As someone who’s worked in the food industry for a few years, I’m all too familiar with the system that assumes the customer knows (and tips) best. And as someone who’s been on the other side of the table—consulting the financial gods of Google, searching the eyes of the server for answers, and feverishly performing elaborate and possibly unnecessary calculations—I also know that, sometimes, it’s just not true.
All to say: Tipping is tricky for all of us. With so many contexts, quickly changing models of service, and enough delivery apps to order in for the rest of our lives, sh*t gets complicated. But according to industry experts and insiders, there are a few rules of thumb you should keep in mind when deciding how much extra cheddar to throw your server’s way, no matter the dining experience.
Let's start with the easy stuff. Tipping on full table service should just be a simple percentage calculation, right? But... what if the tip is already included in the bill? And what if there's a literal fly in your soup? Luckily, there are some case-specific rules to help guide you through the post-meal panic.
Start at 20 percent.
When eating out, your tip baseline is never, ever zero. Because *most* restaurants aren’t run by wizards, food simply can’t appear on your plate without a human putting in the work to get it there. According to New York City server Sasha,* you should tip 20 percent—unless something goes horribly wrong. “In my mind, it’s the contract you enter when you walk into a restaurant. Even though it’s not on your bill, you should always go in expecting to tip that amount.”
... and go (up) from there.
Evan McKay, server and front of house manager at Olga’s Cup and Saucer in Providence, Rhode Island, points out that this isn't the time or place for penny-pinching. Whether you’re rounding down to 18 percent instead of 22 percent or tipping on the bill before tax, know that frugality isn’t so charming in foodservice. “Don’t make an excuse to round down. A dollar fifty means so much less to you than it does to the server when you go equal to or above the minimum tip rate.”
What if the service isn't great?
We asked author and national etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, and she says you should never skip the tip. Leave a minimum of 10 percent and discreetly speak to the manager. Most servers tend to agree on this one—though Sasha suggests a minimum of 15 percent.
But remember, unless we’re talking human rights violations (in that case, drop your dinner and get outta there!), the server most likely isn’t wholly responsible for your bad experience. "It’s not the server’s fault that the meat was undercooked or that it took longer to prepare that chicken dish than you had expected," Gottsman says. "Keep in mind that if you’re going to a restaurant on heavily populated days or weekends, it may take a little longer."
Gratuity is included. What now?
Should you tip on top of the tip? Experts tend to agree on this one—it's not expected, but always appreciated. Though, as Sasha points out, there are some nuances to consider; if you’re a part of a large party, in the food industry, receive anything on the house, or have something taken off of your bill, be sure to tip a little extra. Aim for 20 percent of what your entire bill would have been.
Stop grading your server.
Though most people tend to respect the 20-percent rule, there's always that guy who treats every dining experience as an opportunity to become a New York Times critic. “One person wrote ‘deducting points because you charged my child for extra marshmallow,’ right on the bill,” Sasha says.
First of all, you're not tipping the kitchen or the people who came up with the pricing—you're tipping the service. And remember, guys: You’re not judging Olympic ice dancing here—you’re appropriately compensating someone for his/her work. And it’s important to remember that this is a huge part of that human being’s income.
Servers’ hourly income before tips typically falls well below minimum wage. For most New York restaurants, it’s around $8.65 per hour... but in 17 states and Puerto Rico, tipped workers can be paid as little as $2.13 per hour. Though there are regulations in place to make sure employees are paid minimum wage once tips are added by making restaurants pay the difference, they're not always enforced.
First impressions matter.
First-time customer? Make your tip memorable... in a good way. "If you’re new to the area, I think it’s important to tip hard on the way in," McKay says. By going above and beyond on your first visit, he says, you start building a good relationship with servers. Show a little extra love on the first tip or two, then ease out.
Eating abroad? Study up before you chow down.
Tipping customs vary incredibly from one country to the next. If you’re chowing down in Chile, tip is included in the bill, but you’ll probably want to put down another 5-10 percent in cash. But if you’re in Japan, tipping your server isn’t always customary... and might actually be downright rude! Wherever you go, be sure to do your research before picking up the bill.
It’s all about the gesture.
Being a waiter or waitress is a people-oriented job, and a lot of folks do it for these positive interactions. If you’re able to spare an extra dollar or two, going above and beyond can be a way of showing your server your respect for the work they’re putting in.
“When I’m working my butt off... and [someone] notices I’m still pleasant even though I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off, a simple gesture has the ability to make your day and restore your faith in humanity," Sasha says. “Even if it’s just an extra 10 bucks... it’s the gesture that’s important.” Just remember—tipping extra should be a nod of appreciation, and aside from good vibes, you shouldn’t expect anything in return.
Let’s bust this myth right now—tipping your delivery driver really isn’t optional. But it can be a little confusing. And, since the arrival of pizza tends to render us incapable of making any sort of logical decision, it's easy to get it wrong.
On larger orders, tip 10-15 percent—but never less than $5.
If you’ve got a mighty stack of pizzas headed your way, you should be tipping $5 or more—according to Ilir Sela, founder and CEO of pizza-ordering app Slice. Remember, larger orders require more labor. For orders that are $50 or more, you should be fine tipping 10 to 15 percent.
So you ordered a teeny-tiny snack…
We’ve all been there. Ordering in for one is a basic human right that no one should be deprived of. But if your bill comes out to $20 or less, be sure to tip at least $3, Sela and Gottsman both advise. “The amount of work [drivers] have to do to get to your home or work doesn’t change just because you ordered less food,” Sela says. So the next time you order a side of fries, tip your driver well—knowing that he/she would have had to make the same drive if you had ordered a few burgers too.
What if there’s a delivery fee included already?
Tip anyway. According to Gottsman, the delivery fee tacked on by restaurants isn't typically shared with the driver, so be sure to add something extra. It's also possible you'll come across a minimum delivery fee. This may look and feel like gratuity, but don’t be fooled—it’s just the minimum cost of an order you can place for it to be delivered. Again, not a tip.
Ordering in because you don't like the rain? Your driver probably doesn't, either.
If you don’t want to walk down the street to pick up your food, it’s likely pretty miserable for the delivery driver too. “Use your best judgment, but if you feel like conditions are more difficult for that driver, you should reward him or her,” Sela says. Try tipping on the higher end of the spectrum in bad weather—15 percent or higher on orders more than $20, or $5 for smaller orders.
Living on the fifth floor? Level up your tipping game.
If you’re on one of the top floors of a walkup, know that the delivery driver has to go the extra mile (or at least a few extra stairs) to get your food to you. Similarly, if the driver is coming from far away, throw in an extra dollar or two to make the longer distance worth their time.
If you have more to give, why not give more?
Sela points out that in the pizza industry, among others, delivery drivers do a whole lot more than just drive. “Delivery drivers are such an important component of the pizza industry, especially local pizzerias. They actually do a lot more work than just deliver the food—they’re the ones who are putting the pizza boxes together and doing a lot of odds and ends. They’re full-time employees and hard workers.” Not to mention, like other folks working in tipped foodservice, the bulk of their salary comes from tips.
When it comes to takeout, it gets even hairier. Since you’re the one shuttling your food from one place to the next, do you... tip... yourself? Or...
You can tip. But you don't have to.
It’s tricky, but most people in foodservice agree that it’s not always necessary to tip when you’re picking up your order. Especially if you're picking up from a particularly busy restaurant where servers are already making hella tips from table service, it’s not expected.
Consider the lobster—or at least the work involved in assembling it.
If you’ve ordered something particularly complicated or have taken some of the server’s time asking for swap-outs, extras, or recommendations, think about adding a buck or two to your bill. According to Louis,* a server at Brooklyn's bustling Italian joint Roberta's, it's the time a server invests in you that counts. “The more work that I do in helping someone get what they want... the more I would appreciate it,” Louis says. “But I would never expect it.”
McKay of Olga's takes a bit of a stronger stance when it comes to tipping on takeout. "This is a skilled profession. You have to keep track of so many variables at the same time." He points out that remembering someone's name and order, in the midst of everything else happening, should be taken into consideration.
So if someone has put together a big, complicated order for you? If he or she is friendly? Or if you're a regular? Gottsman suggests leaving a 10-15 percent tip.
Get to know your local servers.
If we’re talking about the sandwich shop on the corner you hit up every day, strike up a conversation with the folks who work there. At the end of the day, most servers love what they're doing and are happy to talk about it. "I’m doing what I’m doing because I love it, and I’m passionate about the industry," Sasha says. "Though you read a lot of negative things about how servers view tipping practices, people generally aren't as*holes. Usually, they’re wonderful!"
Establishing a good relationship with servers at your local haunt will make everyone's experience a little brighter. Plus, you can have more candid conversations about their day-to-day. (Do they get mostly carry-out orders? Are they paid minimum wage?) It might seem awkward, but the more transparency we can begin to have, the better. And the more well-informed tippers we can be.
*Names have been changed or shortened for privacy purposes.