Restaurants in Burlington, Vermont, are being accused of discrimination after news reports that servers are tacking on automatic gratuities to customers with French accents -- a practice that primarily targets the Quebecois tourists who frequent the town.
Vermont news site 7 Days reported earlier this month on evidence that a number of restaurants in the town have been tacking on tips of as much as 18 per cent to customers with foreign accents. Some servers have reportedly dubbed it the “Queeb tax.”
Anne-Marie Humbert, a native of France who has been living in Vermont for 30 years, says she believes the policy is discriminatory and illegal. In an interview with ABC News, she said she experienced the “Queeb tax” -- despite not being from Quebec -- in three separate restaurants.
“Three times in less than a year I thought, 'There's something going on here,'" she told the network. "It was not a mistake."
Among the restaurants Humbert says is doing this is Asiana Noodle House. Owner Sandy Kong told ABC News the restaurant’s policy is to tack on an 18-per-cent tip to groups of five or more, but they make an exception for Canadians.
“Some Canadians come in, they spend like $100 or $150 and they leave the wait staff maybe a one-dollar tip," she said. "It happens pretty often. I realize that the Canadians think it's discrimination, but on all the receipts it's printed out on bottom—'we suggest an 18 or 20 percent tip.' "
Kong said other non-Americans are also guilty of being poor tippers. "Asians do it also. But it seems that Canadians tip the worst."
The Burlington restaurateurs point out that Vermont wait staff make considerably less -- $4.10 an hour -- than Quebec servers, whose minimum wage is $8.55 an hour.
Barb Bardin, owner of Burlington's Splash at the Boathouse, told 7 Days she is looking for ways to "educate" Quebecers and other foreigners on the practice of tipping, but says her restaurant doesn't have a policy on foreign customers and leaves it up to her staff to determine whether to tack on an automatic gratuity.
“Because the servers really have such a hard time with it, I just leave it up to them,” Bardin said.
Alex Hudson, a Montrealer working at Burlington’s American Flatbread, suggested Quebecers may be tipping badly because they are used to having automatic gratuities added to their bills back home.
“It’s just the way it works there,” he told 7 Days. “That’s why I think, for the most part, they may not tip as much.”
Despite the hard tack they’ve taken with cheap tippers, the city’s business community is emphatic that Canadian tourists are important to them.
Gen Burnell, communications head for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Quebecers’ patronage is “absolutely essential to the health and vibrancy of [Vermont] tourism.”
Discrimination against restaurant customers has in the past led to legal proceedings. Florida’s attorney-general filed a discrimination lawsuit in 1999 against a Miami Beach restaurant accused of adding automatic gratuities to black customers’ bills. The restaurant eventually paid $15,000 to settle the case.
And for those wondering whether they can get away with refusing to pay an automatic gratuity, consider the case of this group of friends in Houston who refused to pay a mandatory tip after getting what they felt was bad service, only to have the doors locked and the police called on them.