Only customers can force big restaurants to treat staff fairly

PUBLISHED: 18:28 19 June 2019 | UPDATED: 18:28 19 June 2019

Should a restaurant chain dock the wages of its staff when a customer leaves without paying?

Should a restaurant chain dock the wages of its staff when a customer leaves without paying?

Iakov Filimonov

Want a tip when going to a restaurant? Give your tip directly to the waiter or waiteress who served you, says Andy Newman

The hospitality industry above all others is one where you live or you die by the quality of your staff - not just their performance, but their general attitude and demeanour. None of us wants to spend our hard-earned cash in a restaurant where the waiters are miserable and demotivated; these are, after all, places we got to enjoy ourselves.

For this reason, I never cease to be amazed at the efforts many restaurant chains make to demoralise, bully and generally upset their employees.

The latest example of the contempt that such organisations show for their staff came this week at Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca, which was outed on Twitter by a concerned customer over their policy of dipping their greedy fingers into their staff's pay packets when a customer 'does a runner'.

The incident in question saw a server being made to foot part of the bill when a table of customers left without paying. I don't think this policy is unique to Wahaca, but whether it's 'standard practice' or not, it's a pretty shabby way to treat any employee.

I'm pretty sure that no major retailer docks the pay of shop floor staff to cover the cost of shoplifting, so why should this be acceptable in the restaurant industry?

According to its last published accounts, Wahaca's parent company turned over £47.9million in 2017/18, and yet the company seems to think it is entitled to tap up their minimum-wage-earning waiters and waitresses to cover the losses when they are the victims of theft.

I'm no great fan of social media, but the incident did demonstrate its positive side. After the policy was initially defended on Twitter by the chain's founder Thomasina Miers, the company was eventually shamed by the sheer weight of online opinion into a U-turn, and it has now changed its policy.

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This case is sadly a symptom of the wider shabby treatment that too many restaurant chains dish out to their hard-working and generally poorly-paid staff. It wasn't that long ago that the scandal of restaurants making huge deductions from tips paid by credit card came to light, again forcing change - but the thorny issue of the service charge still remains.

When you pay a service charge on the bill, it belongs to the restaurant. It may or may not pay some or all of that charge to its staff, but the Unite union, which represents many in the hospitality industry, says that often this sum is used to cover the bills of customers who have left without paying - effectively making the staff pay, once again.

When in a restaurant, I always ask exactly where the service charge goes, and whether the house makes any deductions at all. If I am not satisfied, I simply ask for the charge to be removed from my bill, and then give it - in cash - directly to the server. Only by doing this can you be sure it will end up where you intend it to.

You have to be a bit thick-skinned to do this; I did it in a London restaurant at the weekend, and before I knew it I had the restaurant manager at my table asking - rather aggressively - why I wanted the service charge removed. I explained that I preferred to show my appreciation of the service I had received directly to the waiter. The manager scowled, but had no choice but to accede to my wishes.

I then gave the tip direct to the waiter, safe in the knowledge that not only would the restaurant not have the chance to skim off its cut, but that the sum would be also be free of National Insurance.

I should say that it's mainly chains which treat their staff with this level of disdain. Many independent restaurants operate a 'tronc' system, where all tips and service charges are paid - in full - into a fund which is administered not by the company, but by a member of staff chosen by the staff as a whole.

It's no coincidence that these are the restaurants where the staff are generally happier, and as a result the dining experience is infinitely better.

It's a shame that in 2019 we still need Twitter campaigns to persuade the big players in the hospitality industry to treat their people decently. It's no great surprise that the level of mental ill health in the sector is way above the national average, and that should leave a bad taste in all our mouths.

As customers we need to start asking searching questions about restaurants' policies, and then rewarding those who treat their staff well with our custom - and punishing those which don't by steering well clear.

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