The server drops off your bill after you treat yourself to a big restaurant dinner. You pat your pockets for your wallet, mentally calculating the tip in your head — but you’re still patting your pockets. And you’re coming up empty. You don’t have your wallet. What now?
Your mind races with the possibilities for what really happens if you can’t pay your restaurant bill: Are you put to work as a dishwasher, as many sitcoms would leave you to believe? Will you receive a lifetime ban from the establishment? Or worst of all — is your server left fronting the bill on your behalf? (As a former waitress, my experience is that your bill eating a chunk of your server’s earnings is usually the worst case scenario.)
To separate fact from fiction, I interviewed the owner of one of my favourite restaurants, BBC Tavern and Grill in Wilmington, Del. Full disclosure: The owner of this restaurant is both my former employer and my current biological father, David Dietz. Going forward, I’ll refer to him as “Dietz,” creating a sense of journalistic detachment that I’m sure is healthy for our father-daughter relationship. Anyway, here’s what it really looks like if you find yourself unable to pay your restaurant bill.
From the restaurant perspective
First off, Dietz tells me that a true dine-and-dash is not all that common, with his establishment seeing about four or five every year. What’s more, the classic “dine-and-dash” is more often a misunderstanding than it is malicious. Especially in a large, busy restaurant, the server might forget to drop the bill, or the customers might walk out as an honest mistake.
Whatever the circumstances, most restaurants budget the occasional unpaid bill into their bottom line. Hopefully, your bill is not astronomical and the restaurant is responsible enough to “comp” it without hurting the server. On that note…
From the server perspective
Whether you made an honest mistake or intentionally dined and dashed, the money for the bill has to be covered somehow, right? Did you force a server to pay for your negligence? It depends on the establishment.
Dietz tells me that in Delaware and many other states, there are laws forbidding employers from deducting the cash lost in a dine-and-dash from employees’ paychecks. However, USA Today reports that under U.S. federal wage-and-hour law, “a restaurant can require an employee to pay the loss from the dine-and-dash if it does not cause the employee’s wages to dip below the federal minimum wage.”
Even if your server doesn’t have to pay for your food costs, you will have robbed them of their tip, which is the primary way they get paid.
From the customer perspective
Of course, neglecting to pay your bill is morally wrong. It’s also illegal. However, Dietz says that anecdotally, it’s unlikely a restaurant will press charges (especially since that would involve tracking you down with virtually no identifiers). On the off chance that a restaurant chooses to take legal action, the ramifications range from petty theft to a felony, depending on the bill amount and state-by-state laws.
No matter what, your face will be burned into your server or bartender’s memory. Dietz says that BBC Tavern and Grill, like many restaurants, have a cork board in the back with names and descriptions of people who have walked out on their bill. If you hope to return, you better be ready to pay up.
So, can you ever be forced to wash dishes?
Dietz says that no business in their right mind would invite an untrained customer into a dangerous dishwashing station. The liability risks of someone getting hurt washing knives and heavy plates is far more costly than one dinner bill.
Even if a restaurant manager wants to put you to work for your crimes, they’re not allowed. Per the FDA, if you aren’t necessary to the food establishment (as an employee or contractor of some kind), you’re “not allowed in the food preparation, storage, or warewashing areas.” So if you want to wield that powerful restaurant-grade dishwasher hose, you’d be better off getting hired to do the job through official channels.
Be honest and find other ways to pay
A lost wallet is no excuse to not pay. If you have your phone, you have access to payment. I’m positive your server doesn’t want to be tipped in crypto, but in many places, money transfer apps like Venmo should be fair game. Make sure the server gets their manager involved, so that they don’t face issues trying to cash out at the end of their shift.
If your wallet is in your car and you need to leave and come back, you could offer your phone as collateral. If your wallet or credit cards are at home, you could offer to pay over the phone later that night — but don’t expect every restaurant to take you at your word. This brings me to my last point.
Be honest about your situation, directly ask the restaurant manager what the best solution is, and then work with whatever they say. Resolving an unpaid bill will be a lot easier if everyone is honest and polite. And if you’re a true dine-and-dasher? I hope you pay for your crimes one day.
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