Comment: The conundrums of service charge and tipping

Food writer Samantha Wood weighs in on the lack of influencer etiquette and the need for transparency when it comes to gratuity

Samantha Wood
Samantha Wood

As anyone working in the hospitality or F&B industry knows, service charge and tipping are in fact two different practices. The challenge we have is that the average diner is largely unaware and lumps these two components together.

Here in the UAE, restaurants who implement service charge, either add this to the bill at the end, or include it in the total. In both these cases, most establishments will use these funds for ‘team-building’ activities, breakages, or the like. It’s not often that staff see these dirhams added to their salary or distributed in cash. So unless one tips, ideally with cash, employees do not benefit.

My objective here is to highlight the issue of lack of transparency. Consumers are unaware of this practice and are paying a service charge, thinking it’s a tip that will get distributed amongst the staff. Alas, that’s not the case. I urge all hotels and restaurants to disclose their service charge policy on presentation of the bill, either by clarifying clearly in print or in person, so that the diner can make an informed decision. My rule of thumb is to ask the waiter what happens to the service charge, so I can decide on tipping, and how much. Personally, if the service impresses, I will always tip in cash – but I appreciate I might be the exception. We all know that staff jump ship to busier restaurants to earn higher tips, so with more disclosure, establishments are more likely to retain their better talent and reduce turnover.

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This leads in nicely to the endless dinners restaurants are comping in the age of influencer and media marketing. I hear feedback from owners and operators that rarely do these guests on freebies leave a tip – a fact that astounds me. Etiquette dictates that if someone extends an invitation to his or her house for dinner, one takes a gift of some kind. So surely the same gesture should apply in a restaurant? A tip as a gift. And that amount really should equate to a minimum 10% of the estimated total bill. It’s also a small gesture towards the long, arduous and, sometimes, thankless hours operations teams have to work. Believe me, I know, my father has dedicated his whole life to this industry.

Needless to say, for any of the scenarios discussed here, one typically only tips if the service impresses, but I should hope, if one is invited, the team is on high alert and ready to wow. After all, the myth, and I emphasise myth, says ‘tip’ is an acronym for ‘to insure promptness’. I would argue that should read ‘ensure’. Do what you wish with this random tale.

Let’s conclude with the controversial splitting of tips. In reality who gets more? Front-of-house or kitchen? Provided salaries are on a par (which we know is not the case, but that’s a subject for another comment piece), then tips should be split equally - in the same vein that both food and service are equal pre-requisites to an excellent dining experience. In reality though, waiting staff earn less, so it’s only fair their proportion of tips should be higher.

Agree or disagree?

Samantha Wood is a food writer, consultant and event organiser with 25 years of experience. Wood is also the founder of impartial restaurant review website and the curator of dining experiences. She can be contacted on every social media channel or by email on

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