Restaurant etiquette debate: Should you add a tip when you order takeout food?

Leaving a gratuity at an American restaurant was all but mandatory before the coronavirus pandemic. But as COVID-19 lingers, customers have discovered a new requirement: tipping on takeout orders – seriously.

And by “takeout,” I mean that you’re picking up your order in the restaurant. No meals delivered to your table. No water refills. Just your meal in a paper bag.

More than half of Americans (56%) started tipping more for restaurant food last year, according to a new Bank of America survey. Just under 40% of all orders – on-premises, pickup and delivery – included a tip before COVID-19. But that figure rose by 10% last year, according to Paytronix Systems.

The gratuities are more generous, too. One-third of guests left 20% or more of the bill as a tip, on average.

“Before COVID, only a small percentage of customers gave tips when picking up takeout,” says restaurant consultant Izzy Kharasch. “The pandemic has changed things.”

Takeout tipping rules are fuzzy

But now, travelers are confused.

Pattie Haubner was a generous tipper in the early days of the pandemic. She hoped her gratuity would support the restaurant workers behind the counter who received less than minimum wage. But as the pandemic drags on, she’s not sure what to do.

“I’m put off by pre-service prompts, especially in coffee shops and takeout places where a $3 coffee prompts you to offer even up to a $5 tip,” says Haubner, a retired communications professional and frequent air traveler from West Nyack, New York. “But I’m concerned that if I dare hit no tip – even at a drive-thru – I’ll get a nasty look. Or worse.”

So what’s the right thing to do? Some etiquette experts say you should tip on takeout orders. Others disagree, saying customers shouldn’t pay a gratuity if there’s no table service. They are tired of guilt tips and just wish the restaurant industry would end the confusion by paying their workers a living wage.

► Guilt tip: Travelers face pressure for gratuities

The case for tipping on your takeout order

“Tipping on takeout orders is the right thing to do,” says H.G. Parsa, professor of lodging management at the University of Denver. “Even takeout involves some amount of service, and we should tip those employees.”

A tip is a token of appreciation for the service provided, and takeout is a service, Parsa says.

Your gratuities also support restaurant workers and their employers during difficult times. You may disagree with the restaurant industry’s compensation system, which allows employers to pay less than minimum wage and make the rest up on tips. But this is no time to protest.

“As of right now, I would encourage you to tip on takeout orders if you can, because restaurants are still understaffed and aren’t operating at full capacity,” says Bonnie Tsao, founder of Beyond Etiquette, an etiquette consultancy.

How much should you tip on a takeout order? Elena Brouwer, director of the International Etiquette Centre, says anywhere from 15% and up for the restaurant bill. “Twenty percent is even better,” she says. “And if you can’t afford to tip, order something less expensive to allow the person taking care of you to receive a tip.”

The case against tipping

But travelers are baffled by the way restaurants solicit a gratuity when you place your takeout order. “Why are they asking for a tip before the service is rendered?” asks Harry Clark, who owns a vintage automobile dealership in Phoenix.

Some etiquette experts say tipping on takeout is a bad idea.

“I don’t tip on takeout,” says Adeodata Czink, an etiquette consultant with Business of Manners. “All they do is put it in a bag.”

She’s also offended by the payment systems that don’t accept cash and have set tips – 12%, 15%, 20% – programmed on the tablet. You have to push the button in front of the worker, which is unnerving.

“And for what?” she says. “They give you a cup of coffee in a paper cup. You can’t even sit down to enjoy it.”

Customers are regularly refusing to leave a gratuity on a takeout order.

“To me, a tip is a recognition of extra service beyond providing the food,” says Clayton Murtle, an account executive for a marketing company in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s an interesting symptom of tipping culture that we still feel obligated to tip when restaurants are doing the one thing that should be included in the price of the food.”

He says friends have told him that even the employees providing the takeout food depend on tips. “But why should I pay $18 for tikka masala just because the restaurant can’t be bothered to pay their employees a living wage?”

Restaurant etiquette debate: Should you add a tip when you order takeout food?

So what’s a traveler to do? I asked Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, for guidance. She says tipping a restaurant worker for good service is still polite. But the payment systems that try to extract a tip from you before your food arrives aren’t asking for a tip. Anything charged before you get the food is a service fee.

“I wish the programmers for some of these payment systems had taken the time to actually speak with etiquette experts before coding the choices and interface,” she says. “Tipping occurs at the end of the transaction, not before.”

In the end, maybe it doesn’t come down to manners, but honesty in advertising. If a restaurant publicizes a price for an entree, then you should be able to pay that rate without shame. A 20% gratuity on a takeout order is difficult to justify – even now.

How to handle a request for a takeout order tip

What do you want to say as a customer? Even if you’re offended by a payment system that demands a gratuity before you receive your food, you may want to still consider a takeout tip. After all, one reason people tip is to acknowledge that the compensation system for many workers in the hospitality industry makes the tip an essential part of someone’s wages. So if you want to make a statement about the unfairness of the system – and make no mistake, it’s unfair – “then definitely go ahead and tip,” says Nick Leighton, host of the weekly etiquette podcast “Were You Raised By Wolves?”

Consider adjusting your tip. That’s the advice of Lisa Grotts, an etiquette expert with The Golden Rules Gal. She supports tipping on takeout orders and recommends 20% by default. But if something goes wrong, some systems allow you to increase or decrease the gratuity. “I have experienced one delivery service where a tip can be adjusted after the fact in case of issues,” she says.

Follow your instinct. In the end, you have to do what you believe is right, says Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas. “Simply hit the ‘custom tip’ or ‘no tip’ if you feel strongly,” she says. “Yes, I know it feels uncomfortable to push that ‘no tip’ button – but it’s important to follow your instinct.” She notes that a gratuity is respectful in many, but not all circumstances.

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