Is it ever okay to ask for the service charge to be removed at a restaurant?

Customers are noticing a trend towards London eateries upping their service charges, and not all of them are happy with it.

On Reddit forum r/london, a poster shared a pic of a receipt with a 15% service charge added on top that’s garnered 1,400 upvotes and more than 600 comments at the time of writing.

While service charges are discretionary, many of the people in the comments were expressing their displeasure, and sharing how they’ve started seeing similar restaurant costs rising.

One person wrote: ‘Ate out in London three times over the weekend, all had a 15% tip added to the bill without asking.

‘One restaurant made me pay via QR code, added a service charge, then asked if I wanted to add a tip before checking out…. no.’

‘I work in hospitality,’ wrote another, ‘but the service charge is a total scam and shouldn’t exist. It would make more sense to just include it in the prices, but that would probably scare some people off.’

But don’t worry – if you’re not happy with the idea of paying an extra 15%, we checked with an expert on all things politeness and, yes, you can ask for it to be removed without sounding like a dreadful person.

Etiquette coach John-Paul Stuthridge tells us: ‘The hospitality industry is often too turbulent at the best of times. It rarely has healthy cash flow or reserves other industries can depend on, not least the high turnover of staff and cost of recruitment.

‘Throw in an extensive lockdown and a world cost of living crisis, restaurants have added service charges to help recoup their losses. Increasing the charge further helps them combat the crisis that is hard for some to say no to.

‘You can much more easily not go to a restaurant that’s upped its prices by 15%, but how many people will just accept a 15% service charge and politely say nothing? Many.’

When it comes to the purpose of these charges, Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, says: ‘Service charge policies are set and determined by individual businesses, so it is up to them to determine the level of charge.

‘Service charges serve a variety of functions, but primarily reward staff and provide a boost to employees’ earnings, ensuring that venues can continue to provide the highest standard of service possible.’

But John-Paul, who works closely with language learning app Preply, does add that you’d be well within your rights to ask for the service charge to be removed, if that’s what you really want to do.

‘Whether you should ask to remove it may depend on how charitable you feel, or if the service genuinely deserved it,’ he adds. ‘It is your call.’

Kate agrees, saying: ‘The majority of hospitality venues will always be happy to discuss additional charges, and guests should always speak to a member of staff if they have any questions about their bill.’

If you truly don’t feel like the service is worthy of the charge on the bill, don’t get mean about it, just be, as John-Paul recommends, ‘direct and honest’.

‘No reason needs to be given,’ he goes on, ‘however, if you are asked, then give your polite feedback in an honest, but short to-the-point manner.

‘The higher the figure for service charge, the less likely customers will oblige, but having it removed altogether, so guests can tip the individual server the amount they want to give remains a legitimate and more proper compromise.’

Please note that in the US, etiquette around tipping is hugely different than it is in the UK.

It’s customary, even expected that customers will tip at least 15%-20% to bring their pay up to the legal minimum wage.

As an example, the New York State Department of Labor says: ‘The minimum wage for food service workers in New York City is $15 [£12.20] per hour. Their employers can satisfy the minimum wage by combining a cash wage of at least $10 [£8.13] with a tip allowance of no more than $5 [£4.07].’

If you make $10 an hour in New York, it’s likely that will come to be around $15,900 [£12,923] after tax, so it’s no exaggeration to say that servers need your tips to get by. Meanwhile, Glassdoor has it that the average salary for a waiter is £30,443 per year in London.

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