportunity loss- a paying customer could have been using those resources that the non-paying customer took up. But if you are at the point where someone has already dined and doesn't have money, all you can do is hope they'll come back.
posted by gjc at 6:07 AM on February 17, 2009

I've done this in Korea in a cash-only restaurant I frequent. I told them I'd go to the bank to get some cash. They told me to pay for it next time, which I did, to a difficult employee, though I'm a foreigner and I imagine everyone heard about the incident, so word got around. Also, if I hadn't been able to explain the situation in Korean, things might've been more difficult.
posted by smorange at 6:26 AM on February 17, 2009

difficult employee = different employee
posted by smorange at 6:28 AM on February 17, 2009

I've done this maybe three or four times, forgetting my wallet, or realizing at the end of the meal that they only take cash and I have none. And I've done it at hole in the wall cheap places and at a really expensive place.

It has always been the same, whether the meal was $5 or $100. If there was an ATM close and I have my card, I just went directly to get cash, leaving my dining companion as "collateral." The time that I totally forgot my wallet (and thought it might have been stolen), I promised fervently to come in the next day as soon as they opened, and they said fine, no problem -- I also made sure to ask for the waitress's name so that I could leave a tip marked for her.

My sense is that this is normal and happens to most people at least once, and unless the amount of money involved is really staggering (like you've been ordering bottle after bottle of expensive wine for a big group) or you have "scammer" written all over you, they just shrug and hope you come back with the money.
posted by Forktine at 6:29 AM on February 17, 2009

Well, here's how it went down ten years ago at Angelo and Maxie's. And all those guys did is refuse to tip. Admittedly, the bill appears to have been about $2,500.
posted by The Bellman at 6:42 AM on February 17, 2009

This happened to me fairly regularly when I was a server at a local diner. It wasn't uncommon for people to dine and ditch, so we servers had to be very conscientious. We didn't make much money and the manager was not always willing to cover the cost of the delinquent's meal. We had to be on lookout constantly, and there were a few times one of us had to chase a big party out into the parking lot. They were never very smart about it, and they didn't usually get away with it. If a customer did really forget their wallet, however, I'd pay their bill and they'd pay me back next time. Those customers were always thankful and tipped well.
posted by big open mouth at 6:54 AM on February 17, 2009

I was a full-time server/bartender for about 4 years, and this actually never happened to me. I got stiffed on a check twice, once accidentally and once deliberately.

Anecdotally: A friend of mine, who nannies for a living and loves kids, was on a first date at a nice restaurant. The next table over had an apparently adorable small child, whom she was quite enamored with and spent much time during the meal making faces at, cooing, etc. Her date got so pissed off that he said something snappy about how she couldn't even be bothered to pay attention to him, then he got up and left, sticking her with a tab she could in no way afford.

She talked to the management and they comped the bill, which was quite nice.
posted by baphomet at 6:58 AM on February 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

My friend took me to an overpriced Japanses restaurant in Nashville for my birthday. As we walked in my friend asked the gentleman at the host stand if they accepted Discover cards, he nodded and smiled. When the bill came, he put the Discover card in the check folder, and the server told us they didn't take Discover. I told her the host said that they did, and we wouldn't have dined there otherwise. She said the host didn't speak very much English (he was a middle-aged Asian man whom I had assumed was the owner), so he must not have understood. We argued that his language skills weren't our fault, plus we were two hours from home and neither of us had enough cash to pay the bill or any other cards with us (we were both pretty close to broke, and it was silly for either of us to be buying overpriced sushi on credit, but we were young, dumb, and in college). Anyway, the waitress became immediately aggressive and said something along the lines of 'Well, it's going to be paid, or I'm calling the police.' My friend had close to a zero balance in his bank account, and I had just about enough money to cover the rent check I'd mailed the day before. We briefly discussed letting her call the police and explaining the whole mess to them, but decided they would probably just take her side. After all, we HAD eaten the food, and we did owe the money.
I only had a cash card, not a debit card, so I had to go to a cash machine and withdraw about a third of my rent to cover the bill. My friend did pay me back, but only after the check had bounced, and he never paid me back for the late rent payment fee or the overdraft fee from my bank.
I worked at a restaurant before where the management took the bills of dine-and-dash customers out of the server's pay (the full amount, not the actual cost of the food and drink. It happened to me twice). I don't think this is legal, but it happens in lots of restaurants, and I figure that's what the server in this case was worried about.
And damn that was some terrible sushi.
posted by cilantro at 7:02 AM on February 17, 2009

Back in the day we took driver's license as collateral. Or in a pinch just told them to pay us back. Most people immediately feel shamed and pay back the same day. Those who want to abuse the system just got away with it. Its not worth getting shot by a thief over a small amount of cash. For the most part the servers took this kind of thing personally because they werent given a tip. Ive seen this lead to chases in the parking lots but that's pretty rare. If you really want to get away with not paying, at least leave a big tip.

I doubt there's a set procedure outside of a corporate restaurant. We just did what we thought made sense without causing too much of a scene. Some people do just forget their wallets and in the days before debit cards that meant not being able to pay without going home to get a checkbook.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:19 AM on February 17, 2009

TedW: "The person who is really potentially losing money in these scenarios is the server, who depends on their tip more so than the owner, who is only out the cost of the food, which is a realtively small portion of the bill in most restaurants."

This is incorrect -- the owner is out of the cost of food in any case, whether the customer pays or not. So if bill is $100 and cost of food was $20, then for the owner situation is either going to be -$20 or +$80. Difference is $100; for waiter it's somewhere between 15%-20% presumably.
posted by zeikka at 7:24 AM on February 17, 2009

My husband and I were hiking in the Swiss Alps doing a hut-to-hut. After a brutal day hiking in the rain for a distance much farther than we thought we arrived at the hut, ready to eat and collapse. We discovered we didn't have enough cash to cover both dinner and lodgings!! Though the hut manager was stern she gave us an envelope and told us to go to the post office and sent a money order -- apparently this happened with some regularity and they had a whole system worked out. We skipped ordering the bottle of wine that night....

In the morning, she gave us a total and we also took a sack lunch with us and when we got back to town two days later we happily paid.
posted by amanda at 7:27 AM on February 17, 2009

A date once took me to the Four Seasons in Boston (a city both of us were visiting briefly, but not staying at the same hotel). At the end of the meal, his credit card was declined. He quite smoothly chalked it up to difficulties with his overseas bank. I wasn't carrying quite enough cash, so the restaurant sent a staff member in a cab with us back to our hotel, where my date returned from his room with enough cash.

I was young. It was embarassing. The Four Seasons staff were incredibly polite about it, though, managing to insist on getting their money immediately while not seeming at all pushy. Almost apologetically determined is how I would descrive their demeanor. Very british, actually.

We didn't have further dates for a number of reasons that didn't include the dinner debacle. I later heard he was a con man who had duped another woman into a greencard marriage only to take out massive loans in her name and then disappear.
posted by minervous at 7:36 AM on February 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't usually have a lot of cash on me. One day I forgot my credit card too, only discovering this as I tried to pay the restaurant bill. I explained this to the waiter, apologized, left, got my credit card, returned in ten minutes, paid the bill, added 25% tip instead of my normal 20%.

What else was the waiter going to do? Yeah, he could have called the police, but a) that doesn't magically produce money from me, and b) takes up his time and disrupts the restaurant. The restaurant probably prefers to eat the cost to tying up everyone with police reports.
posted by orthogonality at 8:19 AM on February 17, 2009

When I was a server, we were held responsible if our cash didn't match the register. I had this situation happen a few times with diners. Each time I told the manager and then I tried to work it out myself with the patron. Two times they came back and paid. The third person was an old woman who was clearly mentally ill so the manager cut me a break and wrote it off as a loss.

The only time that happened to me, I got lucky.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:21 AM on February 17, 2009

At the restaurant where I work, three women recently had to leave mid-meal, immediately, so they left without paying for their food and the manager just wrote it off the way you would a tray of food that had spilled. They've come back, but the servers kinda whisper about them and glare, not because they had to leave suddenly but because of the complete absence of a good faith effort to keep/make things right (eg, paying later). Another anecdote: I recently saw a bill in a jar attached to a note like "[Regular]'s credit card was expired, she will be back to pay tomorrow."
posted by salvia at 8:28 AM on February 17, 2009

This happened to me when I lived in Nashville at DaVinci's Gourmet Pizza. The didn't take credit and I thought that they did. It was almost closing time and I asked them to stay open while I ran to the ATM to get cash. Instead, they gave me an envelope with the restaurant's address on it and told me to send them a check. I did that as soon as I got home.

When I was a waitress, "dine and dash" was taken out of my check. However, if you asked for the manager, they'd let you come back the next day to pay. Mistakes happen, no big deal.
posted by 26.2 at 9:38 AM on February 17, 2009

I've worked in a bunch of restaurants and seen this happen. What the restaurant tries to do is hold on to something (like your wallet if you just don't have the money, or your friend stays) while you get your money and return. I don't think the restaurant would insist on this though...
posted by xammerboy at 9:45 AM on February 17, 2009

We had this happen to our family when we went to eat at a place on the cape. They only took cash and we didn't have enough to cover they bill, so they let us all leave and go and find an ATM and get cash.
posted by lilkeith07 at 9:58 AM on February 17, 2009

As a former restaurateur, I always offered to take a check if it was a forgotten wallet/no or not enough cash/no card situation. If the patron had no means of paying, I'd make a big show of signing the bill, asking if I might add a reasonable server tip to the total, requesting the patron sign too (meaningless yet oddly effective), and propping the bill up somewhere fairly conspicuous but not embarrassing behind the bar and telling them to come back tomorrow. I can't remember one time when a bill went paid. As someone upthread said, those folks are not your typical ditchers.
posted by thinkpiece at 1:35 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oops, I can't remember a time when a bill went unpaid.
posted by thinkpiece at 1:38 PM on February 17, 2009

We either make a photocopy of their driver's license or just jot down the info. The only times I've seen it happen though, were with people who seemed to be trustworthy (and, in the end, they all came back and settled up with us). I'm not sure how we'd handle it if someone who seemed sketchy to the management couldn't pay.

I'm not advocating judging people by their appearance, this is just how it's gone at my particular restaurant, and it was never really my decision anyway
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:25 PM on February 17, 2009

There's a local restaurant (middle of the road, nothing fancy) where a year or so I discovered only at the end of the meal that their credit card machine was broken. Neither my companion nor I had cash, so we were a bit stumped on how to pay. We offered to take turns going to get cash or to leave something as collateral, but the waiter told us we could both go and just come back with the cash. We ran to the ATM and were back in five minutes, no big deal.

I don't know if it made a difference that the problem was partly theirs, since they had not let us know before we ordered that we wouldn't be able to pay with plastic.
posted by Stacey at 3:23 PM on February 17, 2009

Pretty sure its illegal to hold waitstaff responsible for cash shortages.
posted by gjc at 4:49 PM on February 17, 2009

Some buddies and I were on a road trip and stopped in a small town cafe and ordered some food. We noticed a sign that said "Sorry, we don't have a credit card machine" or something to that effect. Collectively we had $3.50, so we apologized and tried to leave. The owner was working, and she wouldn't let us leave - we "looked like good boys" and told me to write down my address. We ate lunch, left, and 2 weeks later I got an invoice from the cafe in Buffalo, North Dakota! I feel like that's something that would only happen in this part of the country, though.

On the other side of the story, I'm a bartender at a Mexican restaurant. A server had a table and she had a feeling (somehow) that her table was going to "dine and dash"...don't ask me how she knew, but she caught them right after she brought out their last 2 margaritas. They sheepishly told her that they didn't have enough for the last two, paid for the rest of their meal, and my manager came and simply took the unconsumed margaritas from them. Clearly the server didn't get a tip from that table.

(On a side note, at our restaurant if your table leaves without paying, the server is responsible. I think that's pretty awful, but I don't make the rules)
posted by whiskey point at 10:40 PM on February 17, 2009

Pretty sure its illegal to hold waitstaff responsible for cash shortages.

Have you ever worked in a restaurant? A lot of illegal things happen to wait staff.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:56 AM on February 18, 2009

Pretty sure its illegal to hold waitstaff responsible for cash shortages.

This is generally true, but:
1) Some states have laws saying that this only applies to companies with more than X employees, and if they have less, then they can.
2) Regardless of the above, while it may be illegal, it nonetheless happens all the time. While it will be fairly uncommon in large chains (liability), smaller/independent operations get away with this more or less constantly. A lot of servers live paycheck-to-paycheck (or tip-to-tip), and so management can easily force them into a bind: either pay the full cost of the customer's tab, or you're out of a job tomorrow. Are you going to balk at losing $60 tonight, when not doing so will cost you hundreds of dollars in lost income while you look for a new job? Not many people are in the position to make that sacrifice for principle.
posted by baphomet at 10:32 AM on February 18, 2009

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