A recent survey by restaurant booking service Top Table found that 90% of diners believed restaurants should not automatically add a service charge to the bill. David Moore, proprietor of the Michelin-star Pied á Terre restaurant in London, gives an insider's view of the issue.
The recent Zagat guide stated that poor service was the biggest complaint in restaurants, with 65% of respondents reporting this problem. In my view, if customers are unhappy with the service they receive, they should not pay it. Can you imagine 65% of your customers refusing to pay the service on the bill? That would certainly shake things up.
As a well-seasoned and much-travelled diner, I prefer to see a discretionary service charge on a bill so that, at the end of the meal, it is my choice to decide whether I pay service or not.
The issue of service charges generally only raises its ugly head when the service is poor, when there is a gripe or complaint. In these circumstances, assuming that the service charge is discretionary, customers should stand their ground, complain and refuse to pay, or suggest a smaller percentage, if they feel that would be appropriate.
On the other hand, I will leave extra if I have enjoyed exceptional service.
However, the main issues relating to service run much deeper. The front of house struggles to attract the quality of personnel that it needs to sustain the ever-increasing standards that the very sophisticated market here in London now demands.
The perception of low wages and asocial hours, leaves the industry not a career of choice for school leavers.
The problem of asocial working hours is not unique to the restaurant industry - there are a great many professions where a person may be required to work outside the nine-to-five slot.
So, the real problem in attracting good-quality waiting staff is money and the question to ask is, "Who actually receives the service charge?" Here at Pied-a-Terre, we run a transparent tronc scheme where all moneys received from service is split between all members of the team, both kitchen and front of house.
This motivates the whole team and encourages staff to be more productive. This means more bookings, more customers, and more money in the pocket. It also helps with staff retention, another contributor to improving service.
Compliments on service are great but tips help pay the living costs of waiting staff. The job is a vocation to only a few - the rest are there to earn money and will respond to financial gain. This, in turn, should bring improvements to service levels.
Like many occupations, money is a very important motivator for staff in the restaurant industry and if we want to improve standards of service and ensure the staff are properly motivated, adequate payment for work is certainly part of the solution. Charging service and not passing it on to the team is a major source of the "poor service" problem.
The question that every diner should be asking is, "Do staff get the tip?" If the answer is no, and a diners feel a tip is appropriate, they should give the cash directly to the waiter.
A professional code of conduct on the distribution of service charge and an industry-wide standard that establishments could register with would represent major steps towards improve service. An industry-recognised logo on a bill could indicate to customers that staff are getting the service charge.