Beyond the Table: Tipping Properly in Every Food Scenario

How To

photo: Dave Dugdale

We’ve all been there. I order my small black coffee, hand the barista my debit card, grab the pen to sign off, and halt at the gratuity line. Am I supposed to add something here? Am I cheap if I don’t? Can I just pretend I already tossed some change in the tip jar? I don’t know—and it’s far too much indecision to deal with before my cup of the black morning elixir.

Any American old enough to read a menu knows we’re expected to tip as our server politely clears away our meal at restaurants. We feel confident about what’s expected in these situations (15% to 20%, in case anyone needs reminding). But what about today’s alternative eating-out situations—beyond the confines of the standard sit-down restaurant?

The Bar

Sure, sure, we’ve all heard the standard dollar-a-drink rule. But what if I also order food? Or I end up sitting there through two sporting events (meaning about six hours)? I can’t possibly be expected to shell out a buck per drink if I’m with a huge group. The eminent etiquette expert, Emily Post, approves equally of both the dollar-per-drink guideline and adding a 15% to 20% tip to the total bar tab.

The Takeout Counter

Whenever I go through the takeout dance with a host (she retrieves my food, I pay—inevitably with a credit card—and my eyes scan down to that darned gratuity line), I feel anxious. Am I rude if I don’t tip? A sucker if I do? What’s the proper percentage? (Surely not the full 15% to 20%.)

“I’ll leave a couple of dollars, maybe more if it’s a larger order and required more work by the host,” says Heather Chang, a former hostess at a San Diego gourmet pizza restaurant. What constitutes more work? “Things the host would’ve helped put together, like a salad or something that required fancy packaging.” If this turns out to be the case, 10% is plenty.

At the Doorstep

Delivery is hardly limited to pizza at this point; everything from sushi to barbecue seems available as a to-go order. No matter what specific cuisine I’m craving, what’s the delivery person expecting in terms of tip? Luckily, there’s a whole Web site,, dedicated to these people’s livelihood to clarify matters. “You’re supposed to tip the pizza delivery driver like you tip the waiter,” says the site. “They rely on tips and use their own car.” Despite the fact that restaurants tack on a delivery charge, the person performing the actual delivery isn’t seeing any of this—meaning, tip like you’re sitting at a restaurant table: 15% to 20%. (C’mon, someone’s actually bringing food to your home, meaning all the work you’re doing is moving from the couch to the front door for a hot meal.)

The Coffee Counter

The tip jar—it sits right next to the register, staring at me as the barista rings up my order. Sometimes it’s full. Sometimes it’s empty. The last thing I need before my coffee is a moral dilemma. A dollar in there seems like way too much (over 25%!), but tossing in change feels cheap.

Tip jars, according to Post, carry no obligation. But when should we contribute to them? And how much? My sister, Amber Firestone, is a former barista who isn’t afraid to enlighten me on tipping expectations: “If all you’ve gotten is a plain coffee or tea, you’re probably not going to offend anyone by not tipping,” she says. “If you order something complicated or if you’re a regular, you need to toss something into the jar.”

Is the change toss-in really enough? “Totally,” Amber says. “Even that adds up over the course of the day.”

The Super-Gourmet Coffee Counter

There are a slew of coffee shops that make going above and beyond expectations their MO. I’m not talking about the usual chains—I’m talking places that make quality brews and service an art. It’s important to note that not all coffeehouses are created equal in terms of craft. Most chains have a mechanized process for brewing, so all baristas have to do is push a button and pour to complete our orders. In these cases, forgoing the tip is probably all right.

On the other hand, getting a custom-made, single-drip brew from a place like Philz in San Francisco does call for a gratuity. In places like this, where the coffee is truly gourmet and made to order, a dollar tip, minimum, is definitely merited.

Alternative Service Restaurants

These are the spots that aren’t exactly self-serve but aren’t quite sit-down-and-order, either. Maybe we order our food at a counter, then a server brings it out to us. Others even have us grab the food ourselves, limiting the service to the people who clean up our tables when we finish. Buffets fall into this category, too. Do I cut the tip in half if I’m doing half the work? Or is the icky-cleanup half worth more than the taking-my-order half? Post says that, yes (whew), we can reduce the tipping amount—but only by a little, leaving 10% of the total. Of course, we should also use discretion, depending on the level of service. Did they run back to the kitchen to get that special sugar-free sweetener for you, or happily fix an order the chef flubbed? Reward positive behavior—especially if you want to come back for equally great service in the near future.

Instead of having to memorize a different percentage expected for each situation, we can all fall back on a few recurring rules in ambiguous, awkward moments. When in doubt, 15% is a safe bet. Tips jars? Spare change is quite all right. If you’re a regular, tossing in a fiver every once in a while will probably keep those smiles and prompt service coming. And in any situation, service that delights should definitely be honored in return with a monetary thank-you.

Beyond the Table: Tipping Properly in Every Food Scenario was provided by

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