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Restaurant provides media a comped meal...


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I'm looking forward to thoughts about the "freelance restaurant critiquing" post that's current on this board, and have a somewhat related question.

When comped a restaurant meal by a PR firm, is it standard practice that the firm is covering everything including the tip? Last thing I'd want to do is not reward the server (and others) for their service, so please excuse the naivete and help me get this right. I actually asked at one place and the restaurant said "we actually pay for the meal, and we'll take care of the server as well," but I left with an uncomfortable feeling that maybe the server wouldn't get tipped.

Anyone with experience on this? I want to do the right thing! (Yes, I know, the right thing for some means not accepting a comped meal, but let's just run with the comped meal part for now!)

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Okay, first things first: PR firms don't comp meals. Restaurants comp meals. PR firms just broker the comps by inviting journalists on behalf of restaurants.

Second, there are a few variants of invitation you might get. For example, it could be pre-opening, it could be a dinner with the owner or publicist and several other members of the press, it could be that you're invited in to do some sort of seasonal menu preview, or it could be a straight comp where you go in and do everything like a normal customer except you don't pay.

Third, every restaurant is different. Most union restaurants, hotel restaurants and restaurants that are part of big groups have, in my experience, a policy of "tipping out" their servers on comps. In other words, they print up a bill for the $150 or whatever that your meal would have cost, and the restaurant pays a percentage (16% or so from what I've heard) into the tip pool. Then the check is zeroed out as a comp. Most single-establishment restaurants, I've found, don't tip out their servers.

Fourth, I ask. Specifically, I ask the server. "Is the restaurant taking care of you?" I'm pretty sure most of the time I get an honest answer. If not, too bad. Life is too short to worry about it.

So taking that all into account here are a few scenarios and what I'd do:

- Special events like pre-opening and formal press dinners: no tip

- Restaurants where servers tell me they're being taken care of: a token gratuity like $20

- Restaurants where servers tell me they're not being taken care of: I leave a tip but the amount depends on the nature of the meal. There's one restaurant where I've been comped a couple of meals that would have cost easily in excess of $1,000 when taking the wine into account. As much as I'd like to tip $200 on a comped $1,000 meal, I'm just not that flush with cash -- my annual income is most likely lower than that of the servers in restaurants that serve meals at that level. So I max out at leaving a $100 bill on the table when the meal is a $500+ affair. Below that, I usually leave about 15-20% of what I thought the meal might have cost, though of course it's not always so easy to come to an exact conclusion. Ultimately, I feel that if you have the resources to be generous in this situation you should be generous, but I don't think you have a moral obligation to do so.

I've discussed this issue with a few publicists, servers and restaurateurs over the years, and this is the best I've come up with.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Steven, thanks for the thorough and thoughtful reply. Very helpful, and I really appreciate it!

...I've discussed this issue with a few publicists, servers and restaurateurs over the years, and this is the best I've come up with.

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Fat Guy's right on here, and I agree that it's better to err on the side of generosity.

I talked with the owner of a PR firm that sends me the occasional press meal freebie a couple of months ago, as we beheld the ugly hordes of free food press stream from the restaurant after dessert with not only no tip, but no "Thanks, Chef," no "Thanks, PR Lady," but lots of filet and charcuterie in carry out boxes.

I talked to the PR Lady about tipping, because we'd pulled out thirty bucks to leave for the (excellent) servers. She told us that a few years ago, when extending invitations, she suggested politely that the invitees leave at least a small tip.

"I got hate mail! People told me that they were shocked, shocked and offended at being asked to leave a tip, and that they'd not attend my events if they had to." (The food media are not, I've discovered , a pretty bunch.) She never mentioned it again. We left our tip.

At another event we did as Fat Guy suggests and asked the server what the arrangement was. She said that the rest of the floor staff had offered to share their tips with the press waiters that night. As it was a quiet Tuesday night, all that was going to happen was shared sacrifice, which was unfair to everyone.

So again, we left our thirty dollars. And, again, we were the only guests to do so. Shameful.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel


A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites


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What an interesting thread. My husband + i have a small food + beverage PR firm and i can share some of our experiences in this area. First of all -- Fat Guy and Maggiethecat are dead on: it's always a right move to be generous, and your generosity (believe me) will stand out and be appreciated ... since in our experience very few guests who come to media dinners leave tips -- or even offer to. That $20 or $30 under the glass (or pressed into a server's hand) is a welcome and authentic gesture.

That being said, as an agency, we write into our client contracts that when we bring f+b media to the restaurant (or when we arrange for media to come as a result of a story pitch or personal/professional reaching out), the restaurant is responsible for paying their gratuities. I don't know what other agencies do, but that's our policy. When we bring or send media guests to a client, the last thing we want to feel is that the server or captain (who may not understand exactly what we do and how it gets done) thinks, damn, here come those freeloaders again ... and service reflects that attitude.

After many meals over the years with the same media folk, they have come to know how we do business and are appreciative of it. Even when we say, not to worry, the servers will be taken care of ... some still reach into their pocket, which we notice and thank them for. Hey, there are times when we reach into our own pockets because the service has been so exemplary, it's made a deep impression on us ... and on our guests.

Bottom line, talk to the person who is setting up your dinner -- whether it's an in-house PR/marketing person, an outside agency, whatever. Ask them what's protocol, and then take them at their word.

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Thanks for the ongoing replies. When first posting the message, I was initially thinking of dinners comped to just me and a guest - not the group media event.

I'm learning that when in doubt, it's best to ask: Both the firm setting up the meal, and the server providing it. And as mentioned originally I've asked the restaurant owner, and I'd like to think I should be able to take that person at his/her word; that said, I agree it's best to tend toward generosity.

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