Recent events have changed many aspects of life, perhaps permanently. The emerging new normal is ushering in epochal changes. Even long-held norms are shifting, including norms around restaurants and tipping.
Last year, 56 percent of people in the United States increased their tips, per Bank of America’s 2021 spending report But while many people are tipping generously, others actually turned in the opposite direction: nonprofit organization One Fair Wage reports that 80 percent of tipped workers have seen their tips go down by 50 percent or more. Basically, it’s tough to generalize tipping behavior right now.
So we spoke with experts — seasoned restaurateur Ouita Michel, chef and owner of the Ouita Michel family of restaurants in Kentucky, and etiquette expert Bonnie Tsai, owner of Beyond Etiquette in Los Angeles — to figure out the new norms around tipping in the United States so you can tip with confidence.
What’s the standard tip today?
Answer: 20 percent and up
Why: For decades, 15 percent has been considered the minimum appropriate tip. Tsai says this remains technically true, but norms seem to be shifting. One reason to tip more is that minimum wage simply hasn’t kept up with the cost of living. Another is the realities of the pandemic era.
“What’s considered a standard tip is going up. I encourage people to tip 20 percent to 30 percent while staying within their means,” she says.
Deciding what fits in your budget includes factoring in the tip — meaning, if adding a 20 percent tip on top of the cost of a meal makes it feel too spendy, you should choose a less expensive restaurant where tipping 20 percent won’t feel like a strain.
You should also keep in mind when you go to a restaurant that thanks to increasing food prices and shortages, it’s likely the prices of your favorite menu items have gone up. This means your tip will need to go up as well. To avoid any sticker shock or coming up short when it’s time to tip, take a fresh look at the current menu prices before you go. It might be more than you remember.
Michel doesn’t say exactly what she would consider a standard percent for tips, but that she personally tips at least 20 percent to 25 percent these days. She suggests tipping “whatever you can possibly afford.”
Should you tip less when the service stumbles?
Why: Restaurants are understaffed, and you might also be shorting the busser.
“In many restaurants, where there were once four line cooks, now there are two. Sometimes it’s all perfect but sometimes things go wrong for reasons beyond our control. Food goes out cold, steak is over or under, but if the problem is handled, why would you penalize your waiter?” says Michel.
Tsai agrees it’s not appropriate to tip less over slip-ups. For one thing, in some restaurants tips are pooled and a bad tip penalizes the whole team instead of one server, she notes. It may hurt the busser more than your server.
“People need to be understanding; we’re still recovering from the pandemic. We all want to get back to normal, but we should remember to be kind,” she says. “We’ve all been through it. Restaurant workers put themselves on the line for us. The least we can do is be more patient. We’re all human.”
What if there’s a service charge?
Answer: Tip enough in addition to the service charge to equal at least 20 percent.
Why: Though the practice of tipping has issues, tipping 20 percent is the right thing to do.
Pre-pandemic, there was momentum in the industry to move away from tipping and toward a service charge model, notes Michel. She had planned to take her restaurants in that direction in 2020. The service charge model has the potential to eliminate tipping altogether, guarantee restaurant workers a fair wage, and ease the inequity between line cooks and servers, who typically earn more than their peers in the kitchen, she explains. “In our table service restaurant, the cooking team makes about half of what the front of the house makes, and it’s destructive,” she says.
There’s a long list of reasons to eliminate tipping, which has its roots in slavery — the practice of tipping in America was a justification for paying formerly enslaved workers less than minimum wage after the Civil War. The current legal “tipped minimum wage” is just $2.13 an hour. To this day, the practice of tipping intensifies racial economic inequality.
But the pandemic disrupted the trend toward eliminating tipping in favor of service charges. In July 2020, trendsetting restaurateur Danny Meyer ended his restaurant group’s influential no-tipping policy. Though eliminating tipping is a goal for Michel, she can’t do it now, “I would lose employees. No one in my market is doing it,” she says.
Confusingly, during the past 20 months, many restaurants have instituted service charges in the 10 to 15 percent range, without also eliminating tipping. That leaves diners to fill in the gap.
Do you need to tip for takeout?
Why: A lot of work and service goes into preparing your order.
Unfortunately, the rules around whether and how much to tip on takeout orders aren’t always crystal clear. Because you don’t receive the same kind of personal, high-touch service that you would when dining in, many people don’t think tipping anything on takeout is necessary.
“Pre-pandemic, I would tell people they didn’t necessarily have to tip on takeout orders,” says Tsai. But times have changed. “Now I’m encouraging people to tip 10 percent to 15 percent for takeout orders and at least 15 percent for delivery.”
But even in the old days, it didn’t really make sense to skip a tip on takeout, according to those who work in restaurants. Service is still involved, even if you don’t see it. “To pack up an order and bag an order involves more time and work on everyone’s part than you probably think,” says Michel. “It’s not OK to not tip on a takeout order.”
Is it ever OK to leave no tip?
Answer: No, never.
Why: Because of the current system in the U.S., it’s up to diners to ensure servers are compensated.
“Even if your service is actually bad, you never know how that tip is divided up, you can hurt everyone else on staff,” says Tsai. So what should you do in the face of negligent or rude service? “Talk to the manager about what happened,” says Tsai. The restaurant wants to make it right for you.
As a restaurateur, Michel does everything she can to ensure diners at her restaurant have a positive experience. “I err on the side of radical hospitality,” says Michel, who describes hospitality as a spiritual practice. “But we also have an expectation of respect from diners. Across the industry, I think this is new. I think restaurant workers are saying, ‘We’re people too.’”