Everything you need to know about tipping in restaurants

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A recent survey revealed that the British public are more likely to tip waiters and waitresses above any other industry worker, with 88% claiming that they tip waiting staff. The survey, commissioned by online marketplace OnBuy.com, also showed that 20% of British diners would still tip at a restaurant even if the service was poor, and 32% would feel too ashamed to ask for the service charge to be removed from their bill if the service was bad.

Interestingly, when the survey asked UK diners why they tip, the majority answered that they do so ‘because ‘that is just how things are done’, and an additional 24% said they only tip because they feel ‘social pressure’ to do so. Around 15% of respondents said they tip because they feel that wait staff do not earn enough.

These results show that the reasons why we should tip, and the etiquette surrounding the practice, is still very much a grey area for British diners. A different survey by the AA of 19,317 people revealed that the majority found the tipping process confusing, and were unclear how the money was shared out.

As someone who regularly dines out, and has experienced all aspects of the hospitality industry, I certainly feel that I should weigh in on the debate.

Why do we tip in restaurants?

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Tipping waiting staff at the end of a meal has become a social norm, although many consumers are still in the dark as to why this practice exists. The origins of tipping are believed to lie in the late middle Ages, when a master would give his servant a few coins, as an expression of good will. By the 16th century in England, guests at wealthy households were expected to give a small payment at the end of a visit to pass on to the owner’s servants. According to Kerry Segrave, the author of Tipping: An American History of Social Gratuities, by 1760, footmen, valets and gentleman’s servants all expected these small payments or ‘vails’, which became expensive for guests. The wealthy began to complain and an attempt to abolish vails in London. However, the practice of tipping quickly spread to British commercial businesses such as hotels, pubs and eateries in the 1800s.

While tipping is commonplace in the UK and in the US, countries such as Japan and China do not operate this way. In fact, tipping in some countries can be seen as insulting.

Tipping controversies

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Tipping has become widespread in many western countries. In the US, tipping has gone through many phases, however in the 1960s, Congress agreed that workers could receive a lower minimum wage if a portion of their salary came from tips. This has led to a culture in which consumers feel that tipping is mandatory in US establishments and everyone tips, as many waiting staff only receive roughly $2 an hour, and rely heavily on tips.

Here in the UK, the hospitality industry has been rocked by various scandals over the years, involving salaries and tips. In 2016, TV chef Michel Roux Jr admitted that his Michelin-starred restaurant La Gavroche keeps 100% of the service charge added to bills, instead of distributing the money to staff in addition to their wages. The former MasterChef judge apologised for paying his chefs below the legal minimum wage following an investigation by the media, which revealed that he treats the 13% service charge as ‘revenue’. In a statement, Roux said: “There is too much ambiguity between service charges and tips. So from the end of January 2017, we are going ‘service included’. This will be marked on the bill and menus so as to make it clear that no further payment or gratuity is needed and credit card slips will be closed.”

A report by The Guardian in March 2018 stated that the government is under pressure to crack down on restaurants that ask waiters to hand over some, or all, of their tips. With the rise of the national minimum wage, increased competition and dwindling consumer spending, there is concern within the industry that restaurant chains are using methods to withhold hard-earned tips from their staff. Examples include: asking waiters to pay a percentage of the sales they have generated back to pay other staff, persuading staff to cut their wage rate to the legal minimum and make up the difference in tips, and asking staff to hand over their tips to the kitchen staff in lieu of the latter receiving a wage increase. On the subject, Trade Union Unite’s regional officer Dave Turnbull said: “It’s simply not good enough that two years after this government first promised to crack down on some of the worst tipping practices in the UK hospitality industry, low-paid workers are still being forced to hand over some or all of their tips, and customers are no clearer on who is actually getting them.”

There is some confusion over which members of staff deserve the tip. For example, if the tip was given based on the food being delicious, but was received by the wait staff, this may be seen as unfair. As a result, some restaurants opt to split the tips between all members of staff.

How should I tip in restaurants?

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With so much controversy surrounding tipping, it’s no wonder so many diners are confused. There are just a few key things to remember. It is considered customary to leave an additional 10-15% of the bill as a tip when dining out in the UK, however some restaurants will add a service charge (usually 12.5%) instead. This should be indicated on the bill. If you’re unsure about where the money from your tip will go, it’s best to check with your waiter whether he/she will personally receive the gratuity, rather than the company. However most restaurants should make their policy clear. However in some dining establishments, such as cafes, chain restaurants and pubs, tipping is less common.

Next time you’re dining out in the UK, spare a thought for the hardworking chefs, waiting staff and front of house team who are working tirelessly to make your experience as special as possible. But also keep your wits about you and consider speaking to the restaurant owners if you discover that the staff do not get to keep their tips.