Waiter's little present is no certain boon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 1999, 12:00am

IF you like to reward your waiter or waitress with a big tip at the end of the meal in return for good service, you may be giving them little more than a morale boost.

Hong Kong's restaurants and bars deal with the tips they receive in different ways, but rarely do they go directly to the staff who provided the impressive service.

At worst, the money could find its way into the hands of the managers as extra profit. At best, it is likely to be divided among all staff - even those that are not working that particular shift.

'There is no fixed way to allocate the money,' said Jacqueline Sit, public relations manager of the 97 Group, which operates such restaurants as Q, Post 97 and the bar Petticoat Lane, adding that one restaurant collected the money in a box for spending on special occasions, such as the birthday of a staff member.

The Shangri-La Group has a policy that its hotels should redistribute tips 'on a fair and equitable basis', but allows each outlet to decide how to do that.

Most restaurants contacted said they divided the money among all staff, including those behind the scenes in the kitchens. It is a system that suits the waiters and waitresses, but it can mean any statement - good or bad - that you want to make with your tip gets lost, as money is pooled and shared among many staff.

Depending on the outlet, the tips may be shared out at the end of the shift, at the end of the night, the end of the week, at the end of the month or even less frequently.

At the Hyatt, the tips are divided equally among staff, based on the number of days or shifts worked. Usually, the money is shared out once a month, but in some cases it is every quarter.

Diana Di Blasi, supervisor of the Empire Bar in Central, said she had seen all types of system. 'Sometimes it's shared out at the end of the month. Now, I share it out at the end of the shift. That way it doesn't go missing.' Pooling the tips and keeping them until the end of the month leaves them vulnerable to potential dishonesty of the managers. At one bar where Ms Di Blasi worked, the management promised to share the tips at the end of the month, but simply kept them in the bank. When staff complained, they were told the tips were paying the part-time staff's wages.

'Everyone was angry, but also desperate to keep their jobs,' Ms Di Blasi said.

The good news is that if you pay by credit card and add the tip to the total, the money usually will be paid to the restaurant staff. Most, although not all, restaurants and bars pay that money back to the staff when the payment is processed.

The bad news is that the 'service charge' that is added routinely to bills in Hong Kong does not go towards service staff. The charge probably should be renamed the 'profit charge', as the money goes straight to the revenue of the restaurant. So why do they charge it? The problem for many service staff is that the service charge actually dissuades many people from leaving a tip, waiters and bartenders say. Some consider it a kind of formal tip, and do not leave any extra.

At other times, it seems to have a psychological effect, as many people are less generous with their coins after they have paid the service charge.

'A lot [of customers], I think, give lower tips if there's a service charge,' says Clare Duncan, the ex-manager of the Tapas Tree restaurant in Sai Kung.

Hong Kong diners are not the most generous it seems. Few people actually give 10 per cent of their bill. Ms Duncan said most left a few dollars, perhaps $20 for a meal but 'not more than $40'. As the bill goes up, the tip percentage gets smaller.

'For big bills, you don't need to place 10 per cent,' said Neil Wong Siu-chung, who is president of the Hong Kong Bartenders' Association.

But Mr Wong said that leaving a small tip - or not tip at all - would disappoint staff, but added that the waiter or waitress should not hang around and wait for the tip. 'They should not stand in front of the customer, waiting for them to collect all the small coins. They should leave the chequefold on the table.' He said the best tip he had received had been while working at a bar at the top of one of Hong Kong's luxury hotels. After chatting to the customer, providing him with information and even giving him a small drink on the house, the customer gave him a $500 tip on a bill that came to little more than $300.