Workers in the restaurant industry dealt with a lot of hardships during the pandemic. Some had to choose between risking their health and sacrificing their livelihoods. Others lost their jobs when the pandemic forced their employers to shut down or lay off large swathes of their staff, or suffered financially because of reduced working hours and fewer customers during the crisis.
Some Americans began tipping extra on outdoor burgers or takeout cocktails in recognition of the difficulties workers faced. Average tips in New York City city reached a high of around 25% at the initial shutdowns in spring 2020, and climbed again to about 22% around Christmas last year, according to a New York Times analysis of data on the payment app Square.
Now vaccine rollouts in the US are easing concerns over Covid-19, prompting restaurants to reopen and making customers feel more comfortable dining out. Tips, too, are returning to their pre-pandemic levels. Average tips in New York City are back around 18-20% for in-person dining, according to the Times.
But the discourse of the past year has increased public awareness of the many other problems with servers’ working conditions, from entitled diners with unreliable tipping habits to the lack of basic benefits like health insurance and vacation and sick days. As writer Alicia Kennedy, herself a former food-service worker, said in a recent newsletter, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the power imbalance in the set-up of “service workers offering hospitality without expecting anything in return, except the possibility but not guarantee of tips.”
In that context, some customers may still feel pressure (whether internal or external) to tip more generously than they did in the pre-pandemic days.
But do you have to? What’s the difference between a generous tip and a satisfactory one? And how should diners balance the desire to eat out, and to show support for local restaurants and the people who work for them, with the realities of their own budgets?
Quartz attempted to sort out the complicated world of post-pandemic tipping etiquette with the help of a few experts.
How much is a standard tip?
Tipping in the US is a thorny subject. There are lots of places and people to tip, from manicurists to valets, but waiters and bartenders are among the most common that people encounter.
Many people agree that restaurant tips in their current iteration (making up the bulk of workers’ wages atop a scant federal minimum wage of $2.13 per hour) should not exist at all. But the upscale restaurants that tried to lead a no-tipping revolution in recent years received such strong pushback from front-of-house workers (who made less money that way) and diners (who rebelled against higher menu prices) that they were forced to backtrack. “Ultimately it’s a policy issue,” food writer Kennedy tells Quartz. “A living wage must be mandated by the state.”
Within the system that Americans are currently stuck with, to understand what it means to tip generously, it’s first necessary to establish the minimum acceptable rate. At restaurants with table service, that’s 20%, according to Kennedy and New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner, as well as most other sources.
That number shouldn’t be adjusted downward even if a dish comes out cold or an order gets mixed up. It may not be the servers’ fault, and regardless, under the US system, tips aren’t a token of appreciation, they’re the wages people need to make rent and pay their bills. As Washington Post reporter Tim Carman explains, the rest of us don’t get our salaries docked over every mishap—“Do you get paid when you’re having an off day? When you’re not at your best? When you’re in a bad mood?”—and neither should servers.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a moral good to leave a tip—it’s just fulfilling your basic obligations as a person within this system,” Rosner says. “But it is definitely immoral to fail to leave one, or to intentionally under-tip.”
What counts as a “generous” tip?
During the pandemic, Rosner says, 20% has remained the minimum. “But if you were insulated from the immediate economic effects of the pandemic—if your income was uninterrupted, if you didn’t have to leave your home to go to work, if you had health insurance, if you didn’t have to worry about childcare, etc.—I think it’s a matter of decency to tip as much as you can as a way of sharing your (relative) ease,” she explains. “On a multi-hundred-dollar meal maybe that was 30% or 50%, on a $10 takeout cocktail maybe that’s tipping 100% or 150%.”
As a general rule of thumb, a generous tip can be defined as 25% and up. That was true even before the pandemic: St. Louis Magazine dining editor George Mahe declared back in 2018 that “25 percent is becoming the new 20,” with 20% perceived as “respectable” but not “great.” A 2019 New York Times column by David Brooks suggests a 30-50% tip as a “small but direct way to redistribute money to those who are working hard to earn a living.”
Kennedy says that she’s increased her own tipping to 25-30% of the bill during the pandemic. Grub Street’s Chris Crowley, meanwhile, made the case for a standard 50% tip last summer, arguing that if you were financially secure enough to eat out, you could also afford to tip big.
Ofer Azar is an economics professor at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who researches tipping. His previous research on people’s reasons for tipping in Israel and the US show that gratitude and the understanding that waiters depend on tips are both popular motivations. He suggests that people who dug deeper into their wallets during the pandemic may have felt even more thankful for their servers, and hyper-aware of waiters’ financially precarious positions. “Maybe customers became more generous because the sense of being themselves vulnerable changed their preferences,” he adds.
What about delivery and takeout?
Rosner wrote a few years ago that the minimum tip on a food delivery is $5, no matter what the cost of one’s overall order. Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman offered a variation of that rule to The Kitchn in January 2020, suggesting that one should generally pay either $5 or 20% of the delivery bill, whichever is greater.
Pre-pandemic, many people skipped tipping on takeout at all, while others left about 10%. But Mike Lynn, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration who studies tipping and the restaurant industry, says we’re in a new era. “Covid has caused people to start tipping for carryout and I think that could change your mind about the whole concept,” Lynn tells the Wall Street Journal. A generous tip on carryout means tipping as you would for dining in.
The future of tipping
While Covid-19 cases have fallen dramatically in the US and 65% of the adult population is at least partly vaccinated, the pandemic isn’t over yet—and its effects are still very much being felt by restaurant workers. In that light, a recent article by Grub Street’s Crowley suggests that diners might want to continue tipping above the standard 20% rate.
But what’s a person with a limited restaurant budget to do? After all, we’ve all heard a lot throughout the pandemic about the importance of supporting local restaurants, coffee shops, and other small businesses. If tipping more generously means eating out less often, some might worry that they’re falling down in efforts to channel money toward struggling establishments.
That’s the wrong way of looking at it, according to Rosner. “I think many of us accept without question this very capitalist idea that any act of spending is also an act of moral goodness, because it’s good to support businesses,” she says. “Of course that’s not true: Consumer spending keeps the machine running, but it’s a pretty awful machine.”
It’s all well and good to attempt to make ethical purchasing decisions, but the solutions to many of the world’s problems require systemic change, not our individual dollars. In addition, Rosner notes, you don’t have to spend money at restaurants to support the businesses and their workers. “You can support them quite materially by voting for elected officials who care about small business support and care about labor rights.”
The bottom line: 20% tips are still fine, but more is welcome
Even given the public’s added awareness of the difficulties restaurant workers face, leaving a 20% tip remains a perfectly acceptable choice. But if you can afford to throw down some more money, by all means do.
“I wish those power-play guys could understand that their dates and their business clients and their golf frenemies would all be way more impressed by a nonchalant 50% tip than they are at leaving $5 on a $400 check along with a lukewarm remix of the anti-tipping monologue from Reservoir Dogs,” Rosner says. “Abundance is such a power move.”