The Fine Art of Splitting the Check
"We had a table outside of 15 and they wanted to split checks. I think it came to 10 separate bills," Philadelphia restaurant industry veteran Varah LK Kappatos tells me. "There was only one server terminal for Aloha (the point-of-sale system) and two or three servers on the floor during dinner service. This held up the entire floor until the transactions were complete."
Stories like these awaken my own latent trauma of working in various front of house positions at restaurants and bars. I have flashbacks to calculating the math of what guests owe while everyone, guest and fellow staffers alike, impatiently wait for me to print out checks the length of a CVS receipt. My palms begin to sweat and my heart flutters.
Even when I owned my own restaurant, where I knew the POS system thoroughly, I would occasionally panic when faced with check-splitting requests that were more complex than a simple 50/50 division. I'd have to whip out my phone to use as a calculator, often with an anxious customer tapping their foot in front of me. Sitting down at my desk to run numbers alone is one thing; doing math in front of a guest who ordered everything on the menu to share with their friends and is in a rush to get back to their life outside of my restaurant, while 15 other customers are also waiting, is another.
I also sometimes panic at the end of a large group meal, when everyone whips out their credit cards and there ensues a period of struggle with division, jockeying for credit card points and / or fighting over the bill. (I am Chinese. I relate to the cultural etiquette of insisting on paying at least three times and I must internally work very hard to not be confused when the other party does not put up a fight.)
In the last few years, we have seen leaps and bounds in the technology of POS systems at restaurants, especially as many establishments went the touchless payment route in the early days of the pandemic. Dining out now, I often encounter servers who barely bat an eyelash at being presented with multiple credit cards. These servers confidently wield handheld terminals that can take orders and run payments immediately and make splitting checks a breeze. It feels high-tech. It feels like I'm dining out in Toronto or Paris. But just as often, I frequent establishments that haven't upgraded their POS systems (to do so can be prohibitively expensive and complicated) and gasp some that still only accept cash. In these cases, Venmo, Zelle and other payment apps have been a godsend.
The following rules of thumb strive for fairness to both restaurant staff and your fellow diners. I further tapped Kappatos for advice, as her front-of-house experience, ranging from bartender/server to host/coordinator, as well as office manager greatly exceeds mine. Kappatos also runs a large forum for Philadelphia hospitality professionals to voice concerns, share information on jobs and offer support for one another, the Philly Service Industry Facebook Group. Our paths crossed years ago when we both worked for a large restaurant group, and I have long admired her unflappable grace and levelheaded approach to service.
Don't forget to tip properly.
It's 2022. The restaurant industry has been through the ringer. Tipping 20% or more in the US is standard. Kappatos notes, "I noticed many people round down on the tip, for instance only looking at the first digit." A bill may be $27.95 but "mentally it becomes 20 rather than the whole $27.95 or $28. If each of five people at a table rounds down, it feels like [the server] is losing money by having [the check] split up." Diners should also be aware of the collective tip being left. "Sometimes people assume someone else in the party is covering the tip and don't tip on their portion. I'm giving the benefit of the doubt that they didn't purposefully stiff me."
Don't forget to account for tax.
"People often forget tax. They add up what they ordered in their head, then they are confused about why they came up short," Kappatos says.
Do set your server up for success.
"If you want a bill split according to what you're ordering, it's doable but always let the server know from the start so they can set themselves up for a smoother cash out experience," Kappatos advises. "If there are a lot of checks and payments, we can get mixed up and by the time we find a manager to undo the charge and fix mistakes, a lot of time has been consumed."
Do be respectful of your fellow diners, especially to varying degrees of alcohol consumption.
When trying to make things as easy as possible for the restaurant, even splits are often the way to go, but alcohol can greatly skew who owes what. I don't always order alcohol when I go out for dinner, but I do get as excited over innovative non-alcoholic drinks as I do the often more expensive cocktails. With this in mind, I stand by a notion brought up by multiple friends: "People who don't drink shouldn't have to pay for other people's alcohol." If I'm out drinking alcohol, I try to be mindful of those who are not. I also try to be respectful of others' financial situations. One friend pointed out, "You might be out with someone unemployed, to whom $12 seems like a lot, so I would just cover their bill. A few dollars' difference is never worth a discussion amongst friends."
Don't split a bill more than four ways.
But back to Kappatos, who advises, "If you want to split a bill two ways, evenly, that is not a big deal at all. Don't split a bill more than four ways. It is cumbersome and mistakes are more likely to be made by both sides when they need to handle that many credit cards, payments, etc." She recalls, "I'll never forget having people hand me a stack of credit cards and having only that tiny table under the Aloha, trying to find somewhere to put them all and keep track of where I am on the list and whose credit card is whose, while other servers are glaring at me because they have orders to put in."
Don't ask the server to pick who pays.
Kappatos sighs, "Why do I even have to say this?"
Do handle the split amongst yourselves, if possible.
"There are so many conveniences between cash, Venmo, Zelle, CashApp, people should be able to split the bill amongst themselves without involving the server. Splitting checks is time consuming," Kappatos says. "Servers usually have multiple tables to attend to, so their level of service drops while they're taking care of a multi-step cash out process. Other servers can be affected, too."
This also has repercussions in the kitchen. If a POS station is held up by one server, other servers can't put in placed orders. As Kapptos explains the repercussions, "Orders then get stacked and sent to the kitchen all at once, putting the kitchen in the weeds."
Don't steal the pen.
"The more checks, the more pens and you'd be surprised at how many people swipe my pens," Kappatos says. "Crazy as this sounds, there are times when the holdup is that I need five pens, but I only have three left."
All these tips essentially boil down to maintaining respect for both your dining companions and the restaurant. Kappatos acknowledges, "At the end of the day, if someone needs something done – we do it. We are in the service industry after all. But it would be nice if people had more self-awareness of the ripple effect their requests cause."