Washing dishes if you can't pay the restaurant bill

It’s a recurring theme in movies where the diner suddenly discovers that he doesn’t have enough cash to pay the bill and is thus “sent off” to wash dishes for the rest of the night until his bill gets paid. Does this happen in real life or is it strictly a literary invention?

I heard from my Mom & Dad they did this once in the late 40’s. So, it would seem that it’s an outdated scenario, but not completely made up.

When this happened to me, they took my drivers license and credit card (even though this particular restaurant didn’t accept them, hence my dilemma) while I went to an ATM.

I imagine when getting cash was a lot less convenient and they didn’t have much on them to act as collateral, the “washing dishes” thing could happen.

I think this begs the question for those in the restaurant industry:

What do you do with customers who say “I forgot my wallet/purse”?

How often do customers sneak out without paying their bills?
While totally wrong and criminal to do, it seems too easy to get away with for those lowlifes that would want to do it.

I just saw a quite relevant bit about this on a blog.

99 times out of a 100, it’s an honest mistake. Every instance is treated individually, so it’s hard to say there in one covering rule. But solutions like wasson’s are typical nowadays.

A similar situation is when a patron plans to pay by credit card, but the card is declined. Assuming the patron gives the impression of being genuinely dismayed and contrite, it’s not uncommon for the manager to simply collect a name and address (voluntarily) and to be satisfied with a promise to return promptly (or at least soon) to pay by an alternative method … no “collateral” required… This is not, AFAICT, a common scam technique – far more people than you might suppose do, in fact, return and pay.

This, unfortunately, is a common scam technique (well, common among scams) – the ol’ “dine and dash”. It’s not that hard to get away with, either. Thankfully, the proportion of diners who try this is almost negligible – though it seems that there can be considerable variation among establishments.

Having sharp-eyed co-workers can help a lot. Some less-than-brilliant dashers have their license plate numbers taken down by staff as they drive off. Still, even with the staff’s best efforts, dashers sometimes get through. In most places (esp chain restaurants), the restaurant will eat the bill. A few mom-and-pop places may attempt to extract the bill from the server upon threat of loss of employment (not a legal practice).

Beat me to it. I read the WaiterRant blog on a regular basis.

Do you have any evidence that the practice of taking the money from the waiter is illegal?

I’ve always been of the opinion that it should be illegal, but i’ve never actually seen any law saying that it is.

Here’s what a quick search turned up:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s somewhat surprising (to me) stance. The clear implication is that in at least some states, the practice is specifically outlawed:

Lousiana state law (I waited tables in the New Orleans area):

In the second article I quoted, there is nothing specific about “dine and dashers”. But it seems reasonable to me that the answer to Question #5 would also cover situations with dashers. There is a local phone number I can call to get a more specific answer for Louisiana if you’re interested (heck, the Lousiana DOL office is probably just a few blocks from my office).

All that said – I have seen managers twice give a waiter an opportunity to save face and preserve their jobs by paying for a dasher’s bill. In both cases, the manager strongly suspected the waiters of letting friends eat free – IOW, an allegation of being an accomplice to theft. I wish I could recall more details about who knew what and how – there was probably some loose lips and “ratting out” involved.

Thanks for the info.

I worked as a waiter for a number of years before and during my undergrad degree, in three different countries, and i was lucky enough never to have a dine’n’dash. If i had, and the employer had tried to make me pay the money, i would have dropped my stuff right there and walked out the door.

mhendo, I see you’re in Baltimore – this would appear to be the applicable section of the Maryland law:


I assumed you were still in the restaurant biz. Apologies.

Thanks again.

The interesting part of that, for me, is the issue of what constitutes “fault or negligence of an employee.” As i said, i never had a runner in my yuears as a waiter, but i’ve had fellow-waiters who did lose a table to the tactic. In none of these cases could the incident reasonably be described as being due to the “fault or negligence” of the server in question.

In one case (related to me later; i wasn’t working at the time) the runners were three men in their mid-twenties. The server was a young woman of 18, about 5’4" tall. She saw them run and chased them, yelling at them. But i can’t think of a single thing she could have done to prevent the incident. What’s she supposed to do? Tackle them? Of course, the police were called. But, equally unsurprisingly, they showed little interest in spending too much time and effort on a $40 lunch bill, and the server had nothing except physical descriptions to give them.

Luckily, the restaurant manager was a good guy and just shrugged it off as a cost of doing business.

The most important thing about the way the Maryland law is written is that the employer is specifically not the one who’ll determine fault or negligence. The employee will either admit to guilt, or will be granted some kind of judicial review. The employer definitely has no legal power to enforce a “server pays for dashers” policy.

I recall an anecdote about a woman who inadvertently found she did not have enough money to pay a restaurant bill. When she offered to leave her child there until she could return with, the manager said with a smile, “Ma’am, in this restaurant we don’t take hostages.”

I would think having the responsibility to watch a small child while a parent went away for an indefinite period would not be worth the trouble, not to mention the potential liability, compared to the average restaurant bill.

Hey, this could be the framework for a re-remake of the movie Little Miss Marker


One time while working as a waiter, I misplaced my Server Book and it was stolen. The book contains all the cash and CC receipts for all the meals that day. All the money is turned in at the end of the shift. So this book had several hundred dollars in it.
This turned into the equivelant of dozens of people not paying for dinner. (Because I no longer had their cash to give the restaurant)
The management did not make me pay for the loses, even though it was clearly my carelessness that caused it. We were able to reprint the CC receipts, but all the meals paid by cash had to be comped.
I didn’t make any money that night. But that sure beats having to pay a couple hundred dollars to the restaurant.