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Ex Gratia

The tipping point


PETTY CASH: Service charge is not the same as service tax, which goes to the government. It is a levy imposed by a restaurants on its patrons for services rendered

If you are one of those who don't believe in tipping but frequent the same restaurants, you must surely have taken into account horror stories of servers spitting or pissing into your drink, or throwing your food on the floor before arranging it delicately on your plate. Going by the popular blog, The Stained Apron, where angry servers vent out their ire, this, or worse, could be true. Sample this: "Asshole saw the bartender making some blended drink and asked her what it was (that) she was making. She responded by calling the drink a 'Pain in My Ass'. This prick ORDERED ONE! While the drink was blending, she poured double doses of prescription laxative into the blender, thereby rendering anything he had for lunch indigestible!"

On the other hand, if you are a good tipper, servers will fight to wait on you, ensure prompt service and lavish special favours. They will also remember that you like your vodka with a sprig of mint, or that you prefer your pizza minus the olives. Servers will usually go that extra mile for a patron who tips well. And Indians, despite their reputation as bad tippers, have upheld the time-honoured tradition of tipping. Baksheesh, after all, runs in our culture.

But that was then. In the last couple of years, an increasing number of restaurants across the country have started adding a 'service charge' of 5 to 12 per cent to the bill, whereas five-star hotels, for the most part, do not levy this charge. And this has left most people confused: should they leave a tip at such restaurants, or shouldn't they? Most restaurantgoers TOI-Crest spoke to say they now check the bill to see if there's a service charge, and if there is, they don't tip. Here are some reactions: "If they're already taking 10 per cent extra, why should I pay another 10 per cent, over and above that?" "Why should customers be made to pay separately for something that's so integral to what restaurants are supposed to do, which is to serve? By that logic, shouldn't shops add a separate charge for the services of their shop assistants;shouldn't airlines include a compulsory tip for the cabin crew in the fare?" "Aren't restaurants just passing on some of their staff costs in an underhand way instead of raising prices on the menu by, say, 10 per cent, which is a more transparent way of charging customers?" "Tipping should be voluntary, out of happiness with the quality of service we get."

Harish Sud, secretary general, Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India, goes further. "Service charge is levied at the discretion of the management and tipping is strictly forbidden at restaurants that take this charge," he says. FHRAI is the apex body of the four regional associations representing the hospitality Industry.

Akshay Jaipuria, a 26-year-old Kolkata-based entrepreneur, feels restaurants should not levy service charge. "In Kolkata, most restaurants still don't take a service charge. So when I was in Delhi recently and visited places like Mocha, Shalom, Hard Rock Cafê and Big Chill, all of which take a service charge, I was quite miffed," he says.

There are some who find themselves stranded in the middle. Arjun Singh Varma, a 38-year-old Delhibased businessman, is used to tipping at restaurants and finds it awkward to stop the practice. He says, "Most people seem to think one should not leave a tip when there is a service charge, but I end up doing so by force of habit. But I leave less. Instead of the normal 10 per cent, it's about 5-7 per cent depending on the service charge." He adds, "A week ago, I took a few guests out to dinner. When the bill came, I looked at the total and nothing else, and left a 12-14 per cent tip, only to discover later that a 10 per cent service charge had already been added. I would have left a much smaller tip if I'd looked at the break-up of the bill."

Service charge is not to be mistaken for service tax, which goes into the government's coffers. It is a levy imposed by a restaurant on its patrons for services rendered - in short, an assured tip that one has to compulsorily pay. It doubles as a variable pay, which is non-taxable, and is given to staffers over and above their contracted salaries. But most restaurants pass on only about 50 per cent of the service charge to the staff and the rest is kept by the establishment to compensate for crockery breakage and damage to property.

What then is the tipping etiquette in such a scenario? Restaurateurs say it's up to the individual. Says Anjan Chatterjee, owner of the popular Oh! Calcutta, Mainland China, Haka and Sigree restaurant chains, "Tips are a reward for good service. After all, the servers are the ones who make it a fantastic experience for the patron. The boys get some money and their happiness ensures they work with greater zeal and keep customers happy. I am all for tipping, but whether or not a patron leaves a tip over and above the service charge is totally his discretion." Chatterjee's restaurants take a service charge of 10 per cent, but it's applicable only to à la carte dining, not buffets and quick service counters because "there is not much service involved".

A D Singh, proprietor, Olive chain of restaurants, one of the first places to impose such a charge, explains: "When we opened Olive about 10 years ago, we noticed that Indians were by and large very poor tippers. Even if they ran up a large bill they would often leave just 20-30 bucks for the servers. So we decided to introduce a 10 per cent service charge as a guaranteed tip." Arjun Sajnani, owner of Sunny's in Bangalore, agrees. "We levy a service charge of 10 per cent. This is to ensure that every person involved in getting the food out gets a little more of the pie."

Interestingly, while it was the five-star hotels that started the concept of a service charge around a decade ago, many have done away with it now. In fact, most of the country's five-star hotel groups - Oberoi, Taj, ITC-Welcomgroup, Hyatt, Marriott, Radisson, Park - do not levy a service charge at their restaurants.

"We don't have a service charge, but what we do have is a common kitty for the tips. From this pool, all employees including kitchen staff, back-office people, engineers and accounts personnel get something over and above their pay every month," says Nikhil Kapur, general manager, Ista, a five-star boutique hotel located in the heart of Bangalore.

Shisha, a hip nightclub in Kolkata, doesn't take any service charge either. "Over and above the bills, customers have to pay a 20 per cent liquor tax, a 12.5 per cent F&B tax and 12.5 per cent VAT. We don't want to increase the burden on our guests by imposing a service charge. We let our service speak for itself and give patrons the freedom to decide on the tip," says Abhijit Dev, the manager.

The size of a tip, meanwhile, is a matter of social custom and varies among cultures. El Bulli, the Michelin three-star restaurant near the town of Roses, Catalonia (Spain), run by chef Ferran Adrià, includes a service charge in the final invoice. Described as "the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet", El Bulli was ranked first in the Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant list for four years in a row from 2006. TOI-Crest asked the management via email what they think about tipping over and above the service charge. They said: "This depends on an individual and which cultural group he or she belongs to, because each country has its own customs and there is no established standard on tipping."

Though, by definition, a tip is not mandatory, in several countries, including the US, failing to leave an adequate tip is considered miserly and a violation of etiquette. Conversely, in Australia, Singapore and Italy, tipping is not really the norm, while in Iceland and Japan it is considered downright offensive.

Rahul Akerker, owner of Indigo restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi, says, "While in New York one is expected to leave a 16-20 per cent tip, and you are likely to meet with aggressive behaviour if you don't, in Paris, overtly generous tips are not appreciated." Indigo is one of the few upmarket restaurants that don't levy a service charge, but Akerkar says almost all their diners leave generous tips for servers.

This is because people, in the final analysis, tip from their heart. "Tipping is a very emotional thing. One can't quantify it with a rational denominator," says Chatterjee. Sajnani adds, "Our guests always leave something over and above although it is fine not to leave any tip (in addition to service charge)."

Most agree that a 10 per cent tip is the logical, templated thing to do. Going up to 15 or 20 per cent is more of an emotional decision. An MNC chief executive TOI-Crest spoke to but who didn't wish to be identified, elaborated: "How much I tip depends on my experience. If the food and wine in great, if the ambience is great, and if the service is great, I'm happy to leave a 15-20 per cent tip. In fact, at times I have even tipped 30 per cent on a large bill, especially if it's a special occasion (like an anniversary or a birthday or a celebration) and the waiters have gone out of their way to keep the bar open and let us linger after closing hours."
Often, it also has to a lot to do with being a regular at a restaurant and forming a bond with a particular server, as is evident from the experience of Brian Sorrell, assistant restaurant manager at Mainland China, Mumbai. Sorrell, who has risen from the rank of a steward, says, "A few years ago, a smallscreen actor came for a meal at our Sakinaka restaurant, where I was posted earlier, but did not leave a tip. But he came back the next day, apologised and gave me Rs 1,000 for my 'excellent service'." Over the years, the actor and Sorrell have become friends.

Coming back to where we began, there is no golden rule on tipping. Whenever you are in a dilemma, go with what your heart says. Just remember that many expand 'TIPS' to read: To Insure Prompt Service.


Many of the old, Raj-era clubs, such as the ones in Kolkata, are at the other end of the tipping scale. Their rules are unambiguous - tip the waiter at the risk of losing your membership. Several years ago, a member actually had to forfeit his membership at one of the clubs for violating the rule. "Tipping is still barred in Bengal Club. Since it is conservative and has limited members, instances of violation are few," says Kamalesh Roy Choudhury, a member of the club for decades.

But a lot of members, especially the newer and younger ones, tend to quietly slip a 50 or a 100-rupee note to the waiter. "Service can be excruciatingly slow otherwise," says one of them, on condition of anonymity.


Valet tipping at five stars in India is very common. Most people give Rs 10-20 to the valet for parking their car and retrieving it, but some generous tippers have also been known to tip Rs 50 or Rs 100 One is also expected to leave tips at beauty parlours, salons and spas. A 10 per cent tip for your hairstylist or manicurist is considered decent In hotels, porters or bell boys and room service attendants are usually tipped at the end of the stay. Anything between Rs 50 and a couple of hundred bucks is fine depending on the duration of stay and the standard of the hotel At hospitals, people tip the ward boys, attendants and nurses in advance to ensure that the patient is well taken care of. Tips are also expected at the birth of a baby In India, one is not expected to tip cabbies or drivers except when one hires a car for the entire day or for days at a stretch. People usually give drivers Rs 30-50 for meals and Rs 100-200 when they release them

With reports from Subhro Niyogi & Anshul Dhamija

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