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Does a Restaurant Surcharge Replace Your Tip?

In this episode of Ask Eater, a kind-hearted reader worries about undertipping 

Eggs at Plow Plow

Welcome to Ask Eater, a column from Eater SF where the site’s editors answer difficult dining questions from readers and friends. Have a question for us? Submit it via this form.

Greetings Eater Team,

Last night I [had] dinner at Gozu, and they added a 20 percent service charge … I left a nominal $25 cash bump, but now I’m second guessing if I stiffed the waitress. Please help me understand this if you can.

Warm regards,
Worried about undertipping

Dear Worrier,

Thank you for the conscientious question, which clearly comes from a kind place. Tipping is a complicated issue in this country. And now, during the pandemic, with essential workers risking their lives to serve food, it feels supercharged. The majority of Eater readers say that they are tipping more than ever, and I appreciate that you specifically want to know who’s pocketing that cash. So here’s how to parse the fine print at the bottom of the bill.

Gozu, the smoky wagyu counter in SoMa, always had a 20 percent “service charge,” so this line item is not new, although it might be unusual. Chef Marc Zimmerman confirmed the restaurant adds the additional fee for sit-down dining (not takeout or delivery), and says the money goes to the restaurant, which spends “the majority” of it on healthcare for the team, including staff who are currently laid off. Everyone who works at Gozu receives a basic “bronze-level plan,” he says, with the ability to add to and upgrade the plan at their own expense.

That service charge is intended to replace the tip, Zimmerman says, and there’s no need to tip on top. But it’s probably not what most people expect when they think of a tip — your money supports the health benefits for the entire staff, but no, it doesn’t directly put cash into the pocket of your server or other workers at the restaurant. Zimmerman does note that even though it’s not the expectation, many people are tipping above and beyond these days, and I’m sure your server appreciated the extra bump.

Other restaurants are specifically adding fees because of the pandemic. Plow, the brunch destination in Potrero Hill, first added 20 percent to takeout and delivery orders, then dropped it down to 10 percent. Co-owner Joel Bleskacek confirmed they are only adding this charge to takeout and delivery (so the opposite of Gozu), and said the fee is because their regulars already tip well when they come in and sit down, but that tips grew scarcer when it came to takeout.

“We thought 10 percent would be fair … ” says Bleskacek. “To-go is expensive. People might think, I’m just picking up, why this service charge? But we’re still prepping, stocking, and taking orders.” Bleskacek says that a hundred percent of that 10 percent fee goes directly to staff, including the kitchen, servers, hosts, and bussers.

Gozu calls it “service,” and Plow calls it “gratuity,” but elsewhere across the country, restaurants are explicitly adding “COVID” surcharges. Eater has not seen this trend in SF, and reached out to the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), to make sure we weren’t missing anything. A spokesperson for the local lobbying group agreed, saying no, they haven’t seen any COVID surcharges around town. (And, of course, since 2008 many restaurants have added surcharges they call “Healthy SF” or “SF Mandates,” to a check, a reference to money that all SF businesses with 20 or more employees are supposed to pay to cover health care for its workers.)

Our advice is that if you see a charge you don’t understand on a bill, politely ask your server — and if you’re worried about how much to tip, ask about that too. These are unusual times, and small kindnesses like that are appreciated.

Have you seen a COVID surcharge, or anything else unusual at the foot of a recent Bay Area restaurant bill? If so, please do let us know.