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What Do Restaurants Do If Customers Can’t Pay?

Learn what happens when customers can’t pay their bill at a restaurant.

I’m not exactly sure what would happen if I couldn’t pay for my meal at a restaurant. I’ve never been in that situation before, and hopefully never will be. But depending on the restaurant’s policy, there are a few possible outcomes.  

Customer paying his bills using credit card, assisted by waitress

Some restaurants will ask you to leave if you can’t pay. Others might let you stay and work off your bill. And still others might have a menu of payment options that include installment plans or working off your bill in exchange for services. 

Let’s look at what happens when you can’t pay the bill. The restaurant might ask you for an IOU, they might hold on to collateral, or they might call the police. The restaurant may also decide to let you go.


What Happens If You Can’t Pay Your Restaurant Bill?

So, you’ve finished your meal, and you’re ready for the check.

The server politely leaves it at your table, hoping for a good tip, when you realize you can’t pay it.

Maybe you don’t have enough money to cover it, or you forgot your wallet at home. What do you do now?  

Each restaurant handles this differently, so it’s best to be prepared before you order. If you’re worried about not being able to pay, you can always ask the waiter or manager what their policy is.

That way, you’ll know what to expect if you can’t pay your bill.


Write an IOU

If you can’t pay the restaurant bill, you can try writing down an IOU and promising to pay the cost of the meal later. It might sound like a clumsy solution, but it can be effective.

If you write an IOU and promise to pay the restaurant owners the money you owe them later, the restaurant staff may let you walk away from the restaurant without any issues. 

You can write the IOU on any piece of paper, but you should probably write it on your receipt if you have it.

You should write the IOU as if it were a contract and include the date, the amount of money you owe, and your name. You should also include the owners’ names and the restaurant’s address.


Hold Onto Collateral

If you can pay at least part of the restaurant bill, offer the restaurant some collateral until you pay the rest of the money you owe.

For example, offer to give them something (like your cellphone, laptop, or even an ID) until you pay the rest of the bill in full. 

When you offer collateral, the restaurant owners may let you walk away from the situation with no hard feelings. 

If they accept your offer of collateral, you should write up a contract and take a picture of the item they are holding onto. This can help protect you if the restaurant owners try to avoid paying you the rest of the money you owe them.


Exchange Contact Information

Many restaurants require guests to provide their names, phone numbers, and email addresses when they make a reservation. Some reservation systems do this automatically.

They’ll use this information to confirm the reservation and contact the guest if any changes or conflicts arise. It also allows the restaurant to contact the guest if they don’t show up for their reservation or cancel at the last minute. 

If a guest doesn’t have a credit card or enough cash to cover their bill, the restaurant may ask for their contact information to bill them later.

The restaurant may require a deposit to confirm the reservation in some cases. If the guest doesn’t show up or cancels, they will lose their deposit. 

Providing contact information is a common way for restaurants to protect themselves from no-shows and last-minute cancellations. It also allows them to keep track of their guests and ensure that everyone pays their bills.


Call Law Enforcement

If you can’t pay the restaurant bill and don’t want to write an IOU, leave collateral, or exchange contact information, they may call the police.

This option can be a disruptive and embarrassing situation, but it happens often enough that the police are likely to know how to handle the problem. 

When the police arrive, they may ask to see your identification and write down your information.

If you or the restaurant gets the police involved, the police may arrest you for theft by deception. You may have to spend time in jail, pay fines, and have a criminal record on your permanent record. This is a drastic and uncommon result, however.

The police may let you go if you promise to pay the restaurant staff back later. This doesn’t mean that you have gotten off scot-free; it just means that the police have intervened in the situation and managed to avoid arresting you.


The Restaurant Comps the Meal

The restaurant owners or staff may decide to comp the meal if you can’t pay the bill.

This means that they will either remove the meal cost from the bill or let you go without paying anything at all.

Sometimes the restaurant will comp the meal if you promise to pay them back at a later time, helping you avoid getting arrested for theft by deception.

Even though you have avoided a potentially embarrassing situation, you should still promise to pay the restaurant back as soon as possible.


Will They Make You Wash Dishes?

A common trope on TV and in the media suggests that you’ll be put to work if you can’t pay for your meal.

The idea of washing dishes to pay for your meal is common, but in practice it’s pretty unusual.

While washing dishes might have been an old-school solution, it’s not really an option now. Nowadays, you’re not allowed in the kitchen, according to the FDA

This has to do with food and health code rules – customers can’t just wander into the kitchen and get to work, as they are not trained in food safety or the restaurant’s specific practices.

It’s very unlikely that the restaurant manager will make you wash dishes if you can’t afford your meal.


Final Thoughts

Hopefully, one of these four ways to handle the situation if you can’t pay for your meal at a restaurant will work for you if you ever find yourself in the same position.

No matter what you choose to do, make sure you treat the restaurant owners and staff with respect—that will go a long way toward a successful resolution to a potentially embarrassing situation. 

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Written by Erin Elizabeth

Erin lives in East Passyunk and enjoys checking out the local restaurants in South Philly and beyond. Her favorite restaurants are those with spicy food and outdoor seating so that she can bring along her dog, Miss Piggy.