The Separate Checks Scenario

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - January 27, 2010
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Romano’s manager Damon Haverly

An e-mail from a reader last week inspired me to start a conversation with a number of seasoned professionals in the restaurant industry and left me with the impression that unless you’ve worked as a waiter or bartender, you’ll never really understand what goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant.

The question from our reader, who asked not to be identified, was about dining with a large group.

“We have a large group of friends who meet each weekend and go somewhere to eat,” he wrote. “Frequently, restaurants will balk or only reluctantly give separate checks to each couple. Our group, on some weekends, may be as large as 10 or 11 couples. We like to sit together at one table.”

The reader went on to say that he knows separate checks mean more work for the restaurant, but insisted that his large group of 20 or more really didn’t like working out their own checks.

I love this question on lots of levels. First, here’s a group of people out supporting restaurants regularly every week. It’s important that they’re happy and continue to do this, rather than deciding to potluck at each other’s homes in the future. Secondly, the question shows a basic understanding of the problem - the reader knows that it’s more work for the restaurant but still feels his needs come first.

Since separate checks are something of a nightmare for restaurant staff, I went to someone who’s been dealing with the issue for more than 20 years: Damon Haverly, manager at Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

He laughs when I ask about splitting the check.

“Oh, it’s a real nightmare,” he says, grinning. Well, at some places.

“The problem with large groups and separate checks,” says Haverly, “is that it leaves so much opportunity for something to go wrong. To ask a server at the end of the evening to begin totaling up separate orders invariably means a mistake.”

That bottle of wine you so carefully wanted to avoid paying your share on may end up on your tab; the extra platter of appetizers that you didn’t touch? That could be there, too.

“Then,” says Haverly, “the whole evening leaves a bad taste.”

There’s no doubt that there’s a real stigma associated with separate checks, from the collective groan on the industry side to annoyance on the part of paying customers. It does seem like a system that could work a little better. “The thing is,” says Haverly, “that a lot of servers just have a kind of fear of messing up - and when they hear split checks, it makes them nervous.”

Our reader points out that on a recent restaurant trip, the group persuaded the unwilling server to treat their large group as if they were 11 different tables. Technically it worked, but imagine the hassle for the server, who now has 11 tables plus the rest of his/her restaurant section.

“The problem is never in getting the food out on time or serving everyone,” says Haverly. “It’s always at the end when you’re trying to get change and credit cards for that many people.” And as the check takes longer to arrive, your evaluation of your dining experience diminishes, along with the size of your tip. So what should you do for a completely happy dining experience from beginning to end? Tell the server what you want as soon as you sit down.

“It’s just the easiest thing,” says Haverly. “Servers should be proactive and ask large groups about the check right away, and the party should be upfront about what they need. That way everything can be worked out in advance.”

What you also can do - and what I suggested to our reader and his group - is find out the restaurants that can easily accommodate your requests. Trust me, there are many restaurants more than happy to take large parties on short notice.

Like Macaroni Grill, where the computerized ordering process is so sophisticated servers can split an appetizer among 20 people, if you really need them to.

“We have a really attentive staff, and we have a great system,” says Haverly. “We really don’t have an area where we can’t accommodate needs.”

Happy eating!

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