Stephen Jardine: Say no to this meal tax

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
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WHEN it comes to food and drink, what on earth have the Americans ever done for us? Well, the hamburger I suppose – and pancakes, Oreos, maple syrup, Zinfandel, chilli, key lime pie, barbecue sauce, Coca Cola, fried chicken, Jim Beam and don’t forget peanut butter.

For a country that has existed for only a couple of hundred years, it’s fair to say America has made more of an impact on our eating culture than some countries that have been around for much, much longer.

For the most part, it has been a positive influence, but it’s also responsible for one of the great bugbears when it comes to eating out.

America prides itself on being the home of the service culture, but, in restaurants and cafés, that manifests itself in a belief that the very basis of delivering food to the table entitles the server to a financial reward.

Usually that varies from 15 per cent to 20 per cent, but you ignore it at your peril. Last year in New York, I was pursued out of a café by a waiter who said my gratuity had been too small, even though I’d only had a coffee.

Here in Scotland, the situation is much more sensible. We tip according to the service we receive, not out of fear or a sense of obligation.

But that is now changing, with the creeping arrival of the discretionary service charge. This practice developed in America and arrived here attached to larger tables as recognition of the extra effort needed to look after groups above six or eight customers.

However, in the past year or so, it has spread further and is now common in lots of London restaurants regardless of the number eating.

The discretionary service charge usually works because most people don’t want to look mean, so they are unlikely to demand that it is removed from the bill. However, last week in Scotland, I did.

Sitting down in a restaurant, the opening gambit from our waiter was to tell us they had no fish left. Our starter arrived with a missing component, the main courses were inedible and the bill contained an error. The 10 per cent service charge was the final straw.

The manager looked suitably shamefaced and produced an adjusted bill, but why does this conversation have to happen in the first place?

More enlightened restaurants use technology to remove the awkwardness, with credit card machines offering options to leave a gratuity – but only if you want to. Decline and no-one is any the wiser.

A tip should always be at the discretion of the customer as recognition of excellent service.

When it is demanded by the restaurant or automatically added to the bill, it is nothing more than a tax on eating out. And, let’s face it, no-one likes paying taxes.