Let’s Talk Tips: How Much? When? For Who?

If you’ve ever had to tip at a restaurant, figuring out how much to leave can quickly become an existential crisis.

Everyone seemingly has a different tipping tactic, but what method is best? Can good service earn a restaurant worker a higher tip? Is 20% truly the standard? Does it change if the kitchen staff gets a cut?

Restaurant tipping doesn’t have an Emily Post-style etiquette, but there are ways to reward excellence while adhering to tipping culture.

Knowing how to tip and why it matters can make you a more efficient and kinder restaurant patron.

couple paying

Tipping Goes From Analog to Digital

Look in your wallet or purse and you’ll probably see plenty of credit cards but not much cash.

It’s not just you. The number of people carrying cash has been declining for years, and even the number of ATMs is shrinking to meet changing demand.

At the same time, other forms of payment, like Venmo, Zelle, and cryptocurrencies, are on the rise. We have a constantly growing number of ways to pay for things, but sometimes tips get lost in the shuffle.

Tips may get forgotten if they aren’t explicitly asked for or highlighted on the guest check. However, if it’s featured on the check, it can sometimes spur guests to leave more than they would have initially.

COVID Helped Spur A Digital Revolution

During the spring and summer of 2020, contactless everything became the norm.

Restaurants, bars, and cafes had just taken a massive hit due to closures but were finally reopening. Owners and employees embraced their new situation by finding creative solutions to keep patrons safe while generating sales.

As the world slowly reopened, guests returned, leaving larger gratuities than in the past. Tips have declined some since the height of the pandemic, but even with bad service, people generally still leave about 20 percent for gratuity because it’s easy to calculate.

contactless payment

Does Tipping Change By Daypart?

We’ve all seen our fair share of happy hour deals and early bird specials, but do those deals change how we think about gratuity?

Nope! The tip jar doesn’t move based on daypart, though holidays become the exception. Tipping more may be encouraged between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, especially if your server or bartender does a fantastic job.

Whether it’s a fine dining restaurant or a quick-serve cafe, tipping has been a standard practice for more than a century. Although percentages have increased from 10% in the early days to roughly 20% today, technology has helped influence how much service staff receive.

From asking someone to select a tip on a POS to explicitly laying out the request on the guest check dropped off at the table, asking has become commonplace. Restaurant workers often make less than the minimum wage, though some states have laws requiring higher wages than the Fair Labor Standards Act typically covers.

paying cash

How Servers and Guests Both Benefit From Higher Tips

Let’s dispel one myth: If you thought servers were the only ones getting to keep the money you leave for them, you are sadly mistaken.

From the front of the house to the kitchen, most employees get a piece of the pie, including hosts, bussers, and, in some cases, kitchen staff. The process is called tip pooling and can be split evenly among all workers (think about your local cafe) or divided using percentages based on restaurant role. Sometimes, even non-tipped employees get a share.

Tipping also depends on the environment. In the U.S. 20% is generally the norm for a table service restaurant. In bars, $1-2 per drink is fair, or 15% of the total bill at an upscale location. Coffee shops typically act like bars, though an additional tip may be involved if you order food too.

Is gratuity included in the check? In that case, the restaurant does not require additional tips unless the service is spectacular. The same goes for your favorite quick-service restaurant.

Pre-Tax? Post-Tax?

When tipping in a restaurant, do your math using the pre-tax total. Feel free to tip on the post-tax total if the service is spectacular.

Suggested tip amounts also do wonders for guests who might be confused about the process. Adding several options helps simplify the math while cutting several steps out of the check-settling process.

Increasing Gratuities for Restaurant Employees

Unfortunately, great tips aren’t the expectation or the rule.

Servers can increase their earnings by simply providing the best experience possible for every guest. That means:

  • Tuning into customer needs
  • Fixing problems quickly the first time
  • Being friendly - a smile can go a VERY long way!

But restaurant staff aren’t the only ones who need to mind their Ps and Qs. Guests can ensure they receive spectacular service by:

  • Being respectful with requests and changes to menu items
  • Being patient, especially when the restaurant is busy
  • Being polite and say thank you

The industry can be thankless, that’s for sure. For example, in a 2021 survey, an astounding 8 in 10 restaurant workers said they had been harassed by customers for adhering to COVID restrictions.

Don’t be another reason why those employees decide to leave.


Tips Are Encouraged, But Necessary Too

Restaurant workers put in long hours to keep us happy and well-fed. It’s on all of us to take care of them when we go out.

Many employees rely on tips to make a livable wage. That means guests should be prepared to tip as soon as they’re ready to settle the bill. It’s not the time to accidentally forget how much cash you brought or start nit-picking every last detail of the service.

Restaurant workers are there to serve guests with a smile. It’s only fair to return the favor - Emily Post would want you to!