Britain's biggest restaurant group was accused yesterday of increasing its profits by using tips from customers at two of its high street "pizza and pasta" chains to top up the earnings of waiting staff to ensure they are paid the minimum wage.
Gondola Group, the private equity-controlled company that owns more than 540 PizzaExpress, Zizzi and ASK restaurants across Britain, describes its 12,000 employees as its "greatest asset" and stated in its most recent financial report that it strives to treat them "with respect... looking after their welfare".
But employees at the 205 branches of Zizzi, a chain specialising in Italian food, and ASK, which specialises in pizzas, have told The Independent the restaurants operate a policy of using gratuities left on a credit card to ensure waiting staff receive the minimum wage of £5.52 per hour.
Workers said they received a basic hourly wage of £4.10 which was made up to the minimum with credit card service charges.
Despite heavy criticism, the practice is perfectly legal.
Gondola, which bought the Zizzi and ASK chains for £225m in 2004, has pointed to its policy at PizzaExpress as proof of its pledge to treat its staff fairly.
Staff at PizzaExpress, who are paid the minimum wage or more, receive the credit card tips on top of their salary, subject to an 8 per cent cut taken by the company to cover administration costs.
Dominique Azid, a 20-year-old law student at the University of Essex, claimed that, while working at a branch of ASK in Harrow, north-west London, waiters received a share of the cash tips left by customers. But gratuities left by customers on credit and debit cards were sent to head office and only used to top up his £4.10 an hour pay.
Two former employees of Zizzi said similar policies were pursued by the chain.
Mr Azid, who left his job this month, claimed customers were not allowed to know the true situation: "If we were asked by customers: 'Does this go towards your wages?' you had to say 'yes'."
Gondola's chief executive underlined yesterday that Zizzi and ASK were run as separate entities and the company was "figuring out" how to bring the brands into line with PizzaExpress.
Harvey Smyth, 39, who helped transform the sandwich chain Pret A Manger before joining PizzaExpress in 2003, said: "We operate in an extremely competitive environment and yet we have a long list of people wanting to work for us. If we were not treating our staff fairly that simply would not be the case. If you don't look after your people then they will go and work for someone else."
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