Diners ‘ambushed’ by restaurant charity charges

Overhead cropped view of woman leaving gratuity in restaurant
Overhead cropped view of woman leaving gratuity in restaurant

Whether deciding to leave a tip or choosing to go Dutch, we are used to agonising over restaurant bills.

But diners now face a new moral dilemma: being “ambushed” with charity donations increasingly added to restaurant cheques.

The voluntary charges, typically a pound or two, come on top of 20pc VAT and other optional service charges.

Failing to spot it, you risk paying over the odds for your meal. Ask for it to be taken off, you risk committing a faux pas.

Experts warn the rising trend risks leaving customers too embarrassed to ask for the extra charges to be removed, while the fundraising regulator has said diners should not feel “pressured” into making donations.

StreetSmart, a charity which claims to have invented the fundraising technique, says it has generated more than £12m to help fight homelessness through £1 donations on restaurant bills since 1998.

The London-headquartered fundraiser, which is backed by celebrity chefs Marcus Wareing and Ruth Rogers, runs every November and December at upmarket independent eateries as well as the restaurants of Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges.

But now copycats are causing the practice to happen in restaurants year-round, as opposed to the two-month Christmas period, the charity has said.

‘Victim of our own success’

Jennie Blouet, head of campaign at StreetSmart, said that the initiative had been a “victim of our own success” because “restaurants are now being asked by other charities to do the same thing”.

Ms Blouet said StreetSmart was “very honest” about where the donated money goes and sends partner restaurants information cards to give to customers. All proceeds are given directly to supporting homeless people.

She said: “These cards explain that a voluntary £1 will be added to the bill, but that it’s an optional charge and can be easily removed upon request. The customer is completely in charge.”

Fewer than 1pc of customers ask for the donation to be removed, while 4pc ask to give more, she added.

Metropolitan Group, a chain of pubs owned by Greene King, partnered with Macmillan Cancer Support in May and added £1 surcharges to customers’ bills to raise money. However, it has since switched to using digital collection boxes.

Kiln, an independent Asian fusion restaurant in Soho, currently adds £1 to its bills as part of a partnership with Action Against Hunger, providing a small leaflet to each table about the work the charity does.

Mark McDermott, professor of psychology at the University of East London, said that some diners “could be forgiven for feeling a bit ambushed” by the donations.

He said: “It’s a powerful situation isn’t it? Because your bill gets presented to you and you may be sitting with other people and in an unexpected moment your charitable nature is being tested in front of an audience.

“There’s quite a lot of social pressure being exerted at that moment and those social pressures can be very powerful.

Marcus Wareing
StreetSmart's fundraiser is backed by celebrity chef Marcus Wareing - Andrew Crowley

“In the run up to Christmas we are very aware of people on the street being cold and in adverse circumstances. If we can afford to go out to expensive restaurants then probably a pound on the bill is not something we would worry about,” Mr McDermott added.

“But if it is becoming more routine at other restaurants where perhaps those who are customers are not so affluent and it’s outside the context of Christmas… That is going to probably make one hesitate perhaps.”

‘Under undue pressure’

Gerald Oppenheim, chief executive of the Fundraising Regulator, said fundraising should always be “legal, open, honest and respectful”.

He added: “Individuals and businesses can legitimately raise funds for causes but they must never make people feel under undue pressure to donate. Donations are voluntary and like a restaurant service charge, you are not obliged to add the suggested amount and can ask for it to be deducted if it is automatically added to the bill. The restaurant should advise diners of this before they pay their bill.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, the trade body for the hospitality sector, said that the surcharges are an important method the industry uses to raise money for charity.

She said: “The hospitality industry has long been an important fundraiser for UK charities, through collections, events and sponsorship activities and surcharges are another optional way for consumers to donate to good causes.

“We would always advise people to speak to a member of staff if they have any questions about their bill.”

A spokesman for Metropolitan Pubs said: “Pubs have a huge role to play in raising money for charity and raise more than £100m every year.”

A spokesman for Action Against Hunger said: “This is a completely optional donation and we provide restaurant staff with guidance on this. This small gesture contributes to our efforts to provide life-saving treatment to severely malnourished children.”

Kiln and Macmillan were approached for comment.


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