Restaurant Etiquette Debate: Should You Add a Tip When Ordering Takeout?

Leaving a tip in an American restaurant was almost mandatory before the coronavirus pandemic. But as COVID-19 lingers, customers have discovered a new requirement: tipping on takeout orders — seriously.

And by “pick up” I mean you pick up your order at the restaurant. No meals delivered to the table. No water refills. Just your meal in a paper bag.

More than half of Americans (56%) started tipping more for food at restaurants last year, according to a new Bank of America Survey. Just under 40% of all orders – on location, pick up and delivery – included a pre-COVID-19 tip. But that figure rose by 10% last year, according to Paytronix Systems.

The tips are also more generous. A third of guests tipped an average of 20% or more of the bill.

“Before COVID, only a small percentage of customers tipped on takeout,” says restaurant consultant Izzy Kharasch. “The pandemic has changed things.”

Tipping rules are vague

But now travelers are confused.

Pattie Haubner was a generous tipper in the early days of the pandemic. She hoped her tip would support restaurant workers behind the counter who were receiving less than minimum wage. But as the pandemic continues, she doesn’t know what to do.

“I am put off by pre-service prompts, especially in coffee shops and takeaways where a $3 coffee will prompt you to tip even $5,” says Haubner, a retired communications professional and frequent air traveler from West Nyack, New York. “But I’m afraid if I don’t dare to tip – not even at a drive-thru – I’ll get a nasty look. Or worse.”

So what’s the right thing to do? Some etiquette experts say you should tip on takeout orders. Others disagree, saying that customers should not be tipped if there is no table service. They are tired of guilt tips and I wish the restaurant industry would end the confusion by paying their employees a living wage.

► Debt tip: Travelers are under pressure for tips

The case to tip on your takeout order

“It’s the right choice to tip on takeout orders,” says HG Parsa, professor of accommodation management at the University of Denver. “Even takeout involves some service, and we should tip those employees.”

A tip is a token of appreciation for the service provided, and pick-up is a service, says Parsa.

Your tips also support restaurant workers and their employers during difficult times. You may not agree with the restaurant industry’s compensation system, which allows employers to pay less than minimum wage and make up for the rest with tips. But this is no time to protest.

“From now on, I would encourage you to tip for takeout orders if you can, as restaurants are still understaffed and not operating at full capacity,” says Bonnie Tsao, founder of Beyond etiquette, an etiquette consultancy.

How much should you tip for a takeout order? Elena Brouwer, director of the International Etiquette Center, says anywhere from 15% for the restaurant bill. “Twenty percent is even better,” she says. “And if you can’t afford to tip, order something cheaper so the person taking care of you can get a tip.”

The case against tips

But travelers are amazed at the way restaurants ask for a tip when you place your takeout order. “Why do they ask for a tip before the service is provided?” asks Harry Clark, who owns a vintage car dealer in Phoenix.

Some etiquette experts say it’s a bad idea to tip on takeout.

“I don’t tip on takeout,” says Adeodata Czink, an etiquette consultant at Business Manners. “All they do is put it in a bag.”

She is also annoyed by the payment systems that don’t accept cash and have tips – 12%, 15%, 20% – programmed on the tablet. You have to push the button for the employee, which is nerve-wracking.

“And for what?” she says. “They give you a cup of coffee in a paper cup. You can’t even sit down in front of it.”

Customers regularly refuse to leave a tip on a takeout order.

“To me, a tip is an acknowledgment of extra service beyond providing the food,” said Clayton Murtle, an account manager at a marketing firm in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s an interesting symptom of the tipping culture that we still feel obligated to tip when restaurants do what should be included in the price of food.”

He says friends have told him that even the employees who provide the takeaway are dependent on tips. “But why would I pay $18 for tikka masala just because the restaurant can’t be bothered to pay their employees a living wage?”

"Before COVID, only a small percentage of customers tipped when picking up takeout,"  says restaurant consultant Izzy Kharasch.  “The pandemic has changed things."

“Before COVID, only a small percentage of customers gave tips on takeout,” says restaurant consultant Izzy Kharasch. “The pandemic has changed things.”

So what should a traveler do? I asked Jodi RR Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, for guidance. She says it’s still polite to tip a restaurant worker for good service. But the payment systems that try to get a tip from you before your food arrives don’t ask for a tip. Anything charged before you get the food is a service charge.

“I wish the programmers on some of these payment systems had taken the time to talk to etiquette experts before coding the choices and interface,” she says. “Tipping takes place at the end of the transaction, not before.”

Ultimately, it may not come down to manners, but to honesty in advertising. If a restaurant publishes a price for an entree, you should be able to afford that rate without shame. A 20% tip on a takeout order is hard to justify – even now.

How to handle a takeout order tip request

What do you want to say as a customer? Even if you’re offended by a payment system that demands a tip before you receive your food, you may still want to consider a takeout tip. After all, one of the reasons people tip is to recognize that the reward system for many hospitality workers makes the tip an essential part of one’s pay. So if you want to make a statement about the unfairness of the system — and make no mistake, it’s unfair — “be sure to go ahead and tip,” says Nick Leighton, host of the weekly etiquette podcast.”Were you raised by wolves?

Consider adjusting your tip. That’s the advice of Lisa Grotts, an etiquette expert with The Golden Rules Gal. She supports tipping on takeout orders and recommends 20% by default. But if something goes wrong, some systems allow you to increase or decrease the tip. “I’ve experienced one delivery service where a tip can be adjusted afterwards in case of problems,” she says.

Follow your instinct. Ultimately, you have to do what you think is right, says Diane Gottsman, owner of Texas Protocol School. “Just click the ‘custom tip’ or ‘no tip’ if you’re feeling strong,” she says. “Yes, I know it feels awkward to hit that ‘no tip’ button, but it’s important to follow your instincts.” She notes that tipping is respectful in many, but not all, circumstances.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Restaurant Etiquette: Should You Add a Tip to Your Takeout Order?