Ask five people about the service charge – that innocent-looking 12.5% “discretionary” or “optional” at the bottom of your bill – and you’ll get five different answers. It’s an archaic, often underground system and I’m glad I scuffed it in our Oklava restaurant. Here’s why.
The service charge has never been right for me or my business partner, but as two fresh-faced, star-eyed, debt-ridden restaurateurs as they approached their 30th anniversary we didn’t have the confidence needed to break the mold. Being the only restaurant in London to incorporate a service charge into menu prices seemed like a step too far.
Then the coronavirus broke the mold for us. You see, for years the government has encouraged us to use a system called trunk, which it describes as “a separate organized compensation arrangement … used to distribute tips, gratuities and service charges,” which is managed by someone hilariously called a “troncmaster”. In theory this should lead to a more equitable distribution of tips among staff, but in practice some of the money tended to end up in the pockets of shady owners.
But trunk was not factored into the leave schedule, meaning thousands of hotel workers received only 80% or even 50% of their original pay – a blow of foot in the teeth when they were already down. As well as giving us a major financial headache, it made us realize that for too long we had accepted unachievable margins and untenable practices in the name of the love of food and wine.
The truth is, service charges are optional for guests, but not for the hospitality industry. The bill that arrives at the end of your meal not only covers the cost of the ingredients and the staff, there is also the rent, tariffs, VAT, fuel, cleaning products, laundry, maintenance, training, stationery, public relations and marketing – and that’s before you even consider any profit. Without this 12.5% service charge, we wouldn’t be able to pay our highly trained staff the wages they deserve and keep the restaurant afloat.
Service charges are seen as an implicit threat against restaurant workers. Most people can have a day off without having their pay reduced, but hotel staff are ransomed daily. Just because your waiter had a nightmare shift doesn’t mean the kitchen porter should be making home less money.
My team has chosen to make the hotel industry their profession. They spent hours discovering the intricacies of my grandmother’s bread recipe, the origin of good wines in Armenia, the art of feeling at home, the dark magic of temperature variations within a same charcoal barbecue. If you don’t like what we are doing, we can accept it. But we are no longer ready to allow people to show their displeasure by cutting our wages.
Service charges are now included in the prices of our menus. What you see is what you pay for. At first glance, it may seem like you’re paying more for the same experience, but we promise that’s what you would have paid before – only now can you be sure the money is going to a healthy, viable restaurant with it. a staff who are paid what they deserve.