Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Judgement call

Saturday night Sweet No and I had a lovely dinner at one of our favorite haunts with a couple of friends. The food was wonderful as always, the atmosphere is quite nice, the wait staff friendly and helpful. Normally I would give the place a plug because generally I am so very happy with them, but what follows might not be so nice.

First for any folks who aren't knowledgeable about German restaurant paying traditions, I will let you know how we go about these things. After the meal the diners must track down and sometimes almost tackle the waiter/waitress to ask them for the bill. If paying as one, then the bill is settled right at the table. The server will produce a printed receipt and the customer will state a figure they are willing to pay, usually rounding up to the next Euro to add a tip, or if there are several people, include a few extra Euro. Then the waitress says thank you for the tip and gives the appropriate amount of money back.

But if you are in a group with people paying separately, this is where it becomes interesting. The waitress comes to the table with a printed receipt and asks what the first payer had through the evening. As the customer declares their part of the bill, the waitress makes a tick mark, eventually adding up all the ticks for a grand total for that customer. Then they are charged, tip is exchanged, and move on to the next person at the table until finished.

Back to Saturday night. Our bill was to be split into two sections, one for our friends across the table, one for No and Snooker. As our friends paid first, this meant that we would normally just pay the leftovers, making it a simple matter of subtraction of the total minus what our friends had already paid.

When I suggested this instead of the tick situation, the waitress frowned and said this wasn't possible, that part of our order was not on this bill. It seems that she had brought the receipt yet the most expensive part was not on this bill. My meal, over 16 Euro, was not included. I gave the young lady a face which let her know I wasn't happy, and she asked with a puckered-up face if we really needed an official receipt. As No answered that wouldn't be necessary, I watched the cat's ass face turn back into a smile. Eventually it was all figured out, money paid and she went away.

Immediately after she left I asked if I had missed something in that conversation (she dealt with No, the conversation was mostly whispered in German -- and let's face it, I was at a disadvantage there) that explained WHY the most expensive thing on our bill didn't happen to be on the receipt. No one else had an answer either, just that the lady had said it was not on the bill and would need to be added.

Ahem, I worked retail for more years than I care to admit and this smells fishy. It was my job to pour through the receipts of the cashiers and try to figure out how they were stealing money. Lots of people got their walking papers because I was able to prove that they were using self-clipped coupons to get cash for themselves, or were playing scratch off lottery cards with no money on the HOPE that they would win and pay for the game... talk about gambling.

Another lovely little trick was for the cashier to take a common item with a simple price and just add it to the total they would request from the customer. Candy bars were a common tool for this ploy. The cashier would enter the items by hand, not including the candy bar. Once she had a total, she would add the cost of the last candy bar (say .75) to the sum of the customer's purchases. This way the customer was paying the correct amount of money and would not fuss. Then she would pocket that .75 for herself, causing the store a net loss of .75 cents. Done many times throughout the day, this would merit some nice pocket change and be attributed to shoplifting.

Of course this could also be done through the simple "no sale", where a customer would buy only the candy bar and hand a dollar to the cashier. The cashier would hit "no sale" which opens the register so that she could give a quarter back to the customer, then take out her three quarters. Skimming is probably the number one crime in retail outlets. But the smart ones didn't do this too much because the register makes note of every time the button is pushed. You would be surprised how many never understood that I could see what they were doing quite easily. This is why if you ask for change AFTER the sale at any Wal-Mart type place that they have to call a "key person" to come open the drawer.

Which leads me back to our Saturday night and 16 Euro which passed under the radar for the restaurant. The woman who brought our ticket was not the same young girl who waited on us all night, but instead was a slightly older and more experienced woman who I would consider a "head waitress" or something similar.

My questions are thus:
Did the head waitress do this on purpose?
If so, is she pocketing the money, or is the overhead going directly back into the business for some reason?
Why was the head waitress the one who came for our money? Why not the original waitress? Does the restaurant keep the tip money, or maybe split it themselves between waitstaff, bar tenders and clean up crew?
If they do split this money, do the staff actually get to see the correct amount of the money we give them?
Am I just being too suspicious?
Are years of doing this for a living having an impact on my bullshit-o-meter?

What do you think about it?
Anyone care to speculate?

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Yelli said...

Wish I would have read your post before while I was working retail! LOL! :)

This does sound fishy although I have to admit that I kept expecting this post to be about Berlin restaurants ripping off customers by adding tips to the bill or something else.

Anonymous said...

I always check receipts here. Shops often charge you more at the till than what is marked on the shelf, or they pull one of the tricks you described: adding on chocolate bars or other small items to your bill. That happened to me at an Aral gas station several years ago - he played dumb when I pointed it out - and I boycotted the chain for ages afterward.
I can't figure out what the waitress was trying to pull, but if you didn't get a receipt, then someone was cheated -either the restaurant, the finance office or you.
-ian in hamburg

G in Berlin said...

As someone who owned and managed restaurants for ten years: she either stole from the owner or if the owner was stealing from the tax authorities. There is no law, either here or in the US, giving the server the rights to the tip you are leaving, which is why I always give it into the server's hand.
Twice this has happened to me in Biergartens here and in each case we were overcharged. Once this happened up by A'platz- and I was overcharged, which amazed me as we were regulars. I always check receipts.
Don't let the individuals do it- there's nothing more hateful than an employee stealing from a small business owner, who often trusts them and treats them as family. Especially here in Germany where employees really are long term trusted associates. And it's obnoxious to steal from the tax authorities while those around you do the honest thing: it damages the atmosphere of voluntary compliance.

Jude said...

Sounds like some money got pocketed to me.

heather in europe said...

Dunno. I'd be inclined to say that something was off, but not necessarily that it was to cheat the business. Maybe the young girl messed up the bill tally and the head waitress didn't want to admit the mistake. Because if it was me, I'd pick a much smaller amount to pilfer than the largest meal on the bill as ultimately that would get noticed.

And let's face it, the tick method is as much to protect them as the customers. In a group of 10-15 paying over 200 euro, we wouldn't want to miss one cola! So I can imagine that your suggestion to not follow the tick method would have thrown her off.

But yeah, I'd be turned off enough not to go back again.

cliff1976 said...

I guess in that situation, I would tell a white lie and claim that I need the receipt for my own business trip reasons.

Then see if you get someone's scrawl on a scratch pad or something out of the computerized register, and let that be your guide whether to return or not.

PapaScott said...

I'm with Ian here, if food is sold that's not on the bill, someone is getting ripped off.

In the fast f..., er, I mean QSR industry, we see the same tricks too. And given the labor laws here in Germany, it's really hard to fire someone even if you can prove theft, you usually end up paying several months severance pay to avoid having to rehire the dishonest employee. Or you go to court and end up in the news for firing someone for stealing "just" a cheeseburger.

Goofball said...

my thought would be that not the waiter was stealing

but the restaurant is not declaring it's entire income to the tax authorities. That's what's a problem in Belgium so from this year onwards the horeca sector is required to install special types of cashmachines that the government can check (don't know how it works though).

In Belgium when a restaurant doesn't have an electronic voucher & they don't accept visa or electronic payments....you KNOW they are not declaring the income.

so I would have been quite suspicious but would have not put my suspicion on the girl itself, more on the entire restaurant.

but yes, she could be doing it herself too but the most expensive dish? wouldn't that go noticed???

davidly said...

I've never liked not feeling sure that my server would get the tip and I've never seen them take serious note of the amount of "Trinkgeld", especially when I pay at the register (in order to avoid the tackling you mentioned). But I do like that it easy to pay separately. This was always an issue in the states.

To the question:
They could have been pulling a Pope of Greenwich Village. But as you surmised, maybe they were cutting themselves a tax-break. That's a pretty chunk of change here, and pulling the most expensive item would add up to quite a savings for the restaurant.

Dave said...

I had a cashier at an outdoor stand where I worked who'd often do the candy bar trick. Never was very pleased about this kind of thing. I'll make sure this doesn't happen to me here in DE... "Yes, I do need the receipt, it's a business expense."

Lynda said...

Great post - in all my years here in Germany either living or visiting - can't say it has happened to me (or maybe I just never noticed). Certainly sounds fishy.

Best keep out a sharp eye from now on.