TIPPING POINT: The bills design increases the likelihood of over-compensating the waiter.

Can a restaurant take it upon itself to add a predetermined service fee – usually 10 percent of the value of the consumed items – to every bill?

It’s a question I get asked regularly, and it has been the subject of several Consumer Watch columns over the years.

The short answer is yes they can, but you are within your rights to refuse to pay it.

Even the most generous tippers tend not to take kindly to having a pre-determined tip imposed on them.

We’re obliged to pay the menu prices for what we consume, but it’s up to us to decide what to leave as a tip, if anything.

For years, many restaurants have imposed a service fee on large groups – usually tables of eight or more – although this is by no means standard practice.

But some restaurants impose a service fee on all bills, whether they’re for lone diners or large parties.

They’re on shaky ground legally – thanks to the Consumer Protection Act – if they fail to disclose this predetermined service fee in advance: when someone makes a telephonic booking; a sign at the entrance to the restaurant; and prominent notifications on the menu.

A tiny line on the back of the menu doesn’t cut it.

In the worst case scenario, the bill design lends itself to inadvertent double tipping.

Pat Vosloo e-mailed me last week about such a case.

She and her husband had a light lunch at the Spiced Coffee restaurant, which forms part of Ludwig’s Roses on the outskirts of Pretoria.

“Being a man of figures,” she wrote, “my husband gave the bill a cursory glance before making payment.

“He was surprised that included with the meals and drinks we ordered, a 10 percent tip had been included, and a grand total thereafter displayed as being the ‘amount due’.

“But then, to our further surprise, lower down on the slip there was a space to fill in a sub-total, followed by a prompt for an additional tip.

“So, unless one is ‘awake’, one would in all probability have added a second tip – this time of your choice – to the amount you assumed was made up of what you had ordered, signed and paid.

“In fact, a double tip is being paid. I am sure many people get caught in this way,” Vosloo said.

I raised the issue with the Restaurant Association of South Africa’s chief executive, Wendy Alberts, who said the association did not condone the unilateral adding of a service fee to all bills.

“A service fee or tip is discretionary,” she said,” not a billable amount.

“And it’s highly unethical for a restaurant to add such a fee to a bill without properly disclosing it, verbally, at the door and on the menu.”

And for a waiter to accept an additional tip, without disclosing to the patron that the bill already included a tip, was “opportunism”, Alberts said.

Contacted for comment, Spiced Coffee owner Heike Jeske said it was not the establishment’s intention to trick patrons into leaving a double tip, although this did happen “sometimes”.

When I pointed out that the bill design made this highly likely, she conceded this was the case, saying she had outsourced the billing system and would ensure her suppliers redesigned the bill.

As to why the restaurant imposed a 10 percent service fee on all bills, Jeske said this was done mainly to retain staff, who had to travel long distances to get to the establishment work, incurring high transport costs.

But if anyone objected to paying the unilaterally imposed service fee, she said, it was removed from the bill.

If you object to restaurants imposing a service fee, sometimes referred to as a “hospitality fee”, find out where they stand on this when you make a booking or when you arrive at the restaurant, because chances are the disclosure will only be in the form of a line or two on the menu, which you may miss.

And always scrutinise your bill to see whether the total – to which you are invited to leave a “gratuity” or tip – already includes a service or “hospitality” fee.