Jade Schulz

From a server’s perspective, the restaurant rule that seems to flummox and frustrate diners most is the check-splitting policy.

It may not seem like it, but this policy of capping how many times a table can split its checks was actually designed to make sure your table and the tables surrounding you are treated to hot food and speedy service.

Let’s say you and your sweetheart are going out to dinner with four other couples (five couples total). And let’s say the restaurant caps check-splitting at four. Also the restaurant is packed, and there’s a line of people waiting at the door.

The time comes to pay the bill, and it’s very likely that one person from each couple will reach for their credit cards. When put in context, the number four seems pretty arbitrary, and paying for dinner has become an unnecessary headache.

Yet here’s the thing: In this situation, nearly every server will split that check five ways. (A very small amount won’t. They’re jerks.) Running an extra credit card will literally take about one extra minute, so why wouldn’t a server do that?

But now let’s switch things up. Instead of you and your sweetheart dining with four other couples, let’s say you’re dining with eight of your single friends and all want separate checks. Here’s where it gets a little sticky, and it’s situations like these that inspired the policy in the first place.

Now, if the restaurant is dead, a good server will hopefully go ahead and accommodate splitting those checks nine ways. After all, they’d rather be splitting your checks a few extra times than standing around marrying ketchups.

But if the restaurant is packed, the policy makes sense. Splitting checks takes time. True, it doesn’t take that much time, but it does take time. And running those nine credit cards makes the ordeal even longer.

If you think this policy is punishing you, you’re probably not seeing the other tables in your server’s section. If your server is taking extra time to process your payments, they’re not attending to your fellow guests. And instead of having one unhappy table cheesed off by the policy, you have as many as six or seven tables full of unhappy diners, because their server’s neck-deep in the credit card weeds.

When you get to the heart of it, the policy exists to maintain a smooth efficiency on a busy night. Think of it like juggling tennis balls. Demanding multiple splits is like tossing a hammer into the mix.

To wit: A few years ago, I waited on a 20-top—a 20-top!—on a busy Friday night. Those 20 friends wanted to celebrate the birthday of someone in their party. When their leader, a young woman, called to make a reservation, the host informed her about the check-splitting policy and suggested she tell her friends to bring cash to make paying the bill fast and easy. On the day of the reservation, the host dialed her up to confirm the reservation, and once again suggested for her and her friends to bring cash.

When they arrived, the party had slimmed to 16 people. No big deal. Sixteen’s more manageable than 20, but just barely. As I started taking orders, I knew I was in trouble because the people were telling me they wanted separate checks. Sixteen checks? That would take at least 20 minutes (of my time and theirs), so I stopped and told them the policy is to split checks only four ways. Let’s just say they were unhappy. One young man refused to order anything and fumed all night over his water refills.

The young woman who made the reservation could’ve spoken to a manager, but nope. She Yelped about it (back when Yelp still had clout), and said I made it “awkward.” Said I “ruined a birthday celebration.” Said she would not be back and warned other Yelpers to avoid the place.

And, per standard practice, a manager reached out a few days later, apologized, and offered to buy dinner for her and her boyfriend. After that, she upped her Yelp review—proving that if you’re a miserable person who doesn’t take responsibility for a party-organizing failure, you can expect a free dinner.

So there you have it. Check-splitting policies aren’t perfect, but it is the most egalitarian fix for situations like these. Still don’t like it? Just have your friend pick up your end of the bill and pay them back via the Cash app or Venmo. Everybody wins.