ANY meal with friends invariably ends with a calculator and wads of cash — but it’s a weirdly, annoyingly Australian phenomenon. Here’s why.
By Frank Cheung
IN AUSTRALIA, it’s widely accepted that going out for a meal with a group friends will end with a calculator and wads of cash handed back and forth as the bill is divided up and paid.
But the “no split bill” policy embraced by most restaurants is a strangely Australian phenomenon compared with other developed countries such as the US and UK — so much so that one Sydney entrepreneur last year launched an app to get around the problem.
So what’s the reason?
It seems to be a combination of issues, including the time it takes for staff to divide up bills, the prevalence of card payments that are more time-consuming to process than cash, and the overall lack of tipping and service culture.
“Unless you’ve invested in the point-of-sale software it’s quite hard and time-consuming to split the actual bill,” said Steve Kirkpatrick, venue manager at Sydney’s NOLA Smokehouse & Bar.
“We’ll happily accept split payments — if it’s a table of 10, say $300 from this card, $100 from that card — but we don’t see the need to split the actual bill.
“Once you get to bigger tables it becomes very messy. It’s usually work colleagues, you want to pay for what you had, that does become very difficult because then you have to spend a lot of time marking everything off.”
Mr Kirkpatrick said the key in hospitality was to be flexible. “Restaurants making blanket rules to make life easier [for themselves] goes against what hospitality is about,” he said, adding that compared with the UK, the service culture in Australia was “pretty good”.
“American staff, most of their wages are made up by tips, which would mean a lot more from each customer [if they split the bill],” he said.
James Coward, spokesman for the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association, said the general feedback from restaurants was that “the choice not to offer the option of split-billing is due to the amount of time it takes to separately calculate the individual totals of each paying customer particularly when there are large groups involved”.
“It is also worth pointing out that given banks charge the merchant fees in relation to card payments, there is a need to provide more technology that actually makes the process of splitting bills available,” he said.
“The best example of this would be the Commonwealth Bank’s Albert Terminal which does offer merchants split-billing functionality.”
Griffith University finance professor Andrew Worthington said it was “always a pleasant surprise” to visit the US where wait staff “don’t bat an eyelid when splitting a bill for tables even of 20”.
“This is a strange thing relatively unknown in Australia called ‘good service’,” he wrote on question-and-answer site Quora. “It’s a generalisation, but Australian wait staff are ill-experienced, unenthusiastic, surly and overpaid, and like the restaurant owners-managers for whom they work, regard giving service as giving you a favour. You should be thankful they allow you a table and serve you food!”
Janese Boots argued it was just a “quirk of our culture” and possibly due to the decline of maths education at school. “I now live in Germany where splitting bills is the norm,” she wrote.
“It doesn’t matter of there are two of you or 20, you are always asked if you want to split the bill. The wait staff carry large wallets with change and can work out each individual person’s bill and provide change far quicker than if the group had to pay one bill.”