Home >> Ask a Trini >> Ask a Trini : Restaurant Service Charges in Trinidad? What gives?!?!

Ask a Trini : Restaurant Service Charges in Trinidad? What gives?!?!

Tipping in Trinidad is really non existent. It’s not part of the local culture – it never was. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s come along with the “Americanization” of Trinidad. In all the franchise type restaurants, you’re encouraged to tip, even though the tip almost never goes to the waiter or waitress … if you put the tip on the bill. The franchise type restaurants aren’t even run by Americans but local franchisees who just see another cash grab. Even the idea of a restaurant “service charge” in Trinidad just makes me want to scream and punch people in the face … since it’s rare to get good service in a Trini restaurant.

Here’s the scam in those restaurants (Ruby Tuesdays, TGIF, Trotters … at least in KFC, as long as you don’t get spit … you’re successful):

Let’s say you buy a meal in Ruby Tuesdays … grab a portion of wings – it’s a ridiculous 158$ TT (23.40$ USD) for 20 wings

Here’s what’s you’re actually going to pay

  • Base price = 158$
  • Service Charge 10% = 15.80$
  • VAT 15% =  26.07$
  • Total = 199.87$ TTD or 29.50$ USD
  • If you chose to tip … then you’re tipping on this amount – which is patently ridiculous!!!

Would you pay 30$ USD for 20 chicken wings????

Here is the messed up part – the service charge goes to the owner and does not replace  tips, which are the main source of income for servers, and there is ZERO SERVICE CULTURE anyway. There is no T&T law that requires this service charge. In Guatemala, there is a service charge that is added to the bills, but this service charge goes directly to the servers. In Trinidad, the vast majority of customers, believe the service charge came from greedy restaurant owners, and since it is a good profit center – more restaurants started doing it.

The vast majority of Trinis don’t know any better, so they just accept it as part of doing things – even though 10 years ago i.e. 2004 – this was completely unheard of.

You might have heard that customer service and ethical behavior within Trinidadian restaurants is almost unheard of. So for me, this rampant sort of bill padding is ridiculous – I’ve written notes every single time on my bills and I’ve chosen not to give my business to those restaurants that charge this service charge. I’ve always believed that if restaurant owners want to charge more, then they should just revise the prices to suit. This would remove all doubts and people could just go on. At some point, there will be a change in the local economy and those same restaurant owners won’t be able to get away with this stuff. It’s another blow to our dreams of being a tourist market. People can vote for business with their money and their business …

Here’s how to piss off a Trinidadian …

Anyway, on my regular travel note – for those Trinis who hate tipping, there are many countries in the world, where tipping is actually discouraged. Here’s a couple facts for you Trini travellers :

  • Only in the US, is it expected to tip 15-20%. Even in Canada, this is not expected, unless you have phenomenal service.
  • Tipping is not expected in all countries. In fact, not in most countries.
  • In many Asian countries, tipping can be insulting. Here is something to think about … a servant assists you in a country based on hierarchy and ” one’s place” in society. A tip is an acknowledgment against their defined role to serve you. Perhaps better to express appreciation by a smile and a nod of gratitude. In short, a tip just insulted them and put an awkward spin on your ‘relationship.’ Here is an excellent blog post about the irrationality of tipping.

Here are some countries where a Trini can be a Trini and not have to worry about some godforsaken tip and what to do:

  1. Japan:
    I love the Japanese for their service culture and deferential treatment of customers who offer their patronage. Tipping is generally discouraged because it could be construed as an insult. Here’s an idea … if you like the restaurant, then you’ll come back and you’ll probably bring more people with you next time, and maybe you might recommend the place. Sounds like a novel idea eh? Well that’s the idea … the staff works for the restaurant as a team and if a customer enjoys their visit that they will return to the restaurant. Note : I have been to some restaurants that cater to foreigners, and tipping isn’t insulting there.
  2. China :
    Generally you don’t need to leave a tip. Just like Japan, it can be considered rude in some places.
  3. South Korea :
    See #1 and #2 : Even in high end hotels like the Westin Chosun or the little restaurant where I had my first taste of dog meat …. no tipping was required. In fact … the grandmother who was helping me eat the pooch meat, was just happy that I came to eat there.
  4. Italy :
    For places around major tourist attractions in Rome, then leaving a tip is OK, but just the change from your bill. Nothing more. Outside of Rome, tipping is not suggested because you are implying that the owner of the restaurant does not pay his employees enough.
  5. Central Europe :
    Countries like Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic – where tipping is not a calculated 10%. Instead you just “round up.” If the bill is 9.41 Euros, then you leave the 10 Euro note.
  6. South East Asia : Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam
    See #1, #2, #3 … yet another reason to travel to this part of the world.
  7. New Zealand :
    Tipping at restaurants in New Zealand is not widespread however if you get exceptional service an feel like it, you can leave around a 10% tip.
  8. Australia:
    No need to tip but if you do decide to leave a tip, just round up, it will be much appreciated

BTW  … on the note of KFC, completely unrelated to service charges … there was this ad for Fish at KFC … Enjoy the irony!

About Rishiray

Rishi Sankar is a Cloud HRMS Project Manager/ Solution Architect. Over the past 15+ years, he has managed to combine his overwhelming wanderlust with a desire to stay employed, resulting in continuing stints with 3 major consulting firms (IBM, Deloitte, Accenture). He documents his adventures around the world on “Ah Trini Travelogue” with pictures and stories from the road/tuk-tuk/camel/rickshaw. You can follow him on Twitter at @rishiray and on Facebook at “Ah Trini Travelogue . He doesn’t like Chicken Curry but loves Curry Chicken and is always trying to find the perfect Trinidadian roti on the road. He also doesn’t like cheese and kittens … and definitely not together. E-mail from his blog is appreciated like a 35 yr old Balvenie at [email protected]

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  • Miss. Adventure

    Small note on #5 Czech Republic… This does not fully apply in Prague. My friend and I got suckered into a touristy restaurant (our own fault for being too tied and cranky to head where we had planned to eat). The restaurant owner had decided to add a random service charge of 25%, next to which the poor waitress had felt the need to write “not the tip” as apparently this charge was routinely screwing her out of tips. We were ticked, but decided not to punish the waitress for her boss being a jerk. Needless to say, don’t eat anywhere in the tourist areas in Prague without a recommendation from a trusted local, or a listing in lonely planet!

  • Ben Q

    We are not bound by law in TT to pay service charge – or to tip. That is up to the customer, they cannot force you to do anything but pay for your food, and VAT if charged. The reason tipping is customary in the United States is because food establishments – chains, independents, hotels, restaurants – are legally allowed to pay their waitstaff as little as US$2/hr. The minimum wage since 2009 has been US$7.25/hr. so they are usually paid a good US$5 below the lowest wage. The government allows this because they make up their wages from the tips of customers – However in TT it is not like that… and we are not bound by those rules.

    • Grasshopper

      Exactly! Servers in the US get paid next to nothing and depend on tips for income. I’ve also traveled to Europe and had suggested gratuities attached to my bill. Granted I’ve never been to Asia, but I do believe the Japanese tend to pride themselves on providing excellent service and not expecting a tip, but I have witnessed a case where a Chinese server chased a patron down for an extra tip after providing poor service! 🙂

      • Grasshopper … I’ve heard about the Chinese chasing people down for a better tip. The funny thing is that they’ll never chase down another Chinese person for that tip. Every culture has their norms …

    • Completely agreed Ben … I think the line staff has forgotten that tips are NOT mandatory.

    • Suresh Ramkissoon

      So why is it then that in Toppers for example, service charge is included on the bill, even if you just sit by the bar and have a few beers…

      • Hey Suresh …

        Well I guess the whole thing is that you sat at the bar … I have no idea, why they would charge you service charge for drinking beers. This is where you can protest that and not spend your money there!

        • Stephen harper

          Power to the people, simply don’t go there.

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  • Peter Sheppard

    So, I dine around quite a bit. Its my understanding from some wait staff I know, that the “service charge” is applied to the entire staff and applied to the salaries. This includes “back of hours” staff, such as the cooks and other folks in the kitchen. I acknowledge this many be a policy made only by certain restaurants. “Tips” however are given to the wait staff based on quality of service received, and is encouraged to be paid in cash, rather than on the POS system. This is shared directly with the server and side-server and is usually dealt with at the end of a shift or end of a week. Wait staff really depend of this and its used as a motivation to provide a better quality of service to the diners. If the server does not really care about his/her job or the customer than no leaving a tip should not be an issue. If your service is so bad, you can request that service charge be omitted from your bill, likewise, if service charge appears on your bill and you’re just taking away food from the restaurant without dining in.

    Thats my two cents… good service should be rewarded.

    • Hey Peter …I absolutely agree with you. Great service should always be rewarded.
      The problem with the service charge is that you’re passing a separate line item of compensation to the customer and it’s bill padding.
      If the restaurants raised their prices to reflect the higher wage … I would totally understand and support it. That being said … only certain restaurants do it.

      Take Trotters for instance … I’ve been there a couple times with ex-pat and local friends … each time the bill has been in the 1000’s … I have no problem paying a tip of 15% or more if the service was excellent. Unfortunately, when you order 1824 and you get 1919 and the server refuses to acknowledge it … you’ll be annoyed. You’ll be annoyed if at 300$TTD+ for a steak at Prime … it wasn’t cooked the way you wanted and the servers/management refused to fix it.

      I’ve absolutely walked out of restaurants with no tip, if the service was ridiculously poor with no explanation. I work hard for my money and I expect value for what I spend. With those “Service Charges” … I fail to see the double penalty to the customer. In fact, I think it’s absolutely disrespectful and basically takes the customer for granted.

      This is a good discussion … what are your thoughts?

  • Anne Marie Henry

    As a person who’s worked in the industry I’m very happy for service charge. What trinins need to understand is service charge is not the tip and the tip should be given if the server has worked really hard eg if you dine with 5+ ppl a table like that is hard work. Service charge is added up and distributed to everyone in the restaurant and it’s a nice boost to ppl’s low salary. You’re on your feet 8+ hours for maybe $2000-$2500 a month. Trinis mostly don’t tip, but it depends what part of the country you go to I guess.
    So Mr. Rishi Sankar, I would advise you work in the industry for a bit before getting high and mighty on bill padding.

    • Hi Anne Marie.

      First of all … thanks for your comment.
      Now I think there needs to be a bit of clarification … this is not only a travel blog but also a Trini Travel blog comparing my travelling experiences to ones in Trinidad.

      A couple points here:

      – It’s very, very clear that the service charge ISN’T the tip. This is point of the post.
      – Waitering/Waitressing is very, very hard work … no arguments from me at all. EVER! I’ve worked in the service industry … see http://www.rishiray.com/how-i-afford-to-travel-as-a-trinidadian/
      – The customer doesn’t need to pay TWO forms of compensation to a server … a service charge and tip?!?!
      – A tip is a recognition of great service … it’s not mandatory, even though service people now seem to think it’s mandatory. See what the definition of a tip is.
      – Basic free market economics are at play here … employers will pay what the market will allow. Servers in Trinidad are horribly paid … this isn’t the customers fault.
      – Customers come in expecting to pay one price for a meal … not 30% more than the listed price. See the number above in the blog.
      – I will ALWAYS reward excellent service … I will even write a blog about it. I always recognize excellence in service with a tip, a comment and usually I call the manager over to tell them.
      – I’ve never had to do the above in Trinidad … I wonder why?
      – Tipping is not part of Trinidadian culture … read the blog in case you weren’t clear the first time.

      So Anne Marie … before you actually called me out here … you should have read a bit more on the blog. I’ve done all the jobs and I’ve put in my long hours … I’ve had experience with service all across the planet. There’s a reason why Trinis don’t expect great customer service … because it’s so rarely seen. Your response proves it.

      Across the world in South East Asia or Japan… customer service is amazing … because the servers there genuinely are invested in the customer having a great experience. As you mentioned … you’re getting a paycheck and I’m sure it’s reflected in the customer service product.

      • Music Traveler

        I’ve traveled quite a bit internationally and regionally. It always amazes me that the service you get in other countries is considerably better than in Trinidad. The attitude of some of the workers in Trinidad has lead me to believe that they are not trained properly. They also don’t seem to be fearful of losing their job if they don’t represent the company properly. I tip in Barbados, The Bahamas and other countries, but I will not tip in Trinidad. I get served better and faster in the same franchise establishments abroad.

        It just seems as if the servers do not genuinely care. They seem not to realize that their salaries are dependant on their customers. As long as persons don’t recognize that they need to come across as pleasant they will continue to exhibit behaviour that is not appropriate.

        • There is no accountability for service in Trinidad. The jobs are low paying, and there is no consequence anyway … since the managers are never the owners … hence they themselves are low on the totem pole. The only way you’ll ever see any accountability … is if everyone in Trinidad plays their part.

          Hell will freeze over before that happens!

  • Lisa

    I’ve never tried paying the “service charge” as cash, directly to the server. Time to try it and see what happens!

    • Hey Lisa … I didn’t even know you could do that.
      Where have you tried this before?

  • Also a Trini Traveller

    Interesting article, I just wanted to say that tipping is definitely expected in Canada, and unlike Asia it is quite insulting to receive no tip. The restaurant provides the food, drinks and its prices, the servers provide the service and the experience. Restaurants pay servers the minimum serving wage because they expect their staff to provide the ultimate guest experience. No one in their right mind wants to willingly refill your water glass 5 times during your stay and get nothing out of it – it is service, not servitude. Tipping is saying “thank you for providing us with the experience you did, this amount of money shows my appreciation.” Not tipping just because you don’t agree with the culture, is a slap in the face – because that is their culture and it is expected. Obviously a poor service experience should exempt that particular server from their tip but Canada’s restaurants are some of the more superb service restaurants as compared to their American counterparts (that I have experienced along the east coast). Next time you go, try places like Moxie’s, Milestones, Earl’s, Jack Astor’s etc.
    I just thought I would provide my two cents because so many Trinis go away and feel they should not tip because they “don’t agree with it” but the culture is different and North American servers rely on your tipping for their income. (I don’t mean you specifically, I’m generalizing to those who disagree with the culture)
    I have no comment to make on Trinidad’s service charge because I rarely dine out here. But on the occasion I do, I go with zero expectations and if I am pleasantly surprised by exceptional service, I will always show my appreciation to that server because it is hard work and they deserve it.
    – a former server throughout my university life in foreign 🙂

    • As you mentioned, tipping is a very culture specific thing.
      In Canada, tipping is part of the price of the meal, but that being said, the tip is at the customer’s discretion. This is the matter at hand … in Trinidad, you’re hit with an “auto-gratuity” in the form of a service charge that almost never goes to the servers. Then you’re expected to pay 15% as a recommended tip on top of the loaded totals. That’s the ridiculous part!

      Travellers almost always know the applicable tipping etiquette in a country that they travel to – but this actually gives me an idea for a post this morning. In fact, I’ll go write it now … http://www.rishiray.com/tipping-etiquette-in-trinidad/

      As for customer service expectations in Trinidad .. it’s easy … have none!

  • JSH

    Can you choose to NOT pay the service charge?? Is that an option?

    • Anything is an option. You can DEFINITELY choose not to pay that service charge. I’ve refused to pay it many times and successfully done it. At Trotters, I simply walked out when the server wouldn’t do what I wanted.

  • Like really…

    I went to Ruby Tuesday ordered my food to go…stayed and waited for it. When I saw the service charge I queried it and she said that’s just how it is. I didn’t use the to-go service and I wasn’t “served” so annoying. Next time I’m not paying it.

    • You’re better than me … Didn’t you get the bill before you received your food, since you have to pay first, then wait for the food? Why didn’t you just leave the food there or call a manager or just ask for a refund and go to KFC??

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  • Stephen Harper

    Mr. Sankar obviously does not work for minimum wage and has clearly never worked in a restaurant to make comments like this.