Tipping for Your Meal: Do the Old Rules Still Apply?

Earlier this year, our family’s go-to pizza place converted to the iPad-based checkout system that is becoming ubiquitous in restaurants.  Instead of simply being asked to sign a paper receipt for our take-out order, I encountered an iPad screen prompting me to decide on the tip I wanted to leave.  Tip?  For takeout pizza?  I made the miserly choice, but walked out wondering whether I was missing something.  Have the rules changed?  Is tipping expected in more situations than before?  And what about amounts—can I still rely on what I thought was an appropriate tip ten or fifteen years ago?  I checked with some etiquette authorities to be sure I’m up-to-date, and that I am able to avoid a service provider’s dreaded eyeroll.

Turns out I was within my rights to leave no tip for the takeout pizza.  The customer has no obligation to tip for takeout food.  Handling a complicated order well, or bringing the order to your car, might merit a 10% tip.

Home or office food delivery is a different matter, of course.  Tip 10% to 15% of the bill.  If the bill is under $20, consider tipping $2 to $5.  If bad weather makes the delivery more challenging, 15% to 20% is more appropriate.

A bill below $20 can present tipping dilemmas in other circumstances.  The guideline tip for wait service in a restaurant is still 15% to 20% of the pre-tax bill.  But what about a restaurant providing wait service at lunch, when prices are usually lower and parties smaller?  My favorite lunchtime splurge is a meal at a downtown Asheville restaurant where my go-to dish is $10.60 and the service is generally prompt and attentive.  Leaving a $2 tip would feel incredibly stingy.  Online discussions covering this situation are . . . lively!  My personal lower limit for good service, no matter the cost of the meal, is $3, but, trust me, there is no consensus yet on this point.

I’m still comfortable that no tip is required or expected in a fast food restaurant with no wait service.  But what about “fast casual” restaurants where orders are taken at the counter, but food is delivered to the table and dishes are cleared when your meal is complete?  The experts say this is an evolving area as well.  Some would have you tip the standard 15% to 20% that might be expected in a full-service restaurant, arguing that you are still receiving similar service from the employees despite not having a dedicated waitperson.  Others note that 25% of diners leave no tip at all in fast casual restaurants.  A recent study in San Francisco concluded that diners tipped an average 12% in restaurants set up in this fashion.  I’m ready to decree that a tip is expected when someone delivers food to my table, but something less than the standard amount is in order if I’m refilling my own water glass.  Let’s agree on 10% to 15% of the pre-tax bill.

Inflation has intruded into one of my bedrock tipping guidelines–$1 per drink to the bartender.  In this age of craft beers and cocktails, $1 does not always equate to 15% to 20% of the cost of a drink, and that is still the base guideline for bartender tipping.

Tip jars are now officially everywhere.  Experts are united in saying that the customer has no obligation to add to the contents.  However, a barista who has that special magic with the foam in your latte, or just a local joint remembering your name and greeting you personally, might trigger the occasional contribution to the tip jar.

Sources:  Emily Post Institute, General Tipping Guide (https://emilypost.com/advice/general-tipping-guide/); Eater San Francisco,  At SF’s Fast-Casual Restaurants, Tipping Is Still on the Table (July 2, 2018).

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Any opinions are those of Scott Boatwright and not necessarily those of Raymond James.