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Service Charges and Tipping?

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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: chowser

                :)

              2. 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

              3. 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

                        3. Good question.

                          I agree with JFood, below, that the check was probably pre-programed, but maybe not.

                          In the UK, we have dined at several restaurants (mostly as guests), where there is a Service Charge, just for dining with them, and then a tip added, for larger parties. Not sure if these "surcharges" are becoming more wide-spread, or if it was as simple as JFood offers.

                          I fear that the Service Charge is a thing of the future. Was your buffet in the US, or elsewhere?

                          Was your party "largish?"

                          At buffets, even high-end brunches, I will definitely tip our staff, even if all they have done is buss the soiled dishes. I normally do this in cash, though normally tip on my credit card. This is an exception. At a recent Sunday brunch, I also tipped our host, as he walked us through the very extensive lines, and gave us valuable info on the dishes, especially the local and Asian ones. He also steered us to prime seating, and we were just a couple - took up a large 4-top, and that worked well, as we did have quite a few wines. I also tipped the sommelier, as he broke into some bottles, that were not on the B-T-G list, and I greatly appreciated that. Still, no Service Charge in sight.

                          Just some observations and questions,

                          Hunt

                          12 Replies
                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            Bill

                            Firstly, an apology to you if one is needed. I tend to forget that my language style and choice of words which are commonplace and acceptable on British-led discussion boards are often not acceptable to the Chowhound moderators. I would normally just put down to experience when my posts are deleted and move on to a different thread. However, you raise a disturbing point which reflects very badly on the UK restaurant scene and I’d hope we can try to discuss it further in a style of language more acceptable to Americans.

                            You write “In the UK, we have dined at several restaurants (mostly as guests), where there is a Service Charge, just for dining with them, and then a tip added”. You then comment that you wonder if these “surcharges” are becoming more widespread.

                            I think I would have to say that you appear to have received outrageous, disreputable and, possibly, discriminatory treatment from the restaurant group you mentioned in a now deleted post. I have never heard of a reputable UK restaurant having this “double whammy”, nor can I find any internet reference to it happening. That would suggest that the issue may well be restricted to the Caprice group, which you mentioned as the culprit in a now deleted post.

                            If we can, I’d like to try and explore with you what happened. The Caprice Group is highly respected, owning a number of London’s higher end restaurants, as well as places in Dubai and New York City. Restaurants undertaking sharp practice deserve to be exposed for that – high status in the industry or not.

                            I obviously understand the “tip added” bit. Many restaurants in the UK, including the Caprice Group, have replaced the old fashioned tip, with what we call a “service charge” (which I think Americans may call it an “auto-gratuity”). It’s added to the final bill and is always at the discretion of the customer whether to pay. In London, it tends to be set at 12.5% and, elsewhere in the country, more generally at 10%. Service charges are always mentioned on the menu so folk know the “tip” is going to be included and no further payment is expected from them by way of a gratuity.

                            The bit I don’t understand from your quote is the charge levied “just for dining with them”. I have never come across this at any level of restaurant dining in the UK (except one does occasionally see a cafe requiring a minimum spend at busy times, say over lunch). Nor can I see any internet mention of such sharp practice. As far as I can tell, there’s no mention of it on Caprice’s website perhaps suggesting this was not an, erm, “official” charge. Like you, I would always say this is entirely unacceptable and I’d to try and understand what has happened. I’d really like to hope that a rogue Caprice employee has not taken unfair and inappropriate advantage of visitors to our shores but I have to wonder if that has been the case. Such things really annoy me. Are you able to describe more the basis of how Caprice described this charge and how much it was, please?

                            John

                            1. re: Harters

                              Obviously, I am mistaken on the "Cover Charge," but on:

                              Oct. 07, 2006, we dined at J. Sheekey and were charged £5/person, plus an 18% gratuity. On Ocxt 09, 2006, we dined at The Woosley, and were charge £5/person, plus an 18% gratuity. On Oct. 29, 2007, we were charged £5/per person, plus 20% gratuity. On Oct. 12, 2009, we were charged £10/person, plus 18% gratuity at Ivy. On April 23, 2009, £5/person, plus 18% gratuity at Scott's. On Oct. 13, 2009, we were charged £5/person, plus 18% gratuity at Caprice. On Oct 13, 2009 and also on Oct. 26, 2010, we were charged £5/person, plus 18% gratuity at Scott's.

                              Now, during that general time frame, we have also dined at Savoy House, Petrus, Gorndon Ramsay, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, The Fat Duck, Le Gavroche, Butler's, Le Boudin Blanc, Le Tromphette, L'Orangier, Wilton's, Alistair Greig's, Citrus, L'Atiler de Jöel Robuchon, Maze, Tamrind, Galvin, Alain Ducasse At the Dorchester, and a dozen more restaurants, and none has charged us a "Cover Charge."

                              Sorry that it took me a bit, but we were out of town, and there were also two folk, who paid for meals, and I wanted to verify with them.

                              Do not know about any Web sites, but I have the particulars of some of the restaurants, over the years.

                              Does this info help you?

                              Hunt

                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                It sort of helps, thank you.

                                But it gets even odder. The declared gratuity rate at the this group is 12.5% in line with common restaurant practice in London - you can see this stated on their website - I can't understand why they should then rip you off with the 18/20%. The fixed £5 does indeed read like a cover charge (as I would expect to be charged in Spain) but, again, I've never seen such a thing in Britain (and , again, no mention on Caprice's website). I'm presuming that these meals were all in the normal restaurant and not in, say, a place's private dining rooms, banquet type service, or similar, where I could understand different charging might apply.

                                I'll make some further enquiries on other boards and, probably, email Caprice to ask what's what.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  I can only report what was charged, and for several different hosts.

                                  That is the best that I can do. Maybe the Web site has changed, or maybe something else is afoot? I cannot answer that/hose question(s).

                                  Maybe call each of the restaurants in that group, and ask about their policies, during those times?

                                  Enjoy,

                                  Hunt

                                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                                    Bill

                                    I've been away for a couple of days (London as it happens - where we were only ever charged 12.5%).

                                    I think it is possible that "something is afoot". I posed the question on egullet's UK board as I knew there would be Caprice Group diners there - responses confirm that the service charge is 12.5%. There is, indeed, a "cover charge" levied per diner - but at £2 not the £5 you have been charged.

                                    I intend to email the Group to ask what's what and will let you know their response - but I feel sure that you appear to have been ripped off.

                                    BY the by, you mention the "Woosley". I presume this is a typo and you meant the Wolseley? In which case, it gets odder by the minute - as, unless I'm mistaken, the Wolseley is not part of the Caprice Group, so we possibly have two organisations ripping you off.

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      I got both your e-mail and that from the Caprice Group's rep. I have offered a bit more info, and will fill in this thread, when I have spoken with Caprice.

                                      Thanks for the link to the other thread. I did not want to intrude, but you are free to add anything that transpires.

                                      Good luck,

                                      Hunt

                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                        Bill

                                        Thanks for the email. I spoke with the guy you're now in touch with on Sunday evening - he's the Group's Operations Director. As you know, he is keen to establish exactly what has happened. Look forward to reading that you & he have clarified things.

                                        best

                                        John

                                        1. re: Harters

                                          Great to see a you helping out a fellow CH!!!

                                        2. re: Bill Hunt

                                          Any update on this?

                                          1. re: donovt

                                            I'd also be interested to know how this ended.

                                2. re: Harters

                                  This might be done in touristy restaurants more than you know and I wonder if there is a discriminatory practice because service charges were almost added to our bill during a three week holiday there the previous summer. And, then there was the line for the tip after the service charge. Having gone to university there (many years ago), I didn't think to check and my husband always added a tip. It wasn't until near the end of our vacation that I looked. We did not dine in the type of restaurants Bill Hunt did but regular mom and pop restaurants for the most part. But, since we were doing the touristy thing and in those area, I expect most of the restaurants were touristy places. And, my husband with his baseball hat and backpack (couldn't get him to change) stood out like a sore thumb.

                                  1. re: chowser

                                    In our particular cases, the dates were in April, or October, the normal board meetings. IIRC, most were for the Oct. trips, which were before traditional Holidays.

                                    Actual Holiday fares are often elevated, and not just in the UK - the US does some of this, as well.

                                    Also, in the US there is often a "sliding scale," for some "resort" dining. If one dines in Vail during "mud season," the same restaurants, that charge US$40 per main, might well have a lower price.

                                    I do not think that my citations would reflect any sort of "Holiday" pricing, but could be wrong. Heck, in London, May Day is celebrated, though usually with barricades and plywood over the windows.

                                    Do not have an explanation for what I, and my hosts/hostesses have observed.

                                    Hunt

                              2. JFood is right. But for the record - speaking as a restaurant owner, we had the policy of crossing the tipline out on credit cards where service was included. It removes doubt. The bill was always very clear about the tip being included.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                  Sal,

                                  I think that is a good practice, and would be happy with it being universal. Now, with that policy, should I feel the need to tip more, I can do so from my pocket.

                                  Hunt

                                  1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                    Agreed. The last thing you want is credit card disputes or ill will towards your place.

                                    When I worked as a server, we would add a discrete, but noticeable stamp to the check that said gratuity was included.

                                    I worked at a fairly high end restaurant, but some people just aren't familiar with customs or restaurant norms. No one wants to feel cheated, so I think you have to make it as clear as possible.

                                  2. I was surprised to see how much attention this thread has received in the last several weeks. I thought I should take a moment to update everyone. I never did get around to contacting the restaurant to inquire about the tip. And, as I mentioned before, it really wasn't something I was going to lose sleep over... I was fine with the prospect of the server receiving an "extra" tip for working on the holiday.

                                    That said, I happened to check my card statement when I got back from my Christmas travels. I noticed that the amount of the charge on the statement was the pre-tip amount, and did not include the additional 20% that I had added on to the slip. Since the statement was generated about three weeks after the initial charge/authorization, I am assuming that what I saw on the statement is, in fact, the final charge. So, in spite of my error, the folks at the restaurant were conscientious enough to not charge me the additional amount.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: matteo1973

                                      I have seen at least once the 18% gratuity and then the next line said "Additional Tip". This made it very clear that anything I put on that line was in addition to the 18% that the server was getting. The computer that prints up your check should be able to be programed to add those words in this day and age.