How Much Should I Tip Restaurant Workers During the Pandemic?

It’s a hot take I can't get off my mind: Last July, Grub Street’s Chris Crowley argued that anyone who can afford to eat out during a pandemic can afford to tip at least 50 percent, contending “it’s the bare minimum you can do if you decide you must eat a burger al fresco or get tacos delivered.”

That percentage haunts me. Before reading it, I considered myself a generous tipper—usually leaving between 20 and 25 percent in restaurants. I tipped baristas and food trucks and have even returned to tables covertly to throw down extra money after watching stingier friends tip 10 percent to the penny.

Though I haven’t eaten in a restaurant since last March, I order takeout or delivery twice a week and have dined alfresco with masked table service a handful of times. In that last situation, I tipped 25 to 30 percent. But in the first two, my tips hovered around 15 percent for delivery (20 percent if the weather was bad) and 10 percent for takeout or curbside pickup. I thought I was doing my part to support local restaurants. But Crowley’s 50 percent proclamation makes me question if my tipping is sufficient.

The pandemic has battered the restaurant industry: More than 100,000 businesses have gone belly up since March and millions of service workers have lost their jobs. But what is the responsibility of the individual diner to make up for those lost wages, or overcompensate workers almost as a form of hazard pay? While I would love to tip everyone a bajillion dollars, I’m not fabulously rich. If I cannot afford to tip $25 (or more) on top of a $50 meal, is it really better for me to just cook at home? Isn’t a $10 tip better than no tip?

Cornell professor Michael Lynn has published more than 70 research papers about tipping. In a recent analysis of nationwide data from the payment app Square, he found that diners are tipping more generously during the pandemic than before it—at least in quick-service restaurants and for delivery. In May 2019, the average tip was around 11 percent; in May 2020, it was 15 percent. Where tipping dipped 1 or 2 percentage points was in full-service restaurants with credit cards present for the transaction, representing a mix of dine-in service and takeout. The reason, Lynn theorizes: “People just don’t like to tip on takeout.”

This tracks for Annie Collier, a bartender and manager at American Sardine Bar in Philadelphia. Collier rarely sees tips above 20 percent, and diners often tip nothing on takeout orders, which she describes as “extremely time-consuming” to execute. “If someone doesn’t tip me, they’re saying they don’t think I deserve to get paid for what I do,” says Collier.

In addition to risking their own health, some female servers are also facing what One Fair Wage, a nonprofit organization that advocates for higher pay for restaurant workers, has dubbed “maskual harassment,” or the pressure to pull down their masks in order to get tipped. Others are doubling as reluctant hall monitors, forced to police diners about mask compliance. “People constantly argue with us, roll their eyes, disobey the rules, and then leave bad tips because we enforced the guidelines put in place to keep them safe,” says Collier, who wishes more people would recognize that eating out during a pandemic is a privilege, not a right. In her opinion, diners can best support their favorite spots by ordering takeout and leaving a good tip—specifically 20 percent for curbside pickup, 25 percent on delivery, and a minimum 30 percent when dining on-site.

Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert at the The Protocol School of Texas, agrees that diners should recognize the financial hit servers have taken. Though the nationwide norm may be 10 to 15 percent, she says, “It’s a gracious act to tip generously if possible—and that includes curbside pickup.”