Paying for Bad Service – Can I underpay when I got bad service in a restaurant?

Q. I recently went to a restaurant and got terrible service. The waitress never brought the french fries which were supposed to be included in my meal, and the coffee was absolutely undrinkable. When I got home, I noticed that I was undercharged. Given the disgraceful service, can I just call it a wash? Can I at least ask for a discount?

A. It goes without saying that everyone should always try to give the highest level of service to the customer or employer. However, in practice we all sometimes fall short. In this case, the general approach of Jewish law is, “Fix the problem, not the blame.” In other words, we should give the delinquent individual a reasonable opportunity to fulfill his or her obligation before we seek a release from it.

For example, the Talmud tells us that in most cases, the employer may not abrogate an employment contract without giving the worker a fair chance to improve his performance. And in the case of a sale, if the merchandise delivered is short, the customer can’t cancel the sale unless the seller is given a reasonable opportunity to make good on his obligation.

Likewise, in our case the appropriate course of action would have been to politely mention to the waitress that your french fries never arrived, and to request that the coffee be replaced with something slightly more potable. Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody deserves a reasonable chance to correct them. If you didn’t make any comment, it’s not really fair to unilaterally deduct payment.

On the other hand, it is still proper to try and negotiate a compromise with the owner or manager. After all, you really didn’t get your money’s worth, and the person in charge will probably be willing to take that into account — especially in the ultra-competitive restaurant business.

In any case, any shortfalls in table service may be reflected in the tip. That’s exactly why tips are not included in the fixed price, so that the amount may be adjusted within reason to reward especially good service or to give a gentle reminder to the less attentive waiter or waitress.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 109a, Bava Batra 103b. Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 306:8, 332:1.