Let's talk about tips

In the wake of yet another high-profile scandal over restaurant tips, co-owner & Commercial Director Euan Sey gives his thoughts on tipping and spells out Curry Leaf Cafe's policy

I got into this business for the same reason that most people probably do: because I love food, especially when somebody else is doing the cooking. The buzz of a packed restaurant, the unfamiliar smells and sounds wafting out of the kitchen, the excitement that builds inside you as you glance down the menu of exotic-sounding dishes on the menu. Pure escapism.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to burst that bubble faster than you can say “cheque, please” it’s wondering where the tip I’m about to leave is actually going. Will the people who cooked and served the food I just ate get it, or will some latter-day robber Baron with a misplaced sense of entitlement siphon it off into their corporate slush fund?

When the initial controversy around restaurant tips blew up last summer, one of the local papers called to ask us what our policy is. Then, as now, my business partner Kanthi and I are only too happy to spell it out. One hundred percent of the tips left by customers are split between our kitchen and wait staff – including the mandatory 10% service charge we add to the bills of large groups. Employees divvy up the cash tips between themselves at the end of each night, and every penny that we receive in credit card tips is redistributed through their monthly payslips. Credit card tips generate transaction fees, but rather than deduct these costs (as many restaurants quite fairly do), we elected from the start to absorb these into our running costs.

Until recently, I naively thought this was standard practice in the industry, or at least at the more respectable end of the dining spectrum. As I scanned down the comments section below the most recent exposé of a high-profile chef/owner, however, it became clear that many of you are – quite understandably – under the impression that we’re all cheating our staff.

Let me be clear about one thing. It's hard making money from feeding people, at least in a licensed restaurant with all the associated overheads. Unless you’re packing the place out at lunch and dinner, seven days a week, you’re far from guaranteed to make a profit at the end of the financial year. It’s a well-worn trope that restaurants open, become popular and then cash in by jacking up their prices. I suspect that, in nine cases out of ten, it’s more that the financial realities of renting, staffing, heating and lighting a decent-sized premises in the centre of a city like Brighton don’t hit home until you’ve been trading for at least half a year. Then you panic and add another pound to everything on the menu.

Some months are slow, that’s just the nature of working in the service industry. What’s more, the price of some of our staple ingredients have increased by close to 40% since we opened our doors in 2014, and economists are predicting a further rise of at least 3.5% across the board in 2017.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the small restaurant owner – or indeed the under-pressure Chief Financial Officer of a big high-street chain – might be tempted to redirect the flow of customer tips into the company’s coffers. But we all have to look ourselves in the mirror each morning. Besides, a business like this lives or dies by the energy and commitment its staff put into their work. And I can’t think of a quicker way to poison the well than treating your people like a disposable resource, or their hard-earned tips as ‘revenue’.

There’s enough bad karma happening in the world without concerns over shady employment practices butting into your precious evening out and leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. A restaurant should be a refuge – as much from stuff like this as bland food and dirty dishes.
 

Euan Sey, co-owner
Curry Leaf Cafe

Co-owners Euan Sey (left) & Chef Kanthi Thamma (right) at their original Ship Street cafe in April 2014

Co-owners Euan Sey (left) & Chef Kanthi Thamma (right) at their original Ship Street cafe in April 2014

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