Tipping at restaurants: A mystery for diners in Ireland

Pricewatch: Can you be sure the person who served you will receive your gratuity?

When Mr Pink told his fellow Reservoir Dogs a quarter of a century ago that he refused to tip in restaurants just “because society says I have to” his partners in crime made it clear he’d crossed a line.

Organise a jewel heist? No problem. Beat up innocent people standing in the way of the diamonds you want to steal? That’s fine. Kill them? Only if you absolutely have to. But refuse to tip a waitress who just brought you breakfast and gave you four coffee refills? What are you? Some kind of monster?

But Mr Pink was from America, a place where tipping has been as much a part of the dining experience as the plates the food is served on for more than a century.

It is a different story altogether in this part of the world and while we like to think we have become super cosmopolitan and comfortable in all sorts of situations and can order decaf skinny frappuccino with the best of them, we remain peculiarly clueless when it comes to leaving a few bob behind for the staff who have served us in restaurants.


As many as 50 per cent of Irish diners are in Mr Pink’s camp and leaving nothing behind when they leave the table. Some of that can be put down to meanness for sure but or it can also be attributed to uncertainty and nervousness.

Try to be aware. Every single place has a different system. And you have no idea where your fiver is going

For all our cosmopolitan ways, we are often unsure about what situations we should tip in and how much we should leave. And we are frequently mortified at the very idea that we could ask if a service charge is discretionary or obligatory and if the person who has served us will end up getting the money we leave for them.

But first thing’s first. Why do we tip at all? Tipping is not common in Spain or France or Italy where people frequently make lifelong careers in the service sector. The bottom line is most people who tip or pay a service charge here are doing so because they want to reward the frontline staff who have served them.

They are not adding 10 or 15 or 20 per cent onto the bill because they want to give the owner of the restaurant more money – that’s what the stated menu price of the food and drink is for.

Many restaurant owners are probably fair in handling and distributing tips and service charges (and in some places staff manage it themselves), but it’s all down to the individual owner’s practice - and none of this is transparent for consumers.

But far too often the owners take the tip money and leave those who have earned it with a whole lot less than we might think.

For an unscrupulous restaurant, service charges can be the lowest hanging fruit. Most consumers would like to know that any tip or service charge they leave is actually a bonus for low-paid workers, rather than an additional charge on top of displayed menu prices, which goes to the restaurant, in effect subsidising an employer’s wage costs, and increasing their profit margins.

If this is a concern what’s an ordinary diner – out for a special meal or a quick bite – to do? The best advice is: just ask.

You can plan ahead and be sure to have cash to allow you the option of tipping in cash rather than by card

“Stephanie”, who works in a TGI Friday’s, spoke to The Irish Times as part of this tipping series. She says diners should be “very aware of the bill and really look at it and be more curious about where your tip is going”.

People assume the service charge goes to waiters, but in TGIs, for example, it doesn’t (not at all in the case of 5 per cent charges, and only half in the case of 10 per cent charges), she says.“If tipping on a card machine or by cash – maybe just ask the server what happens to it. Things are different in each place.”

“Robert”, another waiter who spoke to this newspaper observes that sometimes a tax breakdown can obscure a service charge on the bill. “ I always appreciate when people ask,” he says. “I thank them for it. It breaks the asymmetric power dynamic. When people ask it at the end, it breaks the illusion and breaks the barrier between them and you. The compassion is nice. People should always be sceptical.”

“Amy” advises diners to “ask the questions and decide what you feel comfortable doing. Try to be aware. Every single place has a different system. And you have no idea where your fiver is going – to the manager, owner, or server. I think if most people are alerted to what’s going on, they’ll think: ‘I’m not paying that.’ I want a tip to go to the server, I’m not interested in putting a fiver in the pocket of the owner.”

Service charge

She says “it’s a relief when people ask”. There is some debate among waiters who spoke to the Irish Times about whether you should ask about tips and service charges discreetly, out of managers’ earshot, or not. You want to hear the truth, which may be an issue if it’s loudly asked.

But Amy says: “I love if people ask the managers. It sends a message [that people] want to know where their money is going.”

If you suspect – or know, because you asked – that a service charge goes to the restaurant rather than to staff on top of wages, and unless you specifically want to pay above the stated prices on a menu, you could politely decline to pay the service charge and say you want to leave a tip for staff instead.

You can plan ahead and be sure to have cash to allow you the option of tipping in cash rather than by card, and so eliminate relying on a restaurant passing on card tips.

Employment lawyer Richard Grogan, who was invited to make a submission to the Low Pay Commission’s recent review of tipping regulation, says he doesn’t condone charges being “disguised as a service charge which customer assume will go to staff as instead just a cost you pay to the restaurant”. He say if tips are going to be used as part payment of contracted wages, maybe the best option is not to tip.

On Valentine’s Day the Galway ICTU campaign distributed leaflets to couples on their way out to dine: “Happy Valentine’s Day. Enjoy Your meal. But please ask . . . where does your tip go?” It simply and effectively referenced the basic problem with tips: “Did you know? 1 in 3 workers don’t receive their tips? Workers have no say in how their tips are shared. There is no transparency in the distribution of tips.”

Restaurants Association of Ireland Chief Executive Adrian Cummins welcomed the findings of the Low Pay Commission Review. He said in March the Association will be advising its members to display their tipping policy in their premises, to ensure there would be no ambiguity for employers, employees or customers. But there’s no obligation on restaurants to do this, and besides, lines such as “tips are distributed among staff” are virtually meaningless, unless they make clear this is in addition to their wages, not as part of them.

The withdrawal from the tipping drug

It is telling that the Union Square Hospitality Group has a dedicated email address called “hospitalityincluded”. The furore has been fierce in the four years since restaurateur Danny Meyer announced that he was turning the American tip system on its head in a bid to sweep away an outdated practice where it is legal to pay wait staff $2.13 an hour, with tips subsidising the rest of their income.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Meyer announced his plan in 2015 by opening an executive meeting of the Union Square Hospitality Group with the John Lennon song, Cold Turkey. “This was the New York restaurateur’s way of announcing his next attack on the status quo,” the paper reported. “‘Tipping is a drug,’ he explained. ‘and we need to kick the habit’.”

Withdrawal has been painful. And the reaction has shown how deeply ingrained tipping is in the US restaurant culture. Several high profile restaurateurs and chefs who jumped into the new water along with Meyer have clambered back out, shaken by a backlash from customers who resented the feeling of having to pay more and staff who simply left to work for the competition when their income dropped.

The psychology of tipping gives the diner a sense of control over the service and a feeling of connection to the person

An email to the “hospitality included” address from The Irish Times asking what the group has learned from the experiment remained unanswered at the time of writing.

In a statement to food website Eater after a lawsuit was filed claiming Meyer and 15 other high profile restaurateurs had conspired to raise prices, the company said it had taken the “challenging and lonely journey of introducing Hospitality Included to create clear and transparent growth paths for our people, while beginning to address the decades-long growth of inequality among restaurant professionals. We believe hospitality can and should be a viable career with competitive wages, and we are more committed than ever to Hospitality Included getting us there.”

Meyer’s model proposed that an honest price with all the costs of a meal be placed upfront on the menu, so that kitchen staff could be paid for their part along with the front-of-house, who typically pocketed the majority of tips. He was not the first high-end restaurateur to do this, but he was the one that got most attention. Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se has a long standing no-tip policy in place.

The surprise for Meyer’s model was how many diners seemed to hate it even though the final costs of their meal might remain the same. A study for the International Journal of Hospitality Management found that restaurants received lower online customer ratings when they eliminated tipping. Replacing tips with a service charge prompted the most customer dissatisfaction.

American restaurant-goers like the tip system. The psychology of tipping gives the diner a sense of control over the service and a feeling of connection to the person who has delivered their food.

A California judge threw out the lawsuit against 61 year-old Meyer earlier this year. The groups restaurants including Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and the mid range Blue Smoke chain all remain "no-tipping restaurants". The withdrawal from the drug continues. – Catherine Cleary