American diners may be reaching a tipping point.
Not long ago, a restaurant tip was a 15 percent gratuity for the server, calculated on a napkin and scrawled on a credit card receipt at the end of a sit-down meal. The server didn’t know the sum until the diner had departed.
In 2023, tipping, or choosing not to, has expanded into a near-universal ritual of food service. Customers at a humble takeout joint might face a choice among three double-digit gratuities on a touch screen, under the penetrating gaze of a cashier.
Two societal forces, the COVID-19 pandemic and touch-screen point-of-sale tablets, have conspired to transform the American tipping culture. The gratuity has colonized the food-service universe, from fast-food restaurants to food trucks to farmers markets.
“My family went strawberry picking last weekend,” said Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at Bankrate.com. “I made the reservation. They asked me for a tip. I asked my wife, ‘What are we tipping for?’”
Before the pandemic, most Americans understood the restaurant tip as an elastic reward system for servers, a labor force whose salaries depend on them. Outside of table-service restaurants, gratuities were largely confined to tip jars.
Then, touch screens arrived and changed the tipping dynamic. Counter-service restaurants could present customers with a default tip: 18, 20 or even 25 percent. The easiest response was to pay it.
“They present you with three options, and the middle option is always most appealing,” said Deidre Popovich, an associate professor of marketing at Texas Tech University. “I can just click the default and then move on with my life.”
The pandemic added a moral imperative to the tipping ritual. In many cities, restaurant dining ceased, leaving takeout and delivery as the sole options. Pandemic ethics encouraged diners to tip generously to support idled waitstaff.
Now, the pandemic has waned, and restaurant life has resumed. Yet, the tipping touch screens remain.
“These terminals have the same software program. So, when you buy a black coffee, where the server has not put in any effort, the software asks you for a tip, which can range from 10 percent to 25 percent,” said Vivek Astvansh, assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University. “That is ‘tipflation,’ and people are annoyed.”
Tipflation is a marketing term for the upward trend in expected tips, from the standard 15 percent of decades past to 20 percent and 25 percent and beyond.
“Tip creep” is the spread of touch-screen tipping prompts across the food-service spectrum.
“Tip fatigue” is the backlash from tip-weary diners.
Two-thirds of Americans take a dim view of tipping in 2023, according to a new survey from Bankrate, the consumer finance company.
Nearly one-third of customers believe the tipping culture has spiraled out of control, the survey found. A similar share say they don’t like navigating tip choices on touch screens.
“There’s social pressure involved with tipping,” Popovich said. “If the server’s standing there, especially.”
Some of the frustration is more about tipping itself. Two-fifths of diners feel restaurateurs should pay better wages and rely less on tips, a concern that predates the pandemic and touch screens.
Tipping is a unique and, some would argue, troubling expression of capitalism. The gratuity empowers a customer to reward or withhold a large share of a server’s salary, based on a subjective appraisal of the service.
When the service is bad, “the error could be in the kitchen or in the backroom staff,” Astvansh said. “Most customers don’t see that.”
America’s tipping habit originated in 1800s Europe. Wealthy Americans returned from European vacations and adopted the practice at home.
Following the Civil War, tipping spread across a range of service jobs worked by Black Americans “to basically continue slavery,” said Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, in a Time magazine interview. Many white employers refused to pay salaries to Black workers, forcing them to rely on tips.
Many generations later, tipping endures, sustaining a wage system that is hard to imagine in other professions. Consider: A doctor or lawyer or professor or journalist might do subpar work on a given day, but nothing empowers a patient or client or student or reader to withhold a portion of their pay.
With tipping, “I control how much money someone makes,” Astvansh said. “I have the power. That power is bad.”
Outside America, tipping is far from universal: The practice is frowned upon in Japan and China, uncommon in Australia and New Zealand. French restaurants generally add tips to the bill.
In the United States, food-service workers earn higher or lower salaries according to what they collect in tips. The arrangement leaves some diners uneasy.
“As Americans, we have kind of a love-hate relationship with tipping,” Popovich said, “because we think these businesses should be paying their employees a fair wage to begin with.”
Age-old dining etiquette suggests that even a bad server deserves a tip. Yet, not every diner agrees. The Bankrate survey found that only 73 percent of Americans “always tipped” in sit-down restaurants in 2022.
In a YouGov poll, 38 percent of American diners said they generally tip baristas at coffee shops. Three-fifths tip delivery drivers. Two-thirds tip pub and bar staffs.
Another recent survey, from Forbes, found tipping rates of 36 percent at food trucks, 35 percent at coffee shops and 31 percent at takeout restaurants.
Tipping has even spread to the fast-food kingdom. An industry survey from Toast, a management-software firm, found that roughly half of quick-service restaurants, such as Starbucks and McDonald’s, now offer a tipping option, up from 38 percent in 2020.
Some fast-food customers bristle at tip prompts. Others welcome the chance to supplement the modest hourly wages of fast-food workers.
“We’ve transformed our consciousness on what was the purpose of the tip,” said Huy Do, research and insights manager at Datassential, a market research firm in the food-service industry.
Yet, in the counter-service world, tipping culture remains relatively new. Few diners seem to know when to tip, or how much.
“There should be a new set of rules for delivery, for takeout, for everything,” Popovich said.
Here, then, are some tips on tipping in post-pandemic America.
In a restaurant with a waitstaff?
Astvansh: 15 percent.
Popovich: 18 percent to 20 percent.
Rossman: “I think 20 percent is an appropriate tip. Unfortunately, as our data shows, many people are leaving far less than that.”
In a restaurant with no waitstaff?
Astvansh: No tip.
Popovich: 10 percent.
Rossman: Generally, zero. “It’s probably customary to tip something like 10 percent at a buffet, since someone may still be serving your drinks, clearing plates, refreshing silverware, etc.”
Popovich: Zero to 10 percent. “I’ve seen places where the default rate is 25 percent. I’m just getting pickup. I don’t want to leave a 25-percent tip.”
Astvansh: No tip.
Rossman: “I don’t think tipping is expected or warranted unless maybe you have a particularly large or complicated order.”
Popovich: 10 percent to 15 percent, on top of obligatory fees.
Astvansh: $10 or more. “It should be based on the distance from the restaurant to your home. I provide a dollar amount. You look at the labor that person is putting in, and how much you’re saving by not going to pick up that food. It’s a fixed cost.”
Rossman: “I’d say 15-20 percent is a good target. I’d suggest a $5 minimum. For instance, if you just had a $10 burrito delivered, I don’t think a $2 tip would be enough.”