It was a trendy cafe in Clapham, a buzzy district in southwest London. The food was only okay, the service functional. Two coffees and one salad, a couple of soft drinks and two tiny toasted sandwiches. Payments were handled at the counter so I went up to pay the bill.
The woman behind the till beamed a toothy smile and asked if I was “happy with everything”, the internationally-understood euphemism for “please tip us generously”. I said: “It was fine.” She didn’t present a written bill but told me the total – £56.29 – and tapped it into the card machine.
The screen on the card reader in front of me asked if I’d like to add a gratuity. As the woman’s euphemistic exhortation hung in the air, my finger hovered over the “yes” button. I looked at her and she at me. Her cheeks started to bulge impressively as she forced her smile ever wider.
“Is there a service charge already included in the bill?” I asked, having not yet been presented with one. Her elastic band smile snapped back into a pout in a millisecond. “Yes, there is,” she said, flintily. My finger came down on “no”. I paid the bill including service and left, marvelling at her chutzpah.
Regular visitors to London will be aware that its restaurant tipping culture has grown aggressively in recent years. It is standard at every restaurant and cafe across the city for a so-called “discretionary” service charge to be added to every bill, regardless of the size of the party or standard of service.
To reward good service, you should leave extra in cash because if you do it on a card, the venue will usually gobble it up
Usually, it is 12.5 per cent but sometimes higher. For example, restaurants in the Ned, a hotel and members club favoured by workers in the financial district, it is 13.5 per cent. The small print at the bottom of the receipt says it is discretionary but it is also included in the calculation of the “total due” written in bold higher up the piece of paper, which doesn’t make it feel very discretionary at all.
Many London hotels now even add “discretionary” service charges of 3-5 per cent on to accommodation bills.
Automatic service charges in London are usually used to top up basic hourly pay, which starts at a minimum of £9.50 an hour for over 23-year-olds, slightly less for those younger. It is less of a tip for the employee and more of a sneaky wage subsidy for the employer. To reward good service, you should leave extra in cash because if you do it on a card, the venue will usually gobble it up.
Most customers put up with it. In theory, they can ask for the charge to be removed. In practise, this rarely happens. It is awkward and embarrassing to raise the issue. People who have asked for the charge to be removed say restaurant staff often respond by asking, “Why?” Often, they say they have to get the manager to remove it. Such fuss shames people into paying it anyway, even for bad service. The English way is much like the Irish – they prefer to grumble about it afterwards.
The addition of a not-so-voluntary service charge on to restaurant bills has its advantages for some customers. Notwithstanding the odd brass-necked Clapham cafe worker, usually, there is no expectation that the customer will pay anything beyond it.
A uniform service charge gives staff no incentive to look after customers
As a past employee of many hospitality outlets, I tend to tip heavily whenever it is truly voluntary, such as most restaurants in Ireland. Often, I leave up to the US standard of an extra 20 per cent or more. Attempting to maintain that rate of tipping in London, one of the most expensive cities in Europe, however, would be a shortcut to penury. Any mechanism that caps the expected tip at less than 15 per cent is a handy way of exercising restraint.
One big difference between the restaurant cultures in London and the US is that across the Atlantic, where tips are expected but earned, the service is usually good. In London, it isn’t. A uniform service charge gives staff no incentive to look after customers. In Chinatown in London, most restaurants add on the “discretionary” charge and then make you pay the total bill in advance, before you have received any food or service. That lark would be anathema in the US.
The practice of an automatic service charge is beginning to spread to all corners of Britain. I have been asked, and agreed, to pay it in areas such as Edinburgh, Dover, Cardiff and even rural Lancashire. One restaurant in Wrexham added it on to a bill for a sausage sandwich and a cup of tea and didn’t even bother to represent it as “discretionary”. You just had to pay it and that was that. At least they were honest about it.