Doug Marr: Could gratuities and service charges be the tipping point

It’s probably a melange of an Aberdonian upbringing and my wife’s unkind characterisation that I’m “as tight as the submerged portion of a duck’s anatomy”. Whatever; I’m unrepentantly not a great believer in dining out.

Last week though, heritage and financial caution were cast aside to mark a special occasion at what was ominously described as, “an upmarket” eatery. Caveat Emptor. To be fair, the meal was good and, momentarily, I thought there might be something in this eating out malarky. Until the bill came that is. I wasn’t taken aback by the charges for the food and wine: 1963 O Grade arithmetic had prepared me for that.

I was less ready for the extra 15 quid that appeared under “service”. Don’t get me wrong, the waiter seemed a perfectly nice fellow; he got the order right and successfully delivered the food before it got cold. Nevertheless, £15 seemed on the precipitous side. As we made our exit I feigned nonchalance, and had a sleekit review of the menu and sure enough, in small print at the bottom, were the dreaded words, “service not included”. I suppose the small print represented tacit agreement and, as the service was satisfactory, I had no option but take it on the chin and pay up. At least the imposition avoided agonising over how much to tip, thus sidestepping the possibility of erring on the side of munificence.

As long as there are restaurants, arguments will persist about service charges, tips and the justification for either. It would be preferable and more transparent, to have labour costs built into the prices shown on the menu. After all, supermarkets don’t hit customers at the till with hidden 10 or 15 per cent levies to pay their checkout operators and shelf fillers. Their costs are built into the price of what’s on the shelves.

Read more: Covid can only add to age-old ills for the elderly

It’s exactly the same in restaurants; staff pay can only come from menu prices, service charges or tips. One way or another, it’s the customer who pays. Restaurateurs are correct in pointing out that earnings from service charges and tips are subject only to income tax. If added to the cost of food and drink, employees would be liable to further deductions for national insurance and pensions. But hey, that’s not really my problem. Owners also argue that, as the vast majority of them operate the tronc system, tips and service charges are pooled, ensuring staff are not short changed. I get all that, but absorbing staff costs fully into menu prices, would remove the unpredictability and irrationality of the tipping system.

American research suggests decisions about how much to tip are not necessarily made on the quality of service, but on things such as whether the server is young or old, male or female and even black or white. Furthermore, owners also benefit if staff are not dependent on the vagaries of the tipping system. Staff turnover is reduced, helping build the all-important rapport with clients and cutting training costs.

Debating the respective merits of service charges and tips sidesteps the basic point of whether either is acceptable. Reliance on what amounts to charity to offset low wages, is demeaning for staff and pressurises customers. The injustice of the practice has been taken to the extreme in the US with the general expectation of a tip in the region of 20%. I recall a discussion with a young “server” in a New York restaurant who claimed she received very little payment from the owner, her income being largely reliant on diners’ generosity, or otherwise.

Read more: Glamourisation of food does nothing for those on the breadline

It would take a pretty hard heart not to be generous in that situation. At times I have considered taking a stand against tipping. My resolve is rarely if ever, carried into practice. I am consumed by guilt and worry that the waiter/waitress is a single parent with a family to support or a student working his/her way through college. The sense of guilt is reinforced by those credit card machines, unique to restaurants, that pose the question about leaving a gratuity. With the waiter hovering at your shoulder, it takes a bit of doing to enter “No” or add what might be perceived as a derisory amount. Entering “Yes” presents a further challenge for the unwary. There must have been many occasions when those challenged by technology or semi-inebriation have entered an amount containing at least one too many zeroes.

Tipping also seems to be a selective exercise. Without being unduly mean, serving in restaurants may be physically demanding, but it isn’t rocket science. In the tipping scene in the movie Reservoir Dogs, Mr Pink played by Steve Buscemi, questions why he should tip the waitress but not the worker in McDonald’s, after all, “they both work in food”. He had a point, a great many low paid NHS and care home staff also work long hours doing even more important work and don’t expect to receive gratuities. In a similar vein, why is there an expectation that taxi drivers are tipped, but not bus and train drivers whose jobs carry much greater responsibility and accountability?

The hospitality and service sectors have been hit particularly hard by Covid. Many restaurants will find it an uphill struggle to attract and retain both clients and staff. Taking a closer look at the tipping system might take a trick. Some might even wish to copy the menu in a Japanese restaurant in New York that states: “Following the custom in Japan, our staff are fully compensated by their salary. Therefore, gratuities are not accepted.” If Scottish restaurants adopted a similar strategy, it might prove to be the tipping point in post-Covid recovery for the industry.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992