Restaurant service charges

This is a gripe shared by many people who dine out, and there are not many people to whom that does not apply.  If we eat at a fast food joint we order and are given the food by a member of staff behind the counter, and in a buffet restaurant we help ourselves – staff just bring the food from the kitchen and service is not added.  As with any shop, we would not generally consider tipping for this service, since it is intrinsic to the product we buy.  For my professional services, I would charge a fee but in 19 years I have yet to be offered a tip on top!

When we eat at a proper sit-down restaurant, the type with waiter/waitress service, payment over and above the charges laid out for the food in the menu is generally expected for the provision of essentially the same service: ordering the food, transmission of said order to the kitchen, and returning to serve the food when cooked.  The primary difference is the walk to and from the kitchen for each course, though your waiter would also provide drinks and the equivalent of a bedside manner – showing good knowledge of the menu and how the food is cooked, for example, providing a warm and friendly face to diners, adding to the pleasant ambience.

You might equally argue that many services brought to your door are at least as exacting but attract no similar premium to the price agreed.  Some such services are deemed worthy, such as ladies tipping their hairdresser, a profession known to be underpaid unless you happen to be among the Nicky Clarkes of this world, though gentlemen do not routinely tip their barbers.  The habit of tipping seems to have arisen solely because of the low pay of some workers, but not consistently so – indeed, it is fraught with inconsistencies.

Logic dictates that the service should be included within the costs displayed, and failure to do so constitutes a hidden charge on diners, which restaurants often exploit to extract more money from their clientele, so by and large they add a percentage to the bill.  Note that this is not obligatory, but how many people refuse to pay unless they service has been truly diabolical?  It’s a 12.5% tax on your meal, regardless of how good the meal and how well the service is actually delivered.  If you do have a bad experience, you generally have to argue the toss with the management to get any item deducted, but when did you last see bills drop because the service element was well below par?

My issues with the practice of service charging are many and varied, so let’s go through them methodically, starting with the views of a friend, who pointed out that the grubby policy is self-defeating.  By adding a set service charge, which she considers obligatory in all but name, her inclination to reward the staff evaporates.  Had there been no service added, she would almost certainly have given a higher tip to the waiters.

Then consider what happens to tips.  Sure, in some cases they go direct to the staff, though in many cases the tips are pooled with kitchen staff, which you might consider to be some disincentive to effort for individual waiters – but probably the kitchen staff are paid a slightly higher rate on the grounds that they are less likely to receive tips.  In the sense that they cook the meal the value they add to the meal is higher, though waiting staff do the customer-facing element.

Worse still, the tips in some restaurants, big chains included, go to the management with none returning direct to the staff.  This is in my view utterly despicable and indefensible. But where staff do get a share of tips, the reality is that waiting staff will be paid pitifully in anticipation that they will earn tips – giving rise to the disgraceful practice of paying waiters and waitresses below the minimum wage, with tips making up to the minimum.  This is so unspeakably appalling I can’t imagine why HMRC allow restaurants to get away with it.

If that is not bad enough, the worst practice of all is including a service charge on the bill AND leaving a gratuity window on the credit card window for additional service payments, and paying like that you know it will go to the management and not the staff.  This is sheer wanton greed on the part of the restauranteur, exploiting the goodwill of his or her clientele.  I appreciate that it is a risky business and that 85% of new restaurants close within the first year, but that is no reason to resort to subterfuge to extract money from diners.  Honesty and openness are the best policy – provide a good product and a good ambience and the diners will come flocking back.  Engage in mean and sharp practices and ultimately you will get bad word of mouth.

In the US, the common practice in all but the most expensive restaurants is for service to be entirely voluntary ( though a fair sprinkling of restaurants on this side of the pond do do it):  if you have had good service, you may wish to show your appreciation for the waiting staff by paying them a bonus proportionate to the cost of the meal and the quality of their efforts, and if you don’t have cash ask for extra be put on your credit card, to go directly to the staff concerned.  Good service should be rewarded on merit, not by obligation.

So why is this policy not universal, being by far the fairest way?  Probably because some people would choose not to pay, though that should be their choice.  Restaurants would doubtlessly argue that otherwise bills would go up to pay for the staff, though I would suggest that the margins on the food cover fixed costs like chefs and waiting staff, without whom they would not have a restaurant at all.

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