The Pastor, the Waitress and the Tip That Wasn’t

It was the social media scandal of the week, racing around the internet in less time than it takes to microwave a burrito. A waitress at Applebee’s got stiffed on her gratuity by a large group of customers, and another waitress at said Applebee’s took to the internet to vent about it. Unfortunately for the servers of America, such indecencies happen all the time, and if the story were only that, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

But it wasn’t only that. Because the waitress (Chelsea) didn’t just go vent on Twitter about her colleague being cheated, she posted a picture of the receipt to the atheism forum on Reddit. The whole receipt, including the signature of the non-tipper. And why the atheism forum, you ask? Because the non-tipper took the time add “pastor” above their signature, cross out the amount of tip automatically added to the bill (this was one of ten separate checks in a large party) and write “0” along with the cheerful homily of:

I Give God 10% Why do you Get 18 [sic]

Soon, the thread was so popular that it was picked up by Consumerist, a blog devoted to consumer rights and fixing corporate outrages. Meanwhile, the good people of Reddit got to work, trying to decipher the signature of the non-tipper and dispense karmic justice. The waitress realized she’d made a mistake in not redacting the signature of the non-tipper (as she thought it was illegible), and tried to have the picture taken down, but Reddit users were already guessing the name and location of the pastor, and soon had it all figured out.

Whatever you do, don't do this.

Whatever you do, don’t do this.

Once identified, the pastor, Alois Bell of St. Louis’ Truth in the Word Deliverance Ministries church, did what she felt was the Godly thing: she called Applebee’s to complain and demanded that not only the waitress but the management of the whole restaurant be fired. Applebee’s did sack Chelsea for violating a vaguely written corporate policy and the usual apologies were issued, from the ex-waitress for posting the full receipt, Applebee’s for violating Ms. Bell’s privacy and Ms. Bell for the snide note (though not for the lack of tip, which she claims she left in cash.)

All of this happened within two days.

Rather than turn this into a rant against bad tippers and hypocritical pastors, both of which are surely deserved, though not quite Skeptoid material, I feel like there are some larger questions that can be asked in the aftermath of the incident. Wide-ranging issues related to privacy, the role of social media and the inflexibility of corporate culture are all worthy of critical examination here. Also, bad tippers and hypocritical pastors.

Was the pastor wrong for trying to get out of paying the tip?
Undoubtedly. While a gratuity is technically optional (though deserved and needed) in most cases, she was part of a party of ten, and most restaurants have a stated policy of automatically adding a gratuity onto a bill for a group that large, usually 15-20%. Ms. Bell’s group were regulars at the Applebee’s in question and surely would have known about their policy. By dining at the restaurant, her group implicitly entered into an agreement to pay their bill plus an additional 18%. Trying to get out of paying that is not only a violation of that agreement, but stealing – thumbing her nose at Exodus 20:15 in the process. While she had every right to complain after the receipt was posted online, I fail to see the Godliness in demanding an entire restaurant staff be fired for the actions of one.

Was the waitress wrong for posting the receipt on Reddit?
I believe so, but the mistake could easily have been avoided by redacting the signature. If she had, the matter would have remained anonymous and no harm done. Clearly, it wasn’t her place to put a customer’s name out into the ether, no matter how bad their behavior was. And I understand the importance of privacy, even for those who do the wrong thing. But I also believe that people get what they deserve, and I’m not unhappy that Ms. Bell was named and shamed as a hypocrite.

Was Applebee’s wrong for firing the employee?
This is a tricky one. Applebee’s certainly was within their rights to fire Chelsea, as she was an at-will employee. And a corporation that doesn’t defend the rights of its customers won’t stay open for very long. But should they have? When is it proper for a company to defend an employee against reprehensible behavior by a customer? Might that not earn them goodwill from far more people than would be offended by them not doing so? Does anyone even do that anymore? In my opinion, Applebee’s certainly COULD have fired Chelsea, but was wrong to do so. They knuckled under to the demands of a customer trying to steal from them. And they’re now facing a tremendous backlash on social media because of it.

Should Ms. Bell had an expectation of privacy that her “snide comment” wouldn’t have been put on the internet?
I’m not sure about this. Yes, I’d be appalled if an employee at a restaurant I ate at posted my name online, and probably would complain loudly to anyone who did that. On the other hand, the ubiquity of social media makes it harder and harder to keep bad behavior under wraps, whether it’s a bully getting their comeuppance or a politician saying something idiotic and offensive and being called out on it. While I can understand Ms. Bell’s upset over her name and occupation being revealed for the world to see, it’s hard to feel like she didn’t deserve it in some way. And should bad behavior like this be kept hidden at all? Maybe the next person to contemplate stiffing a waitress will think twice, realizing they could end up as an internet celebrity for a few days because of it. But should fear of public ridicule be part of the dining experience, especially if a server DOES give bad service, and you don’t tip well because of it? This has some pretty serious potential consequences, so it’s worthy of further discussion.

Is the entire tipping system in the United States an anachronism? And why is something that’s technically optional seen as a requirement?
Tipping etiquette varies wildly by country, with some countries having a robust tipping culture, and others where it’s seen as offensive to leave extra money on a table. Regardless, the expectation in the US is that exceptional service is rewarded handsomely, and virtually any service beyond “I got your order wrong and spat in your food and punched your mother” will get 15%. Restaurant staff, who usually make below minimum wage, depend on the financial generosity of their clientele, and to not tip well (or at all) for decent service makes you look like a jerk, even if the service was less than perfect. And as I said earlier, trying to not pay an automatic gratuity is more than boorish, it’s stealing.

So in this situation we have a series of wrongs, which don’t add up to anything close to a right. But they do give us food for thought. When presented with a situation where there are numerous parties, all of whom claimed to be the injured one, it’s important to approach the matter both critically and skeptically. It would be easy to write this off as a big company taking the side of a rude customer over a hapless employee, but there are multiple facets to the story. Asking and answering these questions helps us navigate a social world of increasing risk and complexity, and doing it humanely.

Also, don’t stiff your waitstaff. It’s just rude.

About Mike Rothschild

Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads. He's also a playwright and screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.
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28 Responses to The Pastor, the Waitress and the Tip That Wasn’t

  1. gymgoki says:

    My wife was a waitress for several years. She will not let me tip for crappy service. My guess it was for that reason she was stiffed.
    She published the name on purpose and that was wrong. The liability risk is pretty high for Applebee’s. Also the next time I eat at Applebees I will make sure I tip big…..or wait…..maybe I just won’t eat there.

  2. Craig says:

    Thanks for breaking down every aspect of the “Applebee Pastor”. The major media outlets really only discussed the waitress getting fired. None touched on the pastors behavior with her “10%” comment or the issue of what tipping in our culture. For me, I was upset over the pastors behavior. Forget keeping social media quiet. She is a disturbed woman that is living a lie. Did she not think that her deity sees what nasty deed she does ? If she really believed in the stuff she preaches she would have tipped. I see this odd disturbing hypocritical behavior sometimes because of the field I work in. It is not the norm but when I see it I get angry and shrug my shoulders

  3. Stephane Lacoste says:

    Here in Quebec, privacy is a Fundamental Right protected by the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, a quasi constitutional text, and also protected by statute. So doing something like what the waitress did would be clearly illegal and would give the customer a right to sue in damages and to seek exemplary damages. That said, I do not consider that it justified a dismissal in this situation; a suspension would have been the right way to address the employee’s actions. Too often do employers simply go to the extreme and easy and dismiss employees. At-will should not be a licence to be dumb and heartless. What will become of the waitress now? Discipline should also be looked at in a more scientific way. Is there another way to get to a good solution? What will it cost to dismiss an employe and hire and train a new one? Would another form of discipline bring a cheaper solution that would also leave the employer with an equally good or better employee? Would not an employee who had been suspended before be a better employee after? Would she not have learned her lesson? From the society’s point of view: is it better to leave it to corporations to decide such things?

    I also have never understood this idea of tipping. We don’t tip the cashier at the grocery store, nor the salesman at the car dealership. Their pay is fully covered by the sales price. It should be the same for waiters.

    OK I plead guilty, I am a labour lawyer working for a trade union. This does not affect my views though, rather it is my views of such issues that lead me to become a labour lawyer.

  4. Curt says:

    Patronizing a restaurant doesn’t engage me in the internal workings and policies of the employees’ compensation scheme. That is between the restaurant and its staff. If wait staff is underpaid, the answer lies with management, not the customers. The gratuity I leave is based on the service I receive. Nothing more. Granted, posted “mandatory gratuity” – an oxymoron – does put us on notice and effectively alters the menu price by the amount of the mandatory service charge. Finding this objectionable, the pastor should have chosen another restaurant or asked management to suspend the policy. If, as stated, she left a cash gratuity in an amount she considered appropriate instead of the 18%, it softens her offense, no? Mandatory gratuity is an offensive practice not designed to leave the patron in much of a mood to tip more. A tip should be a reward for good service.

    There’s no law against publishing the note left. It’s bad manners and will likely result in loss of customers. Likewise, there’s no law against complaining to management. Or against disciplining employees who exercise poor judgment. No one benefited by this exchange. But this is a question of manners more than ethics.

    • gymgoki says:

      “mandatory gratuity” – an oxymoron ….thanks!
      I hate that. Crappy sevice = crappy tip, even ifyou have more that 8 in your party.

    • In this case, the mandatory gratuity (and yes, this is an oxymoron) is actually a service charge, as she was part of a party of ten people.

      From what I’ve read, this group regularly ate at this Applebee’s, and so they shouldn’t have been surprised by the automatic service charge.

      I also don’t quite believe that she left cash. Every time I’ve tipped in cash, I’ve written “CASH” on the line for the gratuity, which she didn’t do. Also, why would she make a big deal about leaving 0, then leave money anyway?

  5. Sheldon W. Helms says:

    “Restaurant staff, who usually make below minimum wage, depend on the financial generosity of their clientele…”

    This incident took place in Missouri, where the minimum wage is currently $7.35. Employers in that state are allowed to pay tipped waitstaff an hourly was as low as $3.675. This is not true in every state, though.

    In California (as in several other states), the state minimum wage law applies tipped to waitstaff too; thus, they are paid the same as everyone else. If you do not tip them, you shouldn’t feel any more guilty that if you didn’t tip the stock boy at the local grocery store.

    That said, this “pastor” is an idiot, and she deserved to be outted as a jerk.

  6. zagone says:

    Hey it is all a part of the game of waiting tables. For every Alois Bell (even her handle sounds Dickensian) there is a JP Moneybags who leaves a 110% tip. Don’t be an internet tattle tell, just go back into the kitchen, string together some creative swear words you learned from the line cooks and get those apps to table 15.

  7. I guess things have changed a lot from when I waitressed working my way through university. We didn’t expect to get tips, but we sure appreciated them when we got them. I think I’d think twice about frequenting a place that “forces” me to tip. And I’ve always been a tipper.

  8. Drew says:

    Was the tip for large parties posted? If not, then I’d say that it was Applebees that was attempting to steal by charging more than they advertised. If it was, then Ms. Bell should have paid the price or eaten elsewhere.

  9. Stephen Propatier says:

    Couple of thoughts here. Odd social dichotomy.
    If I get a Iced Coffee as McD’s no tip is expected. It is expected at D Donuts. Why is that the same level of service same product, with drive through just feet away from one another different? I find it hard to believe that there is a significant difference in pay.
    So What is the difference? Simple McD’s forbids their employee’s to take tips. Corporate policy.
    So when applebee’s uses wait staff and allows tipping there is a moral not legal requirement to back tipping. For example the employer often pays less than state minimum wage rates for that employee. The wage laws were written to benefit small business restaurant owners. I would guess that kind of makes it a push and maybe they should have disciplined her not fired her.
    Still interesting social question what is the real point of tipping, to reward good work or supplement restaurants bottom line through reducing wages?
    Personally if I give a “bad” tip I make sure that the server knows why. So they don’t think I was just a jerk stiffing them because I was cheap. Otherwise how will they ever learn that they are bad at it.
    Once upon a time I worked for corporate restaurant chains I have been on the other end it is not pretty. Since she introduced her religion as the point I think it is reasonable to call her on it.

  10. teacher55 says:

    Stingy old broad. Probably drives a Lexus purchased with cash from the parishioners – but hey, no income tax.

  11. Dani Johnson says:

    I find it worth mentioning that she only scratched off the total on the receipt, she didn’t demand that it be refunded since it had already been taken off of her credit card. Being a server and an atheist, I think that the entire thing has been blown out of proportion.

  12. Justin Nnoix says:

    it’s really not my problem that servers as a group cannot get together and demand a proper living wage, it’s really not my problem that their boss foists paying them properly, on me.
    if i want to tip, i want it to be because I WANT TO TIP, not because of some obligation to not only pay for a grossly overpriced meal, but also to pay the servers salary??
    HELL NO.

  13. Maf Sweet says:

    I agree with Justin above. I leave a tip when the waiter/waitress has performed above and beyond the call of their normal duty. I EXPECT them to be courteous and polite, and to not mess the order up – that’s what they are employed for. If they can’t get those rudimentary skills right, they don’t deserve the job. I live in the UK and we don’t have such an expectation to tip every time, but if the server is friendly, polite, chatty and generally efficient I will tip them.
    To be expected to add an extra 18% on to the price of the food automatically is outrageous in my eyes. Why not just add that to the price of the food, state that price on the menu, and pay the servers a decent wage from the offset? Then, with VOLUNTARY tips, it would separate the good serving staff from the mediocre ones.

  14. Wordwizard says:

    I live on a fixed income well below the poverty level. On the rare occasion that I get to socialize with others at a restaurant, I feel pressured to order something. Certainly it’s no fun to sit there hungry when everyone else is eating. So I may order the cheapest thing I can stand. The price is on the menu. Gratuities are OPTIONAL. Must I tip extra when I already can’t afford to pay 10x+ more than it would take to eat at home? Perhaps it is my duty to resist the pressure, and just sit there while others eat. Or perhaps I should forgo socializing at all, and just become a hermit. Or perhaps the waitstaff at restaurants could organize for a living wage, and customers could refuse to patronize places that don’t pay one. That would be best. I don’t believe the waitstaff get stiffed if I don’t tip––Some other member of the party will chip in extra what they think the tip should be be, so if anyone is getting stiffed, it’s the more flush people who pressured me in the first place. Why must it cost money to socialize anyway? It scarcely seems worthwhile.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Biblically, it is impossible for a woman to BE a pastor, so the whole thing is a moot point.

  16. “But should fear of public ridicule be part of the dining experience, especially if a server DOES give bad service, and you don’t tip well because of it?”

    The point is that she didn’t say that she didn’t leave a tip because of bad service. The fact that her large group were regulars there indicates that overall, the service there was good… The problem is the added snide comment about WHY she was refusing to leave a tip.

    If she had not been satisfied by the service, she should have SAID THAT… Not remarked that in her mind, her imaginary friend decided that an 18% tip wasn’t warranted.

    If she had just refused to leave a tip despite quality service, she would be a bad person, but not have caused all these problems…

    THE PERSON THAT INSTIGATES THE ACTION IS THE ONE THAT SHOULD BE SHAMED AND PUNISHED.

    If she didn’t want this going viral, maybe she shouldn’t have felt so justified in being a b*tch.

  17. Scott says:

    I’m in general agreement with the majority of the commenting here. My query is one on the legal side: IS it stealing to not leave an automatic gratuity? My suspicion is that it is not. It is a way for the restaurants to quasi-guarantee a tip for large parties, but I have never come across an account where it is illegal to fail to honor that tip. (And yes, those restaurants are usually cheating their waitstaff from a larger tip from me; I generally tip 20% unless the service really blows, but if there’s an auto-gratuity charged, I never add more.)

    • Good remark actually. In Belgium, tipping (service) is part of the price shown on the menu, and this is in fact a legal requirement. As a consequence, I rarely tip. To me, the announced price is the full price, and you also know what you have to pay in advance without having to add a percentage. Makes for clearer communication, and quite frankly, easier transactions, too.

  18. Kathryn says:

    It should be noted that Pastor Bell did not pay 18% of the bill. She crossed the tip out and only signed her credit card receipt for the food amount. It should also be noted that Chelsea was NOT the waitress who served this woman. The waitress who served her was a co-worker, who obviously complained to Chelsea – who then took a photo and posted it. The pastor did NOT leave a cash tip! The waitress confirms this and frankly – it would be rather absurd for Ms. Bell to write what she did when she was in fact leaving cash. So this pastor is a big fat liar as well!

  19. Subha Ray says:

    The culture of tipping sounds strange. It means that a salary is earned w/o being accounted for in the GNP. This must add to the fiscal deficit of the country. The waitress is also deprived by her employer from a proper salary.

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