Stephen Jardine: When service hits the tipping point

Stephen Jardine reflects on the culture of tipping. Picture: Getty
Stephen Jardine reflects on the culture of tipping. Picture: Getty
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I REALLY thought I’d seen it all until earlier this week when I picked up the room service menu in a New York hotel room.

Hungry for a late night snack, I flicked past the breakfast, lunch and dinner options to the back of the room service menu. Normally the home of the toasted cheese sandwich or the pizza, in the Big Apple it contained a surprise – a pets’ menu.

The selection ranged from Whoof Treats for $9 to Nibbles and Beef at a whopping $30. As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, each order attracted a 21 per cent service charge plus taxes and a $6 dollar delivery charge.

As ever, I’d spent a few days being mildly irritated by the American tipping system but the idea of a dog tipping a human for bringing it dinner tipped me over the edge.

For me, every trip to the States involves tension around the subject of tipping.

In a diner I sat at the counter and had a coffee. I left all the change as a tip but was pursued my waiter outraged I hadn’t left him exactly 20 per cent. In his eyes, a fifth of the bill was his entitlement and he was having it.

The problem is, when you start, where do you stop ?.

I once went to a posh restaurant in California where I had to tip the valet who parked my car, the cloakroom attendant who took my coat and the waiter who served us. When we left no-one seemed particularly grateful. The American friend who was with me later explained the problem. I’d forgotten to tip the wine waiter. It’s crazy when the cost of the food takes second place to the cost of the service.

Here things are different, thankfully.

The Scottish Café and Restaurant in Edinburgh picked up the Best Customer Service prize at last year’s Scottish Restaurant Awards. It comes at no extra charge.

“Service should be included in the price but if the service is exception and genuinely attentive it is lovely to leave a tip and our team greatly appreciate it”, says owner Victor Contini

“In Italy it is seen as demeaning to leave a tip and service is only very rarely added. Waiting is seen as a proper career choice . It would be hugely beneficial if we could get to this level here”.

In London a 12.5 per cent service charge is becoming increasingly common but that is simply a way for restaurants to help boost staff wages to the point where the high cost of living in London becomes bearable.

Far better that the government should cut restaurant VAT and give owners the option of cutting prices to customers or paying more to staff.

The level of service can make or break your experience in a restaurant. When it is especially good, most of us will recognise that with a gratuity but that decision should always be down to the customer.