1 Paying the Unpaid Tab | The Billfold

Paying the Unpaid Tab

An unfortunate thing occurred this weekend at one of the birthday parties I attended: After everyone had finished having a good time and drifted off home, or to another spot in the city, our waitress approached me and my birthday pal just as we were heading out the door.

“I’m sorry to have to do this, but there are still a few drinks that haven’t been paid for,” she said. She paused, waiting for our reaction, which was resigned.

“How many drinks?” we asked.

“Just two,” she said. “I’m sorry, he was paying in cash, and he left before I could give him his check.”

If we wished, we could have argued that it was the waitress’s responsibility to get a customer who doesn’t have a tab open under a credit card to give her cash when he’s handed his drink, because it becomes more likely that a customer will forget to pay his bill as he consumes more alcohol. But we’re not jerks, so we paid the tab. At least, I tried to pay the tab, but my birthday friend refused to let me: “Please, don’t. It’s my party.”

On my way home, I thought about what might have occurred if the waitress had discovered that there was an unpaid bill after we had already left the bar. Basically, what do businesses do when people “dine and dash?”

Apparently, some waiters and waitresses are asked to pay the tabs themselves. According to a Cleveland news agency, it’s actually illegal to require the waitstaff to pay bills that customers walk out on, but as with a lot of illegal things, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen anyway. And it’s better to let customers run off, than chase after them:

Last year, a waitress in Columbus was paralyzed when she chased an escaping customer and he struck her with his car. In 2003, a waitress in Irving, Texas, ran out to get the license plate of a group leaving without paying a $100 tab. She died after their car hit her. The driver was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Yikes. Anyway, if you are going to a party, do your friends a favor and make sure you bills are squared away before you take off.


Photo: Shutterstock/Jim Barber


43 Comments / Post A Comment

Genghis Khat (#584)

Ugh, your friend is a villain. People duck out on their fair share of checks too often for me to extend any benefit of the doubt and think it’s a mistake.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Genghis Khat It was someone I didn’t know, but a friend of my birthday pal. I was still willing to pay it though, because: What a terrible way to end your birthday party!

Genghis Khat (#584)

@Mike Dang My 24th birthday party ended with me paying about $100 for friends who left without paying. I was a grad student at the time. A really, really pissed off grad student.

@Genghis Khat Ugh the stresses of bar tabs. This happened to me just the other weekend! I went in on a pitcher with one other person and who knows who else (note to self: never go in on a pitcher with people you don’t know very well? i guess?) and the other person paid his bill and was on the verge of leaving before I stopped him to ask where the pitcher was being paid for. his response: “uhhh… I don’t know …” Helpful. So I added it to my bill and he was all, I’ll pay for the next pitcher, and THEN left early the next game and didn’t come to the bar after.

at first I gave him the benefit of the doubt but in retrospect i agree with you. not a mistake. not cool.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Genghis Khat There is no villain in a story where you don’t both dine-and-dash AND hit the waitperson with your car afterward. Jesus.

nonvolleyball (#305)

@Genghis Khat same thing happened at my 21st birthday extravaganza (attended by recently acquired friends from my study-abroad program who I basically never hung out with again, & who apparently all thought throwing in a $10 for their $9 drinks would be fine). my poor grad-student boyfriend spent an extra $100 to cover everything so I wouldn’t have to deal with it; I only found out the next morning. still pisses me off nearly a decade later.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Genghis Khat And they’re still alive?

Genghis Khat (#584)

@MuffyStJohn I recouped maybe forty in guilt money the next day.

Our House (#1,654)

@Genghis Khat This happened to a friend of mine at her Masters defense party. Except it was her advisor and a committee member who left without paying! I’m not even sure they apologized later…

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Our House Holy hell, this story just reminded me of the time my former boss invited the whole team out for drinks/appetizers at this really expensive restaurant to celebrate a publication we’d put together. She left after most other folks had gone home, but before the bill had been presented, sticking one of her underlings with a several hundred dollar tab. Right before Christmas. To the best of my knowledge no apology or restitution was ever made.

@MuffyStJohn Wh.AT. that is unbelievable! WHAT THE BULLSHIT!

I, you know, would literally not have been able to pay that.

liznieve (#37)

@Genghis Khat
OMG. I would expense that shit so hard, even if expensing wasn’t a Thing the company did. Just a massive receipt and a “report” typed up in Word.

Our House (#1,654)

@MuffyStJohn Woah. That is outrageous. My friend (well, those of us who were paying for her, of course) only had to pay for one or two beers. It was more the principle of the thing! But to skip out on an expensive bill at a place you invited employees to!?

gna207 (#988)

Ugh exactly! This is just a generally miserable situation for all involved. And the etiquette in this case is especially fuzzy because you never want the birthday person to pay. That said, I guess if it is his guest, it’s essentially his responsibility. But offering is the right thing to do, but definitely a frustrating situation to be put in unexpectedly.

I once accidentally didn’t pay for a coffee at this cafe because they had changed their ordering system to table service instead of ordering at the counter and snagging a table. My friend met up with me, and had ordered at the counter, after we stayed for about two hours, we just left and I totally didn’t realize until a good half hour later that I never paid. I felt crappy, as it was an unfortunate double snub because of a tip for the waiter, but I tell myself Karma-wise, one coffee isn’t like a dine and dash.

I definitely think the payer can tell a buddy if one doesn’t pay his fair share; you just have to be sensitive about it- and avoid channeling your inner Larry David.

This sounds like an elaborate ploy for this nondescript bar waitress to line her pocket a bit! A big group, staggered exits. Pair that with the obvious good-natured attitude of your birthday pal who would never ever mention it to the alleged dine&dasher friend. I mean, that would just be rude…
Too cynical?

sally (#917)

@Stephanie Sguigna@facebook I doubt it, given the possibility that the wrongly dunned nice guy might make contact, even indirectly, with the wrongly accused deadbeat and come back wIth documentation and get her fired.

@Stephanie Sguigna@facebook Yes, do let’s immediately impugn the honesty of the service staff.

cherrispryte (#19)

@Stephanie Sguigna@facebook Yeah no this idea of yours is bullshit.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

That was nice of you and your friend, but as a former bartender, I feel like this waitress should have comped the two drinks. Two (2). Drinks. And a birthday!

@aeroaeroaero Or she could just “forget” those drinks. Kind of places I go, it tends to happen to me 4 or 5 times a night. It’s not like she’s going to get a big tip out of it.

liznieve (#37)

Depends though… as also a former waitress, if the managers are really assholes, they will make you pay for those drinks. Even if it’s illegal / you threaten to report them to the Department of Labor. Sigh. I do not miss those days.

bibliostitute (#285)

@stuffisthings yeah this doesn’t work at all bars/restaurants with boozohol. at the restaurant i worked in, and at the bars i hang out in, drinks have to be “comped” to the bartender before they can be released to the floor. which means that there’s already someone needing to be paid before the drink ever leaves the bar, and it’s in the system.

DickensianCat (#971)

Uggh, this is also a common issue with large karaoke parties and why I hate them. Inevitably a few people leave before the rest of the group and either don’t leave enough $ or argue that because they didn’t sing or order drinks they shouldn’t have to pay anything. Not true!

Harriet Welch (#127)

@DickensianCat Whoah! What is the etiquette here? I feel like I might be one of these people. My friends and I go to karaoke quite frequently and there have been times where I either wasn’t drinking, or didn’t have money to drink. I came, I sat, I laughed. I didn’t drink, ask or accept anything from a bartender or waiter and it wasn’t like I was taking up valuable space and costing them tips (Usually at a table with a big group of people who are drinking and tipping well).
What should I do? I don’t know what I could POSSIBLY have to pay for if I can’t even be given a bill? HELP! I don’t want to be inadvertently being a jerk.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@Harriet Welch I wonder if they mean private room karaoke, where you pay a per-person fee. I was so nervous when a friend brought all these randoms briefly into a karaoke party I was throwing! What if they did a head-count right when they were all there??? It all worked out fine.

Harriet Welch (#127)

@Lily Rowan Ahhhhhh that makes MUCH more sense. Ummm, we don’t have those here, so it was not the scenario I was thinking of. Mostly we have semi-ironic hipster karaoke where cute boys with beards sing Tupac or N’Sync. Everyone smokes clove cigarettes and drink 2-4-1 PBR tallboys.

DickensianCat (#971)

@Harriet Welch Oh, sorry, replying way too late to give some clarification: I live in NYC, and the karaoke my friends and I go to is almost always the private rooms varrying in size and rates depending on the number in your party and whether it’s a weeknight or weekend–definitely does’t apply to bars that choose to have a karaoke night.

Going with a handful of close friends to a private room is fine, but sometimes a larger room is booked for a birthday party, and it has been my experience that the bigger the party, the firmer you have to be beforehand by explicitly stating on the invite, “here is the rate and here is what you must chip in if you’d like to come even if you aren’t singing or drinking.” The bigger rooms get pretty expensive on weekends.

It definitely sucks for those who just want to pop in for a little bit and hang out without singing, and that’s why I dislike it.

Harriet Welch (#127)

That would completely suck. I am totally uninitiated in most everything dealing with NYC and most other big cities. I have lived in and visited tons of them, but I am always poor so I hang out in slummy places or friends house. Normal, respectable, adult things like pay-per-head karaoke are basically alien to me.
Thanks for enlightening me and, I think, confirming that I am not an inadvertent jerk.

Harriet Welch (#127)

They should have just comped the drinks. NBD. Maybe it’s a bigger deal elsewhere, but here it would be a total of about $5. In my mind, the total amount of money brought in by the birthday boy via his posse would have been much more than the cost of drinks. This is a small town, the businesses would shy away from discouraging the birthday boy from coming back with another posse. The waitress would probably get chastised for not getting a card, but that’s her fault.

PS-the way they completely screwed me at Olive Garden when people walked out (Including the ASSHOLE that owned the fucking shopping plaza that the restaurant was in) was keep a record of how much money you “owed” the restaurant. Based on the orders you put in and the cash/charge slips you had. If you’re short you are basically forced to take it out of your tips.

acid burn (#113)

@Harriet Welch Somebody in the comments of the weekend post said that martinis in NYC are TWENTY DOLLARS. Which is insane to me, but also where do you live where you can get two drinks for $5, because I thought my town was cheap at around $4 for wells and $7-10 for fancier things?

Harriet Welch (#127)

@acid burn
Still, if the birthday boy brought 10 other people that bought 2 martinis they more than made their loss back. The writer and his friend were obviously quite gracious, but it still probably put a sour taste in their mouth to be come after for someone else’s bill and may not be inclined to come back with their 10 friends to buy $20 martinis.

I live in Gainesville, Florida. It is that happiest place on earth. $1.25 wells during happy hour at my favorite college dive, after that they go up to $2. The pool hall that is semi-fancy (no holes in the felt, can’t smoke inside) has $2 wells. There are places that are more like $4 wells and $7-$10 fancier things.

There is a swanky martini bar that has a bunch of different kinds of martinis, but they are between $8 and $10. I went there once. I didn’t like it.

@Harriet Welch Yay Gainesville!

I’m astonished at how quickly after moving to DC I decided that $6 for a decent beer and $12 for a decent cocktail were acceptable prices to pay for drinks.

Harriet Welch (#127)

@stuffisthings UGH TOO MUCH! I just went to Philly and it was like a punch in my poor-person/cheapskate gut every time I saw a drink price.

Are you “Yay Gainesville!” because of it’s obvious awesomeness? Or did you live there at one time?

@Harriet Welch I went to the University of Florida for undergrad. I remember when I’d make, like, $600 in a month and somehow be able to go out every single night. Good old days…

ETA: I’m talking about the early 2000s, by the way, not like the 1960s or something.

Harriet Welch (#127)

AWESOME! That is totally reasonable! When I was a mall jockey I made $800 a month and I lived alone, ate like a king and went out all of the time. My affinity for dive bars (Salty Dog!Silver Q! Market St!Boca/Palomino!)helps with the cheapness.
Even now, we live in 1300 square foot, three bedroom house for $650! I have lived all over the country, but growing up in Gainesville basically ruined me for anywhere else.

@stuffisthings I moved to DC from New York about two years ago. The last time I was visiting friends in Brooklyn, I had the shocking realization that everything…the drinks, the sandwiches, the Williamsburg brunch…seemed surprisingly cheap. That is when I realized what DC had done to my cost-of-living standards. Something here has gone horribly wrong.

ThatJenn (#916)

Oh man, I feel super-fortunate. In college I used to coordinate long Wednesday evenings at a favorite bar where I’d stay for 6+ hours and people would drift in and out, adding to the tab and leaving cash, and we always had MORE money than we needed at the end (we always left the extra as tips, so the waitress there came to love us and, when I told her the last one was my going-away party, bought us unlimited fries and onion rings, which I’m pretty sure we more than paid for because that night we had like $50 extra).

OllyOlly (#669)

I waitressed back in high school for a beer and burrito place. I never had someone not pay the tab, but one time the last few of a large birthday party told me a few people walked out and they didn’t have enough cash to give me a full tip. They then said they would come back after making their friends pay up the next day at work (tranferring the damage of if they wouldn’t to me, which kind of sucked). Lo and behold a few days later an envelope of cash equal to a very generous tip was waiting for me.

Also I didn’t have the power to comp anything on my own, so depending on the sitatuion (meaning if she had the same a-hole manager I had) she might not have been allowed to comp them.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

The lesson, as always, is to drink at home.

Megano! (#124)

I worked at this grocery store that was notorious for employee stealing, and people kept stealing from my till because they did not show me how to lock it properly when I was on break. And I had to pay it back.
So yeah, definitely just stopped going to that one. It also did not help I was having a rough summer personally.

cherrispryte (#19)

I’ve been on both sides of this – I tend to be one of the last people leaving happy hours (mostly because i work later than most of my coworkers and show up late!) and while there have been a good number of times when people overpay when they leave before the bill arrives, I’ve also gotten screwed a few times as well, and wind up paying for more drinks than the ones I drank.

That said, maybe its because I’ve been dating a bartender for forever and feel a sense of responsibility, but don’t the last people leaving usually make sure the table’s check is all squared away, and the server is properly tipped? I mean, if its a birthday party, this shouldn’t be the birthday person’s responsibility, but it should be, oh, someone’s.

I’ve gotten stuck with someone else’s tab often enough that if I see certain people in the party I drink one beer paid with cash and get out before the tab. Some people are just rotten (I’m looking at YOU, person who never paid and even showed up at my sit down dinner party with a hungry entourage).

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