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Foreign policy: When is it appropriate to drop the check?

check table

Question:

I received a comment card from a guest that it was rude to drop the check before he asked for it. I suspect it was from a couple from Europe. Is the burden on him to adapt to how we do things (our SOP is to ask if there will be anything else and drop the check right after we see the guests finished dessert or immediately if they don’t want dessert or coffee and it has never been a problem) or on us in this case?

– Fine Dining General Manager, Philadelphia, PA

Answer:

As usual with these kinds of questions (tipping is another one), the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, for international travelers, there can be an expectation that they learn local restaurant customs such as tipping in the US or expecting the check to be delivered promptly at the end of the meal. On the other hand, your restaurant, like it or not, has an educational role to play and your ultimate obligation is to a positive guest experience.

In much of the world, Europe and East Asia in particular, it is customary for the guest to ask for the check at the end of the meal as an indication that then and only then is she or he ready to leave. For a server to present the check early is an insult equivalent to saying, “Your time is up, please leave if you don’t want to buy anything else,” which may in fact be exactly what you mean! I have heard this concern from US diners as well, however.

Without overhauling the way you do business, the solution may be as simple as better communication and warmer hospitality. Do servers brusquely place the check without thinking? Can they explain that guests should take as long as they like at the table but the check is here when they are ready? I would advise against customizing the experience for the international travelers, which may backfire by being unintentionally offensive in your profiling. Ultimately, you need to do your thing, but it may be able to be done in a warmer, instructive manner.

One final suggestion is to get a sense of whether this is more than an isolated concern. Ask to have a frank conversation with a couple of your guests, both locals and visitors, indicating that you received that complaint and asking for their opinion. If other guests agree, you may want to look at revising those standard operating procedures. I suspect in this case, though, it was a cranky guest who needed to adjust expectations to the local culture.

More on dining etiquette here.

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