Helen Martin: Table rules can tip the balance

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SOME – OK, many – years ago I was working in England and sent out to interview a famous comedian in a swanky London restaurant.

Rather naively, I let him order the wine which was very tasty but perhaps not worth the £162 that one bottle cost me on expenses.

When the editor put his head in his hands and asked why the joke was on him and his budget, I told him at least I hadn’t left a tip, which in that place would have been about £50. Instead, head high on my brass neck, I felt the waiter and the sommelier’s eyes drilling into my back like daggers as I swept out the door without leaving a halfpenny. In celebrity London eateries, that just isn’t done.

A website survey from Friday
Friday.com says most of us resent service charges (understandable since they often bear no relation to quality of service) and over half of us are derisory about tipping, using it as a method of getting rid of loose change; presumably not the windfall the attentive waiter was hoping for. We’ve just never got to grips with gratuities in this country.

My first visit to the States by comparison was, fortunately for me, a press trip where every custom, including tips, was explained in detail before we were let loose in New York.

Tipping is so much the norm that the American tax man assumes everyone working in a public service industry will receive at least ten per cent in tips and taxes them on that basis. The customer has to tip to avoid leaving the worker out of pocket. At least it’s clear cut.

Here, especially in cities such as Edinburgh with a huge and varied hospitality and service sector, there are no rules. For example, most restaurants think it is fairer to pool tips among the staff so that the kitchen isn’t left out while the front of house go home burdened down with loot. I can understand that.

But savvy customers say they want to tip only for notably good service, which suggests they want the money to go to the person who impressed them, not the sullen geezer working on the next table or the dishwasher out back.

Some restaurateurs are reputed to use the tip money towards paying wages – in other words, it offsets the costs of the owner rather than rewarding the staff at all.

As belts tighten, fewer of us can afford to be over-generous with tipping. In fact, the need to leave a “respectable” gratuity could tip the balance on whether we can afford to eat out at all.

Not all staff appreciate that. Try leaving your last 20p and you may well be told sarcastically: “I think you sir/madam need that more than I do.” And in the current financial climate that may well be the case.

Then there’s the technology. Great care is needed with these table-to-table, chip-and-pin card readers. Himself once realised in the nick of time that he had almost left a £100 tip rather than a tenner. If he hadn’t, would the waiter have pointed it out?

We need some consistency throughout the hospitality industry for the businesses, the staff and the customers, especially at a time when experts have predicted 20 per cent of Scottish hotels could go bust in the next 12 months and when we know restaurants in the Capital, particularly those in the middle price range, are fighting for survival.

It doesn’t matter whether everywhere or nowhere has a service charge or whether the tips are pooled or not. It doesn’t matter whether the norm is five, ten or 12 per cent, or whether tipping at all should be reserved for especially good service. But it would be better for everyone if there was a general city-wide policy and custom most hospitality businesses could sign up to and for which tourists could be prepared.

Then we could start on hairdressers, taxis, postmen, dustmen, window cleaners . . .

Life in fast blame

SCAPEGOATING is a popular pastime nowadays and I wonder if I am alone in sensing that Olympics security firm G4S is being hung out to dry in order to save a government scalp.

In December 2010, it was contracted to provide 2000 staff. A year later, as is often alleged to be the case with government contracts, the requirement had gone up to more than 10,000. In recruitment terms, some might say that with seven months to go it was an impossible challenge.

Now G4S has 4000 deployed and another 9000 in training. Yes, it’s too late, but the firm has put its hands up to failure and embarrassment and is paying the excess costs of employing the military. Not surprisingly, it regrets accepting the contract at all, let alone going along with the changing terms.

But who, on the government/Olympics committee which employed G4S, got the number so wrong in the first place? And show me a government minister who has ever blown the whistle on himself, admitted failure and humiliation, and undertaken to pay for putting things right?