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Service Charges and Tipping?

Ok, I feel as though I should know the answer to this but I do not. Had dinner at a restaurant housed within an upscale hotel/inn.

The dinner was a buffet, so we served ourselves, though there was a waiter who brought our soup, wine, water and coffee to the table, and who also took away the dirty dishes.

When we got the bill, there was an 18% "service charge" added on to the cost of the meal. I assumed that this was in lieu of the tip. I gave the waiter my credit card and when he came back with the slip for me to sign, I noticed that there was also a line for "Tip" and "Total." Being unsure of how to handle this, and not wanting to short the waiter any money, I gave him a 20% tip on top of the 18% service charge.

It wasn't a big deal, but between the tip and service charge, we paid almost 40% of the value of the meal itself. That struck me as being a bit excessive, but I could be wrong.

So here's the question... when charged a service fee/service charge, should you also tip the wait staff? Or is that what the service charge is intended for? And if you are supposed to tip on top of the service charge, should your tip be a percentage of the food and drinks, or should it be a percentage of the total (food, drinks, service charge)?

Thank you!

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  1. The easy one first. The slip is probably pre-programmed with the "tip" line and you unfortunately added a tip on top of the tip. A simple "zero" would have been fine since the tip / service charge was already in the bill presented.

    It is surprising that there was a service charge at all on the tab, unless there were more than 6 or 8 people in the party.

    With respect to the tip percentage of the tip at 18%, way too high. Customary tip on buffets is 10%.

    1. When there's a service charge I never add tip, unless the service charge was less than I would have left. If there was 18% added to a buffet I don't think I would have left anything extra, I usually only leave 15% for buffet service.

      Although if I'm not sure, I always ask and I find servers are pretty straight up - "Is this service charge the same as the tip?", normally the response is "Yes it is".

      5 Replies
      1. re: hsk

        I will definitely ask next time I'm in doubt. I'm not going to agonize over the extra money I spent, especially since it was a holiday and I'm delighted that my waiter got to take home a little extra. But it does bother me a little bit that the surcharge was not listed anywhere on the online and offline menus/promos for the buffet. I may call the place tomorrow and ask about it, just to make sure that I wasn't charged in error. Even if I was, I'll tell them to keep it... I just want to know for my own satisfaction. Thanks everyone.

        1. re: matteo1973

          You were screwed; jfood had it right.

          1. re: matteo1973

            From the type of operation you descirbe it sounds like that 18% "service charge" for a buffet is to subsidize the waiter's salary (they probably negotiated with the waiter they'd guarantee him the 18% of whatever comes through the door in lieu of an hourly plus tips). But, to try and "double dip" on the tip is a little deceptive. They easily could put a "0" on the space on the gratuity line of the charge receipt, but their argument is they leave it blank in case the customer would like to leave more than the 18%. Or as in your case people are embarrassed to ask.

            I think at most buffet's they expect 10% and up.

            1. re: monku

              In a case like this, I don't think they're trying to double dip as much as give people the option to tip more if they want as you said. If they didn't have the line and people wanted to tip more, it could be a hassle.

              On asking the person, whether the tip was the service charge, I had that happen w/ room service once. It clearly said in the menu that the service charge was the for the delivery person which I read but my husband answered the door so he asked. The guy hemmed and hawed and mumbled something about the amount being for the people who plated the food and for the dishes. I said I was going to call to make sure because I didn't want him to be cheated out of a tip nor did I want to double tip (yeah, call me cheap). I'm just wondering how many people the delivery person was able to fool.

            2. re: matteo1973

              If you do contact the establishment, please share their responses.

              Hunt

          2. I never expect to tip less than 18% - buffet or otherwise. Like other posters have suggested, the slip is pre-programed with a "tip" line. It should be left blank, a server should never write on a guest's charge slip. Many times a guest will leave additional money, and that should be his or her choice. They can always strike through the line or put a zero.

            I don't think giving you a blank charge slip was a deliberate attempt to double dip. I'm sure all the slips were left blank.

            I'm a "lifer" in the business. The only times I've worked a buffet were on holidays, when the restaurants I worked for switched to a holiday buffet menu. We also added a gratuity to each check. It was clearly marked on all menus, and advertised that the price of the buffet was XX per person, plus tax and 18% gratuity.

            I can honestly say that not only did no one ever question the charge, but almost every check had something extra added on. Many times I would bring it to the customer's attention if I noticed them adding an additional amount. Almost every time the response was, "Oh, it's for you - or, thanks for taking such good care of mom -or just Happy Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc."

            So to answer the question, tipping over and above the service charge is not necessary. If you do, It's a nice treat. If you don't that's fine too.
            And yes, the service charge should have been made abundantly clear on the menu. If not, it is kind of sneaky.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Whinerdiner

              When the server bring that up to my attention, that I might have mistakenly paid too much, I usually up the tip even more. I have had a waitress chase me out once to ask if I had meant to tip as much as I did. So I gave her more for being so honest.

              1. re: Whinerdiner

                You sound like an ethical individual, and should be rewarded for that. Bringing the situation to the attention of the patron is great, and deserves to be rewarded. When faced with such a situation, I normally up the intended tip. Similar just happened with a skycap at HNL. I had tipped him to handle the bags, and then he took them through both the Ag check and TSA, so I added to the tip. At first, he refused, saying that I had already covered his work. At that point, I added even more. I appreciate things like that. Same for a lodge, where we frequently vacation. All gratuities are calculated in. For work beyond, I always tip extra. Most of the folk will quickly tell me that all gratuities are included, and then that extra tip goes up a bit. We've been there enough to know the financial arrangements, but I do appreciate a server (not just food), who informs me. Ethics are to be relished and rewarded, where possible. Maybe I am just an old fool, but I do revere honesty.

                Hunt

              2. Adding an 18% service charge on a buffet is just crazy. I hope there was some way that diners were given notice of this up front.

                Regarding the bill, generally, if you're with a large group, some restaurants will include gratuity in the bill. An extra line is still added for the tip, because there are many occasions where people want to tip more than 18%, pre-tax and that allows them to add something extra, if they want. I doubt anything extra is expected.

                1. Surely, even in America, the service charge *is* the tip. No?

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Harters

                    I'm sure the same mistake the OP made is made everyday at that place and no one is the wiser. The OP almost caught it, but didn't.

                    1. re: monku

                      One of my local places tries to do this all the time. The service charge is clearly indicated on the menu but the credit card machine is still programmed to ask if you want to leave a tip. It's disreputable and it must catch out folk every day unless you happen to have remembered the service charge. Luckily, I saw a warning about it on a local website so was well prepared when the server said "If you want to leave tip, press this button". I said, pointing at the bill "Isnt that a service charge?" And he then said "Press the other button then". Crooks!

                      1. re: Harters

                        Good thing you were on your game or you'd be an OP'r.

                        1. re: Harters

                          Good god, I'm getting annoyed. Restaurant credit card machines are provided by the bank. Banks give restaurants, regardless of policies, machines that have a line for a tip. They also process the transactions differently than they do for retail operations. The restaurant has nothing to do with the fact that a tip line is there. The vast majority of restaurants work under standard tipping procedures. Please people, stop thinking everybody is trying to con you out of your money!

                          1. re: hilltowner

                            Calm down, hilltowner. It's only an internet discussion, dear.

                            As for the card machine, my experience is that most restaurants that have levied a service charge have their machine programmed so that the "tip line" does not show up. I would regard it as disreputable for them to do otherwise. It is the modern equivalent of not closing the old credit card paper slips - in the UK, we had a number of campaigns (mainly led by the Consumers' Association - who publsih the Good Food Guide to restaurants) exposing this sharp practice. it pretty much killed it off and it has, generally, stayed killed off in the "machine age".

                            In fact, many places seem so keen not to be thought guilty of dubious practice that they have their machines programmed not to offer the option to leave a tip, even when they are one of the old-fashioned places that doesnt have service charges. And as you never know which places will do this, it means you always have to carry enough cash to leave the tip, even if you're paying the bill by card. Happened just yesterday, at a local bistro place.

                            1. re: Harters

                              Sorry. You hit a nerve. Also, a couple of glasses of wine.

                              1. re: Harters

                                "... my experience is that most restaurants that have levied a service charge have their machine programmed so that the "tip line" does not show up".

                                Not where I'm from (and I'm in the biz). I've never once seen a POS slip in any restaurant without the tip line. Most guests leave extra on top of whatever the service charge is. It is in no way disreputable.

                        2. re: Harters

                          I would hope so, but still worry, hence my questions to the OP.

                          Though I tip at a fairly high level, I do harbor resentment for getting "hosed."

                          Fingers X'ed in AZ, and waiting to hear,

                          Hunt