Last month's media furore over the tipping policy of some of Britain's largest chain restaurants—with certain establishments accused of forcing waitstaff to "pay to work"—came as a shock to anyone who has eaten in a high street Italian joint. But for those in the industry, the headlines say nothing new.
Tipping in British restaurants has long been a difficult subject, with little regulation and confusion on both sides of the pass over who gets what. It's about time we stopped to ask exactly how our tips are being allocated.
"Just a few years ago, tips could be used to top up people's salaries, leaving waitstaff earning well below the minimum wage," says Dave Turnbull, a regional officer for Unite the Union, who works with those in the food and hospitality sector across London.
After a successful campaign in 2008, this practice is now illegal, with the days of bosses paying their staff £2-an-hour and using tips to cover the rest seemingly gone.
"Back then, we campaigned on that bad practice," says Turnbull. "We highlighted these other scams too, although attention has only returned in recent weeks."
Getting your head around bad tipping practice within the British restaurant industry can be tough, but the concerns raised by the press and public in recent weeks seems to divide into three categories: administration fees, service charges, and—well, Las Iguanas.
"In the first instance, you've got this administration fee," Turnbull explains, as we take a seat at Unite the Union HQ. "Companies like Pizza Express, Zizzi, and Giraffe—they've been charging waitstaff a percentage of their tips left on cards, which they say covers the cost of putting the money through payroll."
The percentage tends to be 8 to 10 percent, which year on year, adds up to millions of pounds.
When I first started, I was told the service charge went to the commis waiters, who bring the food upstairs but turns out that was bullshit.
Alfredo, who works at a London branch of Pizza Express tells me has has raised concerns with his management about the injustice of this system for month, but was told it was necessary to maintain the restaurant's cash flow.
But not all chain restaurants have felt this necessity, with neither TGI Fridays, Wagamama, nor Pizza Hut instigating such charges against their staff.
The second issue is slightly more suspect. You know the service charge that appears on your bill at the end of a meal, usually for 12.5 percent? Turns out it's not always a sum that ends up in your server's wallet.
Nilufer Erdem, 23, has been working in the industry since she turned 16, and knows London's bar and restaurant culture inside out. She tells me about her time working for Côte Brasserie, a chain of French restaurants with locations across the country, including over ten in London.
"Working for these guys—well, it was always pretty weird. There was a 'service charge' on all bills but I never saw a penny," remembers Erdem. "When I first started, I was told the service charge went to the commis waiters, who bring the food upstairs but turns out that was bullshit."
Many customers who clock the "12.5 percent service" addition on their bills see no need to add gratuity.
"People assumed that the money was going to us," adds Erdem. "People rarely ask where the tip is going although some people do get arsey that it's already on the bill, asking for it to be removed and paid in cash."
For waitstaff like Erdem, though, such customer concern isn't always a good thing.
"If someone wanted give me a tip in cash, I'd get a bollocking from the managers," she says. "They'd tell me I'd given bad service. It makes us look bad and we'd get in trouble."
When approached for comment on their tipping policy, Côte Restaurants issued MUNCHIES with a statement saying that the company is "committed to ensuring our staff receive the fairest possible reward for their work" and that each is given a "share of the service charge collected.
They continued: "We recognise the importance of the debate about the service charge and tipping and are consulting with staff and customers to see if we can improve the way that we allocate the service charge to the staff in our restaurants."
Some waitstaff are paying from their own earnings a percentage of what they sell—essentially paying for the right to work.
The third tipping practice highlighted by recent media coverage seems specific to Las Iguanas, a 30-strong chain of "Latin American" eateries spread across the United Kingdom.
"This caught us on the hop," says Turnbull. "It's something we never really see."
According to Turnbull's networks, waitstaff in Las Iguanas are free to keep their tips but at the end of a busy shift, management will work out how much each workers' sales were worth and may force certain staff members to pay some of this amount back.
"It seems the money is used for training," explains Turnbull. "3 percent of your sales outside London, rising to 4 percent in the capital—that's of their sales during service not the tips!"
This means waitstaff are paying from their own earnings a percentage of what they sell—essentially paying for the right to work. Unite estimates that in some cases, 4 percent can even be greater than total tips.
One Las Iguanas waiter I spoke to confirmed this, although asked me to not mention in which branch he worked. Las Iguanas did not return MUNCHIES' request for comment.
But progress is in the pipeline, with Pizza Express, Giraffe, Zizzi, and Ask Italian all agreeing to scrap their card fees in the coming months. Tunbull puts this down to the power of the union and public pressure, although the companies are keen to tell me it's simply thanks to a "new automated system."
In a statement, Pizza Express CEO Richard Hodgson said that the restaurant chain is "committed to best practice" and that transparency is a priority. Hodgson also agreed with calls for "greater clarity across the industry in order to ensure that staff are given a fair deal and to enable customers to make an informed choice when it comes to tipping."
But Erdem, Turnbull, and other campaigners say change in policy comes from collective action, not the priorities of the bosses. Despite the challenges of unionising in an industry that sees 350,000 workers leave every year, Turnbull tells me that numbers are increasing day by day.
"People are waking up to the abuse and secrets of the industry," adds Erdem. "Hospitality is changing, there's a will to fight and a will to change things. I have no doubt that we'll get what we want."