A recent dining experience got me to thinking, do restaurants change their rules of engagement based on the type of patrons they have?  For example, if the spot is frequented by black folks so are we more likely to see things like automatic gratuity, dress codes and other rules that impact the dining experience? I am not reaching any conclusions with this post, primarily just sharing my experiences and those of my followers.  If anything my hope is that we can start paying attention to varying dining experiences and also be better diners where applicable.

The Dining Experience

So here is what started all of this.   On Saturday I brunched at Grace’s on Kirby for the first time.  I know. I know.  Someone is revoking my Houston Brunch card for not previously visiting.  For this visit, it was just my sister and I.  Upon arrival, I dropped her off at the door to get our name on the list and headed to park at the nearby garage.  As I walked to meet her, my sister called me and said “Erika is this a black owned restaurant?! Because EVERYBODY here is black!”  To be clear, this is not a bad thing at all and quite frankly I enjoy seeing people who look like me when I am dining.  It just surprised my sister considering that Grace’s is a restaurant owned by the Carabba’s family and also happens to be on Kirby, one of the most exclusive areas in Houston.

At some point in time though, black Houston decided that Grace’s was their spot for good food and drinks.  For the most part, it seems that Grace’s has embraced the demographic that keeps their brunch packed every weekend, but with a few adjustments.  There were a couple of things that I noticed, that I personally have only seen when a place is black owned and/or frequented by black patrons.  It got me wondering if there is a pattern here.

For starters, at Grace’s there is a time limit on tables of an hour and half.  Some feel that this is a bit of a slight to their brunch crowd, but considering Houston’s brunch culture, particularly the black brunch culture that likes to dine for hourssss while sipping mimosas, this does not bother me.  Restaurants have to turn over tables to make money.  Next up though were their mimosas, which came with a sticker price of $11/per glass or $36 for a carafe while using a $5 dollar bottle of champagne.  And finally, the thing that got me writing this post… the automatic gratuity.  Yes my friends, Grace’s like many other spots in Houston adds an 18% gratuity on all checks at least during their weekend brunch.  Considering my table just included two, I thought it was annoying.  Plus, 20% is my typical tip, but if you add it automatically you are getting whateverrrr you tacked on to my bill without my permission rather than what I would have typically paid.

Can they even do that?

Let me start with this, the IRS isn’t too big on automatic gratuities either. According to the IRS, automatic gratuities are not tips, but rather a service charge.  Some factors the IRS considers are the customers lack of choice and their inability to change the amount.  This also impacts the servers and business owners when it comes to taxes because it should be reported as wages, not tips.  Check out the IRS website for more information on that.  Knowing this legal distinction is part of my annoyance with automatic gratuities!  Also, many of my followers have noted when they asked for it to be removed, the waiter typically obliges so there is that.

Is there a difference?

Please do not see this as me picking on Grace’s or even arguing that their policies are racist.  I just wanted to unpack some of the patterns I have seen over time.   I ranted a bit about my visit to Grace’s and many of my black followers jumped in my inbox sharing similar experiences at other black owned and/or frequented establishments.   For many, particularly those in Houston, they felt as though restaurants and bars with majority black patrons seemed to add automatic gratuity under the assumption that black folks won’t tip.

There is a pretty popular stereotype that black people do not tip and it seems to be connected to some instances where automatic gratuity was applied.    Even some of my most enlightened, woke friends hearken back to their time as waiters in their early twenties and assure me that it is definitely true of black diners.  I for one have never subscribed to this thinking fully because as for me and my people (friends & family), we tip AND WELL.  In fact, my aunts have a thing for making us tip everybody and their mama when we are on trips.  We overtip if anything!

Whether you believe the stereotype to be actual/factual or not, as a black diner you are likely overcompensating or hyper aware of how things play out based on that stereotype.  For me, I’ve often assumed that my bad service was a result of the wait staff’s perception that I would not tip well because of my race.  More times than I can count, I have grit my teeth and still scribbled in a 20% tip on my receipt despite service that did not live up to that.   I know others who do the same, yet these stereotypes exist and people prefer to make assumptions.

Some of my black followers saw a pattern, but I thought it best to ask my non-black followers about their experiences.  Now, this is just my “unscientific polling” of my IG audience and should not be considered gospel.  Just varying opinions and experiences to consider. As I write this, over 70 people have responded to my question.  While there is not a clear consensus, many noted that pre-pandemic restaurants only added automatic gratuity with large parties of 6 or more and in touristy areas.   Again, this is not the experience of my black followers particularly those who frequent bars/clubs in Houston.

The Takeaway

I won’t draw any conclusions about automatic gratuity or when it is used, but I wanted to share what I learned via Instagram.  I will say however, I hope this discussion makes all of us be more cognizant of how we are treated while dining and how others who may not look like us are treated.   For those who do not identify as black, I hope this discussion also makes you aware of some of the experiences of black diners.

Please be sure to add your thoughts in the comment section.