“Service charge will be added to your bill"

Have you noticed that a new charge is being added to your bill in most restaurants when you eat out? They call it a “service charge”. In order for the restaurant to provide a waiter to come to your table and take orders and serve your food, they will add a fee.

They don’t even pretend it’s a gratuity for the staff. They brazenly name it for what it is - and it’s usually a massive 12.5%.

In fairness, it isn’t a secret. They do tell you, in rather small type, at the very end of the menu, that “an optional (or discretionary) 12.5%”  will be added to your bill. But it seems strange to me - what if John Lewis added 12.5% at till every time you shopped? Or M&S? Or any shop large or small?

service charge

When utility companies put their prices up by 8 or 9%, there's a public outcry, but when restaurants add 12.5% few people seem to care. Are we all so rich that we don’t care? Or are we so British that we would be far too embarrassed to say 'no' in a restaurant, but we don’t mind marching in protest about utility companies?

Personally I find the whole thing absolutely outrageous but I seem to pretty much alone. I started off refusing to pay it as a matter of course and tipping in cash as I’ve always done. But, like King Canute, I’m beginning to see that I’m wasting my time.

The thing is, we’re accustomed to tipping staff if the service has been good. We like to say 'thank you' with a cash gift - and of course they’re happy to receive it. They are actually less happy, if you ask them, about the common practice these days of the card machine asking if you wish to “Add a gratuity?”

In fact, I always answer “No” to this and it’s interestingly difficult, as the restauranteur knows it will be. Being asked, even by a machine, if you wish to leave a tip puts you under a moral pressure to do so. Pressing the “No” key is like saying the service was poor - and you feel mean.

But the charge on your card payment goes to management, not the staff, and the they graciously distribute what they see fit. I have yet to see any proof that it all actually goes to the staff. If you ask the staff, some insist that they get it all but they’ve never seen the figures, whilst others admit that staff receive as little as 40% of gratuities.

It seems such a thing to simply add gratuities to the bill. And it could be argued that it’s unfair for the waiter to get the tips when a restaurant depends on all the staff, including the backrooom staff and chefs (though these should be paid more).

But when you decide to give a tip, it is you who makes the decision - 5%? 10%? 15%? And it will probably depend on how well you feel you have been looked after during the meal.

When a “Service Charge” is simply added to the bill, your ability to choose has been taken away and a gross presumption has been made by the restaurant.

What do you think?

Let me know

© Brian Smith 2015