I get up to the counter and a digital screen asks me: 15%? 18%? 20%? Sometimes even 25 or 30%.
I’ve ordered a coffee. Or a sandwich. Or a slice of pizza.
The screen wants to know, how much would I like to tip for that?
An existential crisis commences.
Do I tip at all? If so, how much? Should it be based on the level of complexity required to complete the task? Does a pumpkin spice latte deserve 20% if I want extra cinnamon and a generous whip cream swirl?
What, I beg of you, should I tip for a large drip coffee with “just a little room for cream?”
Do I dare press “other” and customize the tip?
Why do I feel as indecisive and anxious as the narrator in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” who measures his life out in coffee spoons?
Do I dare?
Do I dare type in .25 because if I carried change, I’d spare a quarter?
The employee is surely judging my worthiness as a human being, based on this course of action. Not to mention the five people behind me in line who are waiting with bated breath on the swift flick of my finger as it glides across the screen to the electronic signature.
Isn’t getting food prepared for you supposed to be a relaxing experience?
A Changing Culinary Scene
Many people know that the 20% tip has long been a standard when it comes to sit-down service — if the service is deemed ideal. In America, herein lies the rub: it’s all subjective.
Waiters and waitresses are in many ways at the mercy of their diners. On a good night, they come home with a hefty paycheck, but on a bad night their morale can be boosted with a sanguine, “Well, at least I got free chicken tenders.”
I worked at a seafood restaurant as a hostess and busser when I was in high school. I seated diners, warmed up bread, filled water glasses, restocked the salad bar, cleared dishes, wiped down tables, and folded silverware. The waitresses assigned me extra jobs for which they gave me a portion of their tips — I also vacuumed the entire restaurant at the end of the night, prepared tables for the next day, spritzed the glass doors with Windex, and completed other miscellaneous tasks.
I share this history because it affects how I patronize restaurants. I know what it’s like to stand on your feet for hours on end, to leave work reeking of fish, and to deal with customers who complain about every imaginable detail.
I think everyone should have to work a restaurant job once in their lifetime.
But food service has evolved quite a bit since I held my seafood job and I’m confused about what is expected of me as a customer.
There is counter service, takeout, bartending, delivery, and food truck fare that all have tipping options. There are also farmer’s markets, catering gigs, bake sales, and lemonade stands to consider.
Yes, lemonade stands. It became apparent to me this summer when I saw photos of lemonade stands on social media that the Square card reader has come for our children.
I keep telling myself I should just carry more cash so the digital screen wouldn’t jolt me so much and I could just fill physical tip jars with leftover change, but the reality is we live in a card-dominant society and it’s what I most often use to pay.
As of right now, I simply wing it. I always tip for sit-down service, and I try to tip as often as possible for those other situations, but there’s a lot of gray area. I am most definitely guilt-tripped by those handwritten signs that say witty phrases, like, “Tips for Counterintelligence” or, simply, “College Fund.”
But I feel that the industry needs to provide guidance. There’s no consistency.
When I began drinking in college, my friends and I always tipped a buck per drink at the bar, but that was 10 years ago, and a craft beer can now go for $10. Is a $1 tip still sufficient? Does a barkeep who cracks open a can of domestic beer deserve less than a craft brewery employee who pours the beer into a quaint Mason jar and adds a slice of lemon on the side? Why am I deciding the fate of this stranger and not his boss who knows how much he gets paid?
Seeking insight and hopefully a definitive answer, I asked a close friend of Portland Old Port staff and a long-time bartender, Travis Gauvin of Sur Lie in Portland, the acceptable tip percentage these days; he revealed,
“The restaurant and hospitality scene certainly has grown, the level of service required has risen and prices have also duly increased. I think because of this we have entered a dilemma of ‘how much extra do I add for this person or from this item they’ve provided me?’ I tip all the time, unfortunately. But I’m a bartender myself, and I do have the opportunity to put a dollar or two or some change in the tip jars and I enjoy doing so! I like to think that it comes full circle. With tipping, I acknowledge the person providing me a service by letting them know what they’ve done was appreciated -I believe that’s a foundation to build from! The money gives us life and sustainability in a tip-based industry, but the appreciation of what I do certainly keeps me coming back and trying new things at a high level… I love great coffee, thus I leave a dollar or whatever extra I have. Never once have I thought about what the minimum tip could be, what percentage, etc. My only thought is, ‘this person did something for me I could’ve done for myself, and I didn’t have to.’ The appreciation and whatever you can spare for that moment and that service, is enough in my eyes.
To answer your question, with a beer, a single mixed drink (such as a Jack and Coke, Gin and Tonic, etc) I still think $1-2 is acceptable – though I’m not really in that environment anymore so maybe I shouldn’t speak here.When it comes to a typical night out, dinner and a drink or two, I think 20% is the level with which I perform my work as a bartender and is still how I put food on my table. It is never expected however, and I consider part of my professionalism to be working towards guaranteeing a spectacular night worthy of 20%.”
Now dear reader, does that help? What guidance do you have?