Not too long ago, I came upon a tipping practice that landed in the front of the already overstuffed “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” file.
Located in the Riverwalk area of downtown Pueblo, Colorado, the Rio Bistro restaurant is a lovely, independently owned and operated gem surrounded by charm and history. Designed by the city to be a tourist destination hosting dining spots and boutique shopping, the Riverwalk area is also child- and dog-friendly, making it low-key enough to be appealing to locals, too. I would recommend the stroll along the walkways and bridges to anyone.
That said, finding myself out of town was surprise enough, but after a few days of boring chain food and overpriced airports, the Rio Bistro seemed like an oasis. It also didn’t hurt that I was ravenously hungry.
The restaurant appeared comfortably classy, with linen tablecloths and napkins. There was an expansive bar, evening specials neatly handwritten on a giant wall of chalkboard, and most telling, a few window tables with reservation signs. Based upon the smiles of the people already dining, I was grateful it wouldn’t be another big-box evening.
As expected, the service was excellent. The middle-aged bartender, who I later found out was the proprietor, greeted each table. “My wife lets me work here,” he jokingly said while topping off my perfectly shaken Cosmo. Our server made recommendations when she brought bread, and I settled on the $22 prime rib special, complete with locally creative sides and a signature dinner salad.
Excusing myself, I went to the ladies room (as much to check out the decor as a physical necessity), and stopped at a bulletin board posted next to what must have been an office in the tiny hallway. It had all the necessary legal and safety requirements, and I smiled at the compliance. “This place is on the up and up,” I thought.
Then I saw the sign next to a glowing customer letter and below something about the Heimlich maneuver.
“The Rio Bistro takes 3% of all credit card tips to cover credit card processing fees.”
I lost my appetite on the spot.
Three percent? Nothing was discreetly posted on the menu indicating the policy. Had I not been nosy, our competent server’s credit card tip would have been pirated. Instead, I left cash.
Why wasn’t there a warning for guests stating something like, “In order to keep our overhead low, cash is the required form of payment. Please ask your server for the convenient location of an ATM.” A few wonderful places in Boston’s North End follow this practice and “cash only” becomes part of the charm. Folks on business can still obtain a receipt for reimbursement, and hopefully the quality of the experience offsets the inconvenience, and lack of credit card points or air miles.
The owner, now chatting with diners at the bar, started looking villainous to me. Credit card processing fees are a cost of doing business, and my hope was that all servers were family, somehow making it less insidious. Finding out that wasn’t the case, I wondered what kind of agreement offsets 3 percent of each credit card tip when credit cards aren’t discouraged. A free meal? Shift drinks? Paid vacation? Somehow though, I doubt those are options.
Whenever I write about something like this, readers remind me that people have choices and could work elsewhere. And of course, they’re right. As for my medium rare prime rib dinner? It was perfect, as anticipated, but I left the Rio Bistro restaurant with my heart as heavy as the virtual “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” file, and a bad taste in my mouth.
Q: Where do you recommend we take my 96-year-old grandmother for Mother’s Day? — Mark B., Freeport.
A: Don’t drag her out to an overcrowded restaurant, or to a brunch she’ll have trouble maneuvering. How about an early dinner instead? As for everybody else, word on the street is Binga’s Stadium in Portland is treating mom to her meal on Mother’s Day, and dad to a freebie on his big day. Sounds fun to me.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to email@example.com, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.