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My festive tip: beware of a gratuitous service charge

Published 26 December 2004
News Review
598th article

Michael Winner tips Jessica Robertshaw at the Wolseley (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

This is Boxing Day when you give boxes, or tips, to everyone who's been of service. Why not send me a bob or two?

I get many letters about tipping. Should you tip if the service is bad? Why do waiters say, when the service charge is already on the bill, "It doesn't include the gratuity!" Why is there this absurd line on many bills: "An optional service charge of 12½% will be added"? Who gets the tips?

About eight years ago Inland Revenue and National Insurance inspectors came down on restaurants and hotels. They considered tips part of staff wages, which should be taxed and subject to National Insurance.

Some restaurants, and particularly hotels, in theory increased the salary of waiters and then kept the service charge for themselves. A more common practice developed concerning the "tronc", which derives from the French word meaning "contribution box". Your waiter gives your tip to the restaurant tronc. A "box" from which the contents are disbursed by a tronc master, usually a senior member of staff.

Tronc money is distributed on a points system. A restaurant manager will get much more than a waiter because he's paid more. So the tip to your waiter goes, in greater proportion, to those staff getting a larger salary.

The Inland Revenue requires any compulsory service charge on your bill to be subject to Vat, full tax and National Insurance. But if the service charge is not mandatory then staff who receive money from the tronc are subject only to a deduction of basic tax. Hence the words "an optional service charge will be added". This makes it not mandatory. Any cash tips go into a cash tronc, which is divided up without tax deducted. I'm sure the staff show it on their tax returns!

Waiters who say: "The service charge doesn't include the gratuity," are trying to get extra for their cash tronc. Ignore them. Or discuss the matter with the proprietor!

If a restaurant keeps all the service charge then they have to pay staff more. A restaurant manager on £30,000 a year would expect to receive £10,000 to £15,000 a year from the tronc. If there isn't one his employer has to up his salary by at least £10,000 a year.

There are also different troncs. The doormen and front of house staff have their own. The maids have theirs and so on.

I had a problem getting anyone for our photo. A well-known doorman was afraid it might attract curiosity from the Revenue. The tronc master at a famous restaurant went pale, explaining: "I don't want to be a target."

No such fears from Jessica Robertshaw, manager and tronc master at one of my favourite restaurants, the Wolseley. I'm pictured giving £100 for her tronc.

We stood demurely with Jessica by the reception desk. Geraldine was clicking and flashing away. Suddenly the boss, Jeremy King, appeared. He'd only just realised we were there. Jeremy was not happy.

"You can't take photos!" he admonished. "Please, we need one more," I said. "You can't have it, I'm standing here to stop you!" responded Jeremy sternly. "Please, step aside for a tick," I said mustering an iota of charm. Jeremy stood aside.

"I never let anyone take photos in my restaurants," said Jeremy, "What will I say if a customer sees this picture?" "Just tell them Michael Winner's a monster - they'll agree in a flash -and he just walked in and sneaked it before I could throw him out," I suggested.

I won't say Jeremy was mollified. But we're still friends. I was chastised but not downhearted. The Wolseley, incidentally, leaves tipping to the customer. I have a 15% gratuity added to my account.

The largest tip I ever gave was £600 at Harry's Bar in Venice, where they charged me a ridiculously small amount for each dinner.

A very famous and lovely lady restaurateur in London refuses to let me pay for meals. I left £100 for the waiter. She chased me into the street and handed it back saying: "You can't buy your way in here." I gave her valuable ornaments from my house. "Let me pay, please!" I said, "Soon you'll have the three-piece suite and the television."

I sent her a £500 cheque. "Give it to charity," I wrote. The lady stood a few tables from me at lunchtime, made sure I was looking - and tore it up! Now I give £50 to the staff, gifts to the lady. What I only go through to eat.

  • Our competition is still going. The prize is the last ever set of Concorde cutlery, £50 and my signed autobiography. Question: On my travels, what most impressed me? Funny answers acceptable, if not desired!

    Winner's letters

    As a fellow Sunday Times critic and former pupil at the vegetarian St Christopher school, Letchworth I've watched each week with a mixture of awe and envy as Michael Winner and AA Gill demonstrate the survival and refinement of their palates after years of eating the decidedly non-historic nut roasts and cheese flapjacks the school forced down our throats. I think these esteemed gourmands should re-visit St Christopher's and give their verdict on its high-fibre fare. I'd be happy - I think - to act as referee.
    Dan Cairns, London

    We share similar tastes in food. I'm a regular at Porky's Diner in the Rhondda Valley. You must be too as our silhouettes are not dissimilar. Strange we've never bumped into each other. Does Porky allow you to eat out of hours? Or do you go in disguise? Come on, spill the beans.
    Peter Benning, Gwent.

    On holiday in Tenerife we noticed the Drifters were appearing at two different resorts. On the promenade we noticed many portly gentlemen identically attired - sandals, socks, shirts outside their shorts, corduroy jacket, fake tan and grey, swept-back hair. Each one was Michael Winner. It dawned on us, the Drifters and Michael Winner are virtual reality. We became overjoyed knowing that future generations had nothing to fear. On a more sombre note we wondered how Geraldine would cope when she found out.
    Les Thomas, Norfolk

    What impressed you most on your travels? Nothing and you never expected it to.
    Glenda Brett-Holt, Malta

    What impressed you? Your own judgment.
    Amoret Tanner, Berkshire

    What impressed you most? You.
    Michael Place, London

    You're most impressed by your loving, fabulous, historic readers!
    Dr Richard Evans, Merseyside

    You're most impressed if the orange juice is freshly squeezed.
    Linda Wood, Leeds

    Richard Grenfell (Winner's Letters, last week) asks who writes the restaurant reviews in glossy magazines. I've always found it a safe rule of thumb to see if the establishment reviewed, advertises. If it does you can be pretty sure the review will be glowing.
    Deb Atkinson, Southport

    *Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk