How restaurants trick you out of tipping your waiter

Despite new legislation, workers are still dissatisfied with industry practices

ABOVE: lucas Favre

[This article was originally written for and published by Concrete Newspaper.]

When you go out for a meal, do you leave a tip? It’s an interesting debate for Brits. We don’t have the same tipping culture as the States or the rest of Europe, so the issue is usually left up to personal choice. As someone who has worked in customer service and hospitality since the ripe age of 16, I’m well accustomed to the different types of tippers. I don’t take it personally if someone chooses not to – everyone has their own reasons – but a tip, no matter the amount, is never unappreciated. 

One thorn in the side of those of us donning aprons and comfy trainers on a weekly basis is a sneaky tactic employed by many chain restaurants across the UK: ‘Service Charge’. These two little words have the power to send shivers down the spine of any good-natured waiter. Service Charge, sometimes preceded by the word ‘Optional’ or ‘Suggested’, is usually found right at the end of a diner’s bill. Sometimes Service Charge is listed in such a way that the customer doesn’t even notice they’re paying an extra charge on top of the cost of the meal.

While the amounts differ between establishments, Service Charge is often calculated at around 12-15% of the total bill. In terms of cash tips, this is a generous amount to leave behind, especially when it comes to the large tables. So why is this such an issue for the worker bees of the hospitality industry? Isn’t it a good thing to suggest an amount, rather than let people struggle to work out how much they should be leaving for their waiter? 

Floor staff work very hard, and are on their feet for hours without any breaks, in loud, hot, and fast-paced environments. Keeping a cheerful and friendly attitude up for an entire shift is emotionally draining, and after all, waiting staff are the ones interacting with rude customers. Shouldn’t we be celebrating the restaurants which employ this measure, for the sake of the employees who keep the show running smoothly, day after day?

The sad truth is that Service Charge often does not go to the floor staff at all. Rather, the money is either gathered by the restaurant as profit, or, in some cases, goes into the pocket of senior staff. The issue of Service Charge is made even more murky because there is no one rule for restaurants in the UK. Some places make sure to distribute the money made through Service Charge between the entire team, including kitchen staff, commis waiters, porters, and others. Other restaurants allow their staff to keep 100% of the tips they receive – but these places usually don’t have a Service Charge added to the bill in the first place. 

People want to tip me, not the bosses at the top.

Clara, 23

Clara (not her real name), 23, works at a popular UK chain restaurant, and spoke to me about Service Charge at her workplace. “People get their bill, and see the Service Charge, and assume if they pay it, it’ll go to me. It doesn’t. It’s so disheartening. I know for a fact if they all knew the truth, customers would be outraged. People want to tip me, not the bosses at the top.”

I asked Clara about the new legislation introduced by the government recently which ‘bans’ restaurants from keeping tips meant for staff, she grimaced. “I might be cynical, but I don’t think it’ll change much. Restaurants have been dodging this issue for so long – they’re not just going to stop now. Customers should stay vigilant.” 

Restaurants have been dodging this issue for so long – they’re not just going to stop now.

Clara, 23

Even British familiar favourites are guilty of these shady practices. Earlier this month, Burger chain Byron was called out by staff for new plans to divide Service Charge earnings between waiters and management. In May, Pizza Express made changes to their Service Charge which left waiters taking home only 50% of tips. Worker’s union Unite reported this change would mean a yearly loss of £2,000 for employees.

The solution, in Clara’s opinion, is simple. “It’s such a relief when customers ask before paying ‘Does this [Service Charge] go to you?’, because I can finally tell them ‘No.’ If they don’t ask, I can’t say anything, or my managers will tell me off.”

If [customers] don’t ask, I can’t say anything.

Clara, 23

If you are inclined to leave tips at the end of a meal, there are a few things you can do to make sure your money is going where you want it to. It’s wise to ask your waiter how tips work for the restaurant you’re dining at. Cash tips are also much better for staff than card gratuities, as digital payments can easily be redirected away from waiters. Finally, if you see the words ‘Service Charge’ anywhere on your bill, be alert. Though not always an indication of bad practices, for many businesses it has become a smokescreen which allows them to claim the money meant for their hard-working staff. 

[This article was originally written for and published by Concrete Newspaper.]

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