Some tips for the Ritz-Carlton

The Observer editorial board

A Ritz-Carlton receipt from the 2015 CIAA tournament.
A Ritz-Carlton receipt from the 2015 CIAA tournament. WBTV

If you’ve ever waited tables at a restaurant, you’ve probably wished on some nights that your establishment had an automatic gratuity rather than leaving you at the mercy of customers’ generosity and/or math skills.

Most restaurants are reluctant to alienate their customers with such charges, but some do so for big groups or special occasions. One of those occasions, the CIAA basketball tournament in Charlotte last month, apparently prompted Charlotte’s Ritz-Carlton to take that risk. It was a poor choice.

The uptown hotel is facing questions on several fronts about a 15 percent surcharge it levied on guests of the lounge during CIAA week. Conference executives and fans are unhappy, as are city officials. This week, the N.C. Attorney General’s office also said it wants some answers.

It’s likely the automatic gratuity isn’t illegal, so long as all Ritz-Carlton customers were charged the same fee in the lounge during CIAA week. Another question the AG is surely asking: Did the “service charge” actually go to the people who served food and drinks at the hotel?

The Ritz-Carlton issued an apology last week, but it hasn’t yet explained its reasons for the charge. Often, automatic gratuities are implemented in response to servers’ complaints about tipping. In this case, the hotel could have been responding to bad tips during previous CIAA tournaments, or it might have decided just last month to respond to tipping problems in general at big uptown events.

No matter. The service charge was a decision that hurt not only the Ritz-Carlton, but the city where it does business. For the hotel, it was short-sighted to gamble that customers would accept a service charge without seeing it as a fee for a predominantly African-American event. (It didn’t help that receipts clearly labeled it a “CIAA” service charge.)

Management also failed to contemplate a bigger picture: Charlotte has worked hard to get and keep the CIAA tournament, and the perception that blacks might be getting an extra tax is toxic to that effort. It’s why Tom Murray, chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, said he was “disheartened” by the “confusion” that resulted.

There may be no easy explanation the Ritz-Carlton can offer, but it can and should repair the service charge damage. First up should be refunds to CIAA-week customers, followed perhaps by a goodwill gesture of discounts for CIAA ticket holders next year.

The hotel also could eschew the tipping system altogether and pay servers a real wage. More restaurants across the country are doing so, because tipping is demeaning and confusing and leaves their employees vulnerable to the mood of their customers. That kind of messiness can lead to arbitrary decisions on both sides of the receipt. Some of them, as the Ritz-Carlton has learned, aren’t worth the money that’s gained.