How to Handle a Restaurant Bill SNAFU
January 21, 2012 6:16 PM   Subscribe

A few weeks ago I had a frustrating interaction with a waiter regarding a gift card. I am still bothered by what happened and would like some advice about it.

A few weeks ago I went out for drinks and dessert at a chain restaurant for which I had two gift cards. A friend joined me, and when it came time to split the bill, we asked our waiter to put my friend's order on her credit card, and my items on my two gift cards (one had like $5 on it, the other $50). I verbally specified that the giftcard I had that only had $5 on it ended with 4505, and indicated it on the check we had been given, so that the waiter would use that first on my portion.

A few minutes later the waiter returned, said that he had decided to swipe my $50 gift card first, and that the bill was now paid for, and returned my friend's credit card to her and my gift cards with the remaining balances to me. I was so shocked that I just said okay and pretended like I had meant to treat my friend to what was ultimately a very expensive night out for me, and left without speaking to a manager about the mix up.

What should I have said to correct the improper use of my gift cards? The money was a gift from my parents and I am really bummed about the loss.

I recognize that the transaction was slightly more complicated than a normal "please split the check" request.
posted by iLoveTheRain to Work & Money (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It would have been awesome of your friend to step up and pay you back. Perhaps they'll take you out some time to reciprocate. :)

However, you would have been perfectly within your rights to say, no, only your portion of the bill should have been put on the gift cards. Merchants make mistakes in credit card / gift card billing all the time; it should not have been a big deal for him to refund the right amount to your card and charge your friend's card as you originally requested.

(I would have held on to the $5 and only given him the $50, just to reduce the chances of him screwing up—but it seems like that wouldn't actually have prevented the error in this case.)
posted by BrashTech at 6:22 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with BrashTech about what you could have done. I still think it's within your rights to call the manager of the place and express your frustration with how the situation played out. Be clear about what you want from your call (an apology? assurance that said waiter will be talked to about how this was a problem?) so that you don't end up feeling even more upset about the situation. If I were in your shoes I might say something like "this accidentally put me in a very awkward financial spot; I was budgeting on being able to use that card again... blah blah..." I highly doubt (unless they are REALLY rude) they would even think to ask you why you didn't work it out with your friend afterwards.

Also: have you expressed your frustration with the situation to your friend? I might think about doing that too, or else you might end up harboring unintentional resentment toward them regarding how they did/did not respond (even though it was ultimately the waiter's fault, I think).

Good luck!
posted by Betty's Table at 6:33 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, that was annoying. Maybe next time you say, with a smile, that this is the very specific order / means by which you want your portion of the bill paying with and yes you know you're probably being a bit annoying (no, I know you're not really being annoying but it's a spot of social oil to help grease the wheels) but that you've had things go wrong before and you just want to make absolutely sure etc etc.

Just by having something of a conversation with your waiter (who will already have a hundred different orders or requests in their heads aat any one time)and reiterating what you want to happen, the chances are that your waiter will remember when they process the order that oh, yes, it was something about the two cards / how much was coming off what / who was paying for X and so on. And if they still don't remember or get it right, you won't feel so bad as you have already laid the groundwork for a subsequent polite chat with someone who can sort out the payments quickly.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 6:35 PM on January 21, 2012

What I would do in that situation is just have my friend settle up with me directly - from their point of view, it's not particularly germane whether they pay their part of the tab directly to the restaurant or to you. If they didn't have cash on them I suppose I'd just tell them to get me back next time we went out. It's not really any different from when one person picks up the tab for a group meal on a credit card and everybody else settles with them.

I'm not sure why the waiter messing up the tender method would absolve them of the friend of their responsibility to pay, which is clearly not that onerous when that's what they were planning to do in the first place.

I mean you could go into the whole thing of getting the waiter to reverse it and re-run it, but that just seems like more work for the exact same outcome.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 6:38 PM on January 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm confused as to why your friend didn't say anything. I can't imagine being in his/her position and not immediately offering to either pay you back, or get the waiter to call the manager over to solve the problem.

At this point, there's not really much you can do about the card being spent, other than asking your friend to pay their portion.
posted by dejah420 at 6:39 PM on January 21, 2012 [17 favorites]

Um it does sound like this should have been a pretty typical split the bill situation. Along the lines of, "please split the check. On mine, please use this gift card first, then the other one."

If the waiter didn't split the check, you should have said something to him and/or his manager at that point. And you should probably have mentioned it to your friend--they can still reimburse you. Maybe you can still talk to the manager about it too.
posted by asciident at 6:42 PM on January 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

Apologies - reading fail. You wanted to know what you should have said at the time and I somehow translated that into what you might say to prevent it happening again.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 6:43 PM on January 21, 2012

Your situation sucks, but if there is a mistake/confusion, I think the onus is first on you to point out the mistake or request a solution. If you do and the waiter won't solve your problem, that is an issue to discuss with management, but it's possible that the waiter wasn't entirely clear about what you wanted. Maybe he thought you wanted to use the gift cards, and then the credit card if there was any amount left over on the bill.
posted by Nightman at 6:48 PM on January 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

Kind of seems like you're making a big deal out of a small incident, but I say what the hell, call the manager and raise a stink. It's a chain restaurant so they probably have some Keep The Customer Happy At All Costs policy and if you persist they might give you another gift card for roughly the amount of your friend's half of the bill.
posted by mannequito at 6:49 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I read your question wrong too. There are no magic words in these situations. You just have to tell them there has been a mistake and the. Tell them what they need to do to fix it. I hate the awkwardness of these situations, but there is not relly any other way. As someone who has worked service, as long as you are polite you most likely won't get any hassle or rudeness from your waiter.
posted by Nightman at 6:51 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am by no means a gift card expert, so maybe someone else will jump in this thread with more knowledge than I. But in my experience it seems the merchant cannot tell how much is left on the card *and* at restaurants and gas stations the authorization process automatically makes allowance for a tip and customary tank of gas amount, so the waiter *might* have had trouble backing-in to an amount that would successfully authorize within a $5 card. When the cards get that low I start using them for convenience store purchases where there is no tip/overage problem.

However, if we leave out the $5 card entirely, that still leaves the question of why he split the checks so unevenly and unfairly. I think most waiters would be more savvy than that, and a reasonable manager would want to know about such a situation so he could prevent a repeat.

As for what you could have said to *prevent* the situation, I find more restaurants are willing to split checks up front, and deliver two checks to the table. Then you just say that you would like to pay separately to insure there is no mix-up between the 3 cards and two bills. The waiter has to visit the register twice, but you can express your thanks through the tip.

Also, I have started asking for gift cards in smaller denominations (2 or 3 $25s instead of one $50 or $75). Granted, you cannot control what someone gives as a gift, but you can tell your story to your relatives as a "hint". Also, when I order Amex gift cards for myself (paying with my reward points) that's what I do.
posted by forthright at 6:52 PM on January 21, 2012

It sucks and I can see being stunned in the moment and not saying anything. But with your friend, couldn't you say something on the way out? Ideally they would just pay you back. I guess if nothing else, it's a lesson in assertiveness for next time, either with the manager or with your friend. Or both.
posted by bquarters at 6:54 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you each gave him a credit card and he only charged one, there would be a straightforward response: "It looks like there's been a mistake: we asked for the bill to be split between these two credit cards, but only one was charged. Can you please re-do this?"

In this case, it might be harder for the waiter to fix, but your response to the mix-up would be the same: "It looks like there's been a mistake: we asked for the bill to be split between these gift cards and that credit card, but only the $50 gift card was charged. Can you please re-do this?" He might need to get his manager, they might need to do something creative in order to get you your money back, but that's not your problem.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:59 PM on January 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

You should have handled it right there and then. "No, it seems like you've misunderstood me. Can you void out that last transaction and start over? I want you to clear out this $5 card first so I can get rid of it, then draw the balance of my check from the $50 card. My friend will be taking her own separate check, and I'll take my change on my gift card. Thanks."

If that didn't take care of it, just ask for a manager.

There's absolutely nothing that you did wrong or that you asked for that was wrong. You got a wingnut, inexperienced, confused or uncaring server, that's all.
posted by Miko at 7:14 PM on January 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, don't feel like there is something extra bizarre about this situation or that you threw a wild curve ball. Particularly on business trips, people do all kinds of split checks/separate payments/ uneven payments/multiple payments etc and having to rerun a check about which you misunderstood is no big deal. Just speak up next time.
posted by Miko at 7:17 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

What should I have said to correct the improper use of my gift cards?

Just about anything, to a manager. As others have said, it may not be too late, and what credibility you've lost from waiting this long you may gain in not being a sweaty, angry mess in the heat of the moment.

However, the problem with asking for restitution now is that at the time, you had your friend right there who was willing to pay her share. It would have just been about moving money around. Now if they reimburse you any, it's at a loss to them. So, be ready with a good answer for a question such as, "Why should we pay for a mistake that you noticed (but didn't correct) at a time when it wouldn't have cost anyone anything to fix?"
posted by hermitosis at 8:23 PM on January 21, 2012

Sorry but this question is unanswerable without knowing if the gift card was specific to the restaurant or a generic Amex or Visa gift card. If it's the latter, it would be impossible to clear out a $5 gift card on a tab and then pay the rest on another generic gift card at a restaurant.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 9:03 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am not super intent on asking for my money back or anything like that, I am more interested in developing a better understanding of how to deal with a situation like this in the future as I frequently eat out and splitting checks really stresses me out.

The giftcards were specific to the restaurant I ate at (a CPK).

As for why I didn't ask my friend to pay her share... Well, I had been meaning to take her out in honor of her birthday anyway, so it wasn't too off the mark for me to treat her, but budget wise I really could only have afforded to buy her a drink, not a $35 dinner, which is what I ended up doing in this scenario.

I think I majorly overestimate the degree to which I am a burden to waiters and waitresses if I ask for something like this when I eat out. I have got to stop doing that.
posted by iLoveTheRain at 9:15 PM on January 21, 2012

Yeah, you are totally overestimating how hard this was for them.

Always ask for separate checks as early as possible; don't pay one big check with multiple cards. If a place has a "no split checks" rule, work it out with your dining companions right then. Relatively few mid-market chains have such policies, BTW, or if they do, it's more like "we won't split tables over X size into more than Y checks."

With dining out, especially at mid-market chains like CPK, you have all the power, and the staff have plenty of resources to get you what you want. Just ask (nicely, clearly) and be firm-but-polite if they are hesitant/confused or have screwed something up.

And there is always a manager on duty, and they almost always have the authority to do everything up to and including comping the meal plus an extra dessert.
posted by SMPA at 9:45 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

and splitting checks really stresses me out

I think this may be the crux of the question, rather than any giftcard shenanigans, per se. Don't forget, you are paying for a service at a restaurant; they aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, and you're entitled to ask for anything you want - the restaurant will let you know if it's not possible, and they won't be bothered, upset or feel harassed by saying no. Any kind of billing mistake can always be reversed. Unless "no split bills" is emblazoned on the menu in bold, split away my friend, split away!
posted by smoke at 10:37 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

A few minutes later the waiter returned, said that he had decided to swipe my $50 gift card first

That's a legitimate reason to complain directly to a manager. It is true that a lot of people are far too quick to complain about far too many things, but your waiter directly ignored your wishes and purposely failed at his job there. Tell them what you've told us, you were shocked that the waiter would do such a thing and that you were embarrassed to speak up in front of your friend.

The manager may sympathize with you. They may not. Either way, they have both the incentive and the means to satisfy you. Be clear about what sort of resolution you want. In this case, reimbursement for the portion of the bill put upon you unfairly is a reasonable request.

If management is rude, blows you off, or is unavailable and does not return a call within three days, that's when it's appropriate to contact corporate. This is a big enough deal that the franchise owner hears about every single corporate complaint. It's not for minor issues, but a willful billing mistake which is not addressed is a valid complaint.

Plenty of people abuse the complaint chain and I understand and appreciate your desire to not be one of those people. This is an objective mistake on the waiter's part which had no reason to happen in the first place. Call them up and air your complaints. The embarrassment is as bad as the lost money, and management should recognize that.
posted by Saydur at 10:53 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The waiter should have handled it as you asked. It's not a unique occurrence! It would have been awkward to handle it at the time in front of your friend, but I would have mentioned it to the manager as you were leaving, then contact the manager again the next day or so and ask him/her to make it right for you. Which would probably mean another gift card. Which would put you in the same position for next time, but now with three gift cards. But it's their fault and they are supposed to handle it correctly any time it occurs.

They can check the remaining value of a gift card before charging or processing it.

Since it has been a few weeks, you could still try, but it may be too late.

You are the customer and the server failed you, costing you money. The manager should make it right, and your friend doesn't have to know, or pay.
posted by caclwmr4 at 11:11 PM on January 21, 2012

I think the larger issue here is general assertiveness/self-esteem, and being clear about what you want. You are not a burden and I think you'd do well to think about why you think this. Sure it might be a more complex transaction than usual (bill splitting plus two gift cards) but there is absolutely nothing wrong with making a service provider give you the service that you want and follow through with what you originally asked for. You were not asking him to break the rules or anything; you were asking him to do something only a little out of the ordinary, and I'm sure he's dealt with way worse (rude, impossible to please customers, etc.).

In this specific situation, once the waiter came back, having swiped the $50 gift card, I would have said, "Uh no, actually, I wanted to clear the $5 gift card first, put the remainder on the $50 card, and put my friend's meal on her credit card." And maybe (maybe!) throw in a "sorry" for good measure. Sometimes you do have to repeat your instructions (which is annoying, and it makes you feel like you weren't worth listening to in the first place), but it would be very bad form for the waiter to give you attitude about that and he probably wouldn't have done so anyway. If he did, then you would escalate to the manager.

Anyway, don't beat yourself up too much about this. Learn from it, and apply to the next situation. And there will be lots of opportunities, I assure you. Getting good customer service can be a pain in the butt.
posted by foxjacket at 11:49 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Splitting a check is no more a burden than refilling a water glass! A server should never act like this is a big deal. Most restaurants these days have a computerized point-of-sale system which makes it as simple as pressing a couple buttons. A lot of the places I've been to lately will split the check without being asked. Even at very old-fashioned places it takes less than a minute of mental math/scribbling. Totally within normal server duties.
posted by 100kb at 12:12 AM on January 22, 2012

By now it's probably easier to get your friend to give you the money. If they are a good friend I'm surprised they didn't offer to give you the money there and then when the mistake came to light. At that point you could have said "well, I was going to buy you a drink for your birthday so how about you just pay me $x?"

Chalk it up to experience and take comfort in the fact you (hopefully) didn't tip the waiter.
posted by mr_silver at 2:22 AM on January 22, 2012

To follow up on your latest comment....
I used to avoid asking for split bills or making any special requests about meals (dressing on the side, etc) because I thought it would be a pain for the staff. Then I worked in a restaurant and guess what? It's not a big deal, AT ALL- it takes like 20 seconds to re-run a credit card and even less effort to add "no sour cream" to an order. Ask for what you want, and as long as you're polite, no one will mind.
posted by emd3737 at 4:05 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go a little against the grain here and say that it sounds like you did a poor job of communicating, which means that you're at least a little responsible for the crappy service. (And yes, even so, you can and should say "sorry, this wasn't wanted, can you go do it again but do it [this way] instead". But, I totally understand your anxiety about that, so it's a million times better if you can get it right the first time.)

If you want separate checks then you should ask when you order the first thing (drinks). "Hi, can I get you started with some drinks?" "Sure, we're going to be on separate bills today, is that OK?... Great, I'd like ..."

Don't over explain. If you say too many things, people will forget things. In this case, pointing out the number of the card with less on it is way too much explanation. Instead, focus on the result that you want, and say that. "I'd like to pay with these gift cards, and can you merge them into one card, please?"
posted by anaelith at 5:13 AM on January 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

as I frequently eat out and splitting checks really stresses me out.

One way to make this less stressful in the future is to simply ask for separate checks right up front. This is easy -- so very easy -- for the waitstaff to do, and at chain restaurants it should be just the press of a button.

Right when you sit down, say that you need separate checks, which will keep your stuff on your bill and your friend's stuff on her bill.
posted by anastasiav at 5:19 AM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's important to ask for what you want, but I absolutely agree with anaelith that if you want to actually get what you want, it helps to ask for it in a way that reduces the possibility of mistakes or confusion. I've been in tons of restaurant situations where the parties have asked for separate checks (a request that is easily made at the start of ordering), but only a handful of situations where a single check was to be split among multiple cards (and there because of unusual circumstances, like paying part of the check with a "corporate" card that is not authorized for the purchase of alcohol).

Perhaps this is a generational difference, and "kids today" are accustomed to splitting a single check among multiple payment methods. But it does seem to be more prone to mistakenly charging the wrong amount to the wrong card, as happened here.
posted by drlith at 6:08 AM on January 22, 2012

It's not even that hard in a place with a POS cash system to split a large check among multiple cards. I think we are living in a holdover period where many people remember what a misery this was using more analog systems. But it is as easy today as using a touchscreen to assign particular dishes to each person, or using a calculator to assign a specific balance to each person. The hardest part of this process is you communicating what you need to have done.

If you start the meal by saying "we're going to split checks and I have these gift cards," they can let you know if there's going to be any issue with this due to having an old system or a weird gift card policy or something. Then they'll be prepared for it and know to leave a little extra time to handle your payment.

But it's still on you to be specific about what you want and to send them back to re-do if it isn't right. Again, with business cards it's a big issue - I'm often having servers take a separate payment for alcohol, or a guest, apart from my meal payment because my work policy may not cover these things. It's totally run of the mill, don't worry.

I agree assertiveness/self-esteem is the larger context for this problem. THat's also revealed in your not asking your friend to contribute to her meal - you just let yourself get cornered and acquiesce to something you had no intention to do. I'd work on that issue above and beyond worrying about the restaurant staff. Really - it's their job. They'll figure it out.
posted by Miko at 7:58 AM on January 22, 2012

In your follow-up post, you mentioned that splitting checks stresses you out. I agree! My solution is to pay my share with cash. I know it's not fashionable to carry cash based on how many people bust out the credit cards when the check comes, but seriously, always carrying cash will set you free from so many hassles. I make sure I have small bills even if that means buying gum on the way to the restaurant to break a $20 bill. If I am with one person who is using a credit card and we'll be splitting the check, I get verbal agreement on how much we are paying. I count out the cash on the table, put it in the little folder and when the waiter comes back, one of us tells us what is happening.

This is a simple process with most of my friends but I do have friends that are miserly tippers which is inexcusable AFAIC. If I figure out that they are not adding their share of the tip when they sign the credit card slip, I never go to a restaurant with them again. I will meet them at Chipotle or a buffet place or something like that but nowhere that a server depends on tips to make a living.
posted by Soda-Da at 1:17 PM on January 22, 2012

It's simple to void and re-run a transaction right away; it can be a big pain after the batch has been closed for the night. If it happens again, get it corrected right away. It's unacceptable to accidentally not split the bill when asked to do so.

The bit with the two gift cards is kind of asking for confusion, though, I wouldn't advise adding in that level of confusion.
posted by desuetude at 2:54 PM on January 22, 2012

Your silence was taken as approval. The time to correct it was when the error happened. Maybe you feel shy about correcting errors. If you assume that an error is a simple oversight, and correct it politely, it's totally appropriate. I'm sorry, but we asked to have one bill on the credit card. Could you please correct it?
posted by theora55 at 6:43 PM on January 22, 2012

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