'Tips are a welcome gesture of solidarity' but they won't keep pubs open

For pub staff struck by reduced working hours, customer tips are an encouraging show of support

Pub staff, particularly in wet-led pubs, don't tend to make as much in tips as restaurant staff 
Pub staff, particularly in wet-led pubs, don't tend to make as much in tips as restaurant staff  Credit: Niall Carson/PA

On Tuesday 22 September the prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced the toughest new measures since the relaxation of lockdown, in a bid to stem the second wave of coronavirus. For hospitality businesses, the rule changes were particularly significant. While masks must now be worn by all staff and guests (except when eating or drinking), the most pertinent change is that all hospitality businesses must shut by 10pm. 

“It’s a punch in the stomach,” said Damien Devine, landlord of the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub in north London, who would normally get 40 per cent of his daily take between 10pm and 1am on weekends. For staff who are often in relatively low paid or zero hour contract work, an hour less work can amount to a £100 deficit per week. 

Some landlords have encouraged a tipping campaign in response. In restaurants, a service charge, usually 12.5 per cent, is often added to bills; most customers pay it, though there is no legal requirement to, and most businesses pass this on to staff as a significant supplement to wages. 

Yet in pubs, tipping is less common. Though some barflies will suffix their order with a “keep the change”, or offer a drink to the bartender (which can be exchanged for cash), most drinkers don’t tip. 

At the Lamb in north London, tips have declined considerably since the pub moved from cash to card in light of the pandemic. Previously, if a round cost £9 and the customer had a £10 note, they’d often chuck the leftover pound into a tip jar. The pub, which opens between 4pm and midnight, pays staff an hourly wage and the owner-landlord Ade Clarke says the lost hours after 10pm could amount to £100 less for staff per week. “The idea of someone taking home £900 a month instead of £1200 or whatever it might be, given the rents in London these days, that’s a really big blow.” 

The Lamb on Holloway Road has changed its opening times to try to mitigate the loss of hours caused by the 10pm curfew Credit: Thomas Carver/Alamy

Clarke's pub will now open from 2pm until 10pm in order to give staff more hours, though he isn’t sure how many drinkers will come during the day. Clarke says tips have dropped off dramatically over the past few years, but hopes customers will be willing to increase tips over the next few months. The move to table service only, another stipulation of the new instructions, could encourage people to leave some extra money. Clarke is considering a 10 per cent service charge that “we’d make sure went to staff”. 

At the Seven Stars in Rugby, which, like the Lamb, is a drinks-focused, 'wet-led' pub, tips are rare; more often, a punter will offer to buy a drink for a bartender, though that has stopped since the pandemic. With staff already already working reduced hours, the 10pm curfew will lead to even less income. 

Owner Graham Pound says he’d consider asking for more tips, particularly since takings are down 40 per cent. “I don’t want it to look like charity or begging,” he admits. With customers moving primarily from cash to card, and table service becoming the norm, Pound thinks guests will be more inclined to leave a tip. He adds that the government should waive tax on tips to make a real difference. 

A change in perception might be crucial when it comes to tipping. Julian Rose-Gibbs of The Anchor in Digbeth, and the co-founder of the Birmingham Association of Bartenders, says that pub staff “have thought themselves at the bottom of the industry food chain” – and that customers often share this view. Waiters, mixologists and sommeliers, by contrast, are often considered to be more deserving of a tip than the person who pours your pint. Rose-Gibbs says tips would be a big help: “I cannot stress that strenuously enough. However, putting a service charge on drinks tabs could have a backlash in the pub sector.”

Some pub staff, understandably, would welcome an increase. “We don’t really get any tips in our place, which is annoying because they can really help,” says Pip Culverwell, who works at the Cock Tavern in east London. Could table service help? “I believe so, but we currently have a pay-as-you-go system. To get the good tips, we’d need to introduce tabs. These are all things we’ll have to discuss over the coming days.” 

Culverwell has reservations about passing on the buck to the customer. While he welcomes tips, “we should always put the onus on the state to increase minimum wage and employers to pay good wages. We may fall into a cultural rabbit hole if we collectively ask patrons to tip more. However, needs must and hours are being cut right now so maybe a hashtag can be started about tipping during Covid.”

Many industry bodies agree that the government should offer continued financial support, including extending furlough, offering rent support, extending business rates exemptions or offering tax breaks. There is also a fear among some that unscrupulous businesses owners could fail to pass on tips or service charge to staff.

“We urge people to continue to support their local pubs and to do what they can to help them through this crisis,” says Greg Mulholland, campaign director for the Campaign for Pubs. “Tipping staff is a welcome gesture of solidarity, but the people who urgently need to put their hand in their pockets are the government, who have brought in these questionable restrictions.” 

Tom Stainer, the CEO of the Campaign for Real Ale, agrees. “It’s a lovely thing to support staff through additional tipping, but it won’t keep pubs open. What’s really needed is a good, robust support package [from Government].” 

Fiona Hornsby, owner of the Bridewell in Liverpool, thinks the government should not be “let off the hook in any way. Ultimately, the government is restricting our operational ability and should therefore be compensating us.” 

Government support will be essential for pubs to survive the winter, but for many landlords and their staff a rise in tips will be a welcome gesture. “If people are prepared to pay a little more, if they know it’s going to staff, that makes things a whole lot easier,” says Clarke.