The issue of service charge in the UK’s restaurants is confusing to say the least. While other countries, such as France, have clear policies across the board on what, if anything, should be left and where it goes, every restaurant in the UK seems to have its own way of doing things. Some add an ‘optional’ service charge to the bill of anything from 10 to15 per cent (with a sizeable proportion of those confusingly leaving the gratuity line on the credit card slip uncrossed); other restaurants don’t add anything, leaving it to the generosity of their customers to tip as they see fit; and a very few take the French route of service included, meaning the waiting staff don’t expect a tip but may get a few extra coins if the service is exemplary.
While it could be considered democratic to take this ‘each to their own’ attitude – after all, there are many different types of restaurants run in as many different ways – this lack of cohesion brings its own problems. Not least of these is that while it remains an industry that has the reputation of paying badly, it’ll never be treated as a serious career. Introducing a standard, whatever that might be, would bring a transparency to front of house staff wages, allowing staff to take a long-term view of their job, seeing it as a career, and so attracting a better calibre of people throughout the industry. Clarity would also be helpful for customers, particularly for tourists who often view eating out in the UK as a bit of a nightmare and, particularly in London, as being expensive full stop.
The Zagat 2006 survey found restaurant prices in the Capital rose 3.3 per cent since 2005, making it the second most expensive city to eat out in in the world after Tokyo (where, incidentally, it’s considered rude to leave a service charge or tip). So imagine a tourist’s concern when sitting down in a restaurant: they may be able to read the cost of the food and drink that they order but actually they’re unlikely to know what the final sum will be. Hardly a great advert for our restaurants. The 2012 Olympics will provide a captive audience for the UK’s restaurants, so doesn’t it make sense to bring service charge into line by then to give foreign visitors more confidence, which should lead to them eating out more and so spending more money? Not to mention improving the reputation of the UK’s restaurants as a whole.
While we don’t usually like to sit on the fence, we’re also aware that the issue of service charge is an extremely emotive one, with the ability to make or break the way the industry runs. So, with this in mind, we’ve put forward five possible ways of standardising the service charge system, starting on p30. Throughout 2007, we’ll be asking you to tell us what you think.
Whoever you are – restaurateurs, front of house staff, critics, customers or any other interested parties – if you’ve got something constructive to say about service charge, or want to suggest a sixth, seventh or eighth way that we haven’t thought of, drop us a line at our dedicated email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.