Before the pandemic, many of us enjoyed sipping a smoky mezcal margarita or twirling Bolognese-covered tagliatelle noodles at our favorite restaurants while chatting with servers. We calculated tips based on how good or bad they made us feel.
When COVID-19 struck and indoor dining gave way to takeout, customers weren’t sure how to handle tipping. Some don’t tip at all, while others tack on a couple of dollars.
“It’s understandable that people are confused,” said Dogan Gursoy, a professor of hospitality business management at Washington State University. But there’s a clear answer to the takeout tipping question, Gursoy and other industry experts say: At a full-service restaurant, you should tip for takeout whatever you would if you were dining in.
“If you can afford it, tip 18 to 20 percent. This isn’t much to people tipping, but a big deal to people we’re tipping,” Gursoy said. “This is the time we all need to share the burden.”
Restaurant workers in Washington are guaranteed a minimum wage of $13.50 per hour based on state law. But tips can as much as double that minimum pay; workers’ household budgets depend on that additional income. To put it bluntly, restaurant servers rely on the kindness of strangers to pay their rent, buy groceries and cover utility bills. Unfortunately, the work that goes into takeout food isn’t as obvious as chatting with diners or presenting a beautiful plate of food at the table.
Rally Pizza in Vancouver has seen tipping rates shift since its dining room closed March 16.
“In the beginning, people were super generous because they thought this would be temporary,” said co-owner Shan Wickham.
When Clark County restaurants were allowed to open at reduced capacity, Wickham and co-owner Alan Maniscalco chose instead to stick with takeout only, which required laying off six of Rally’s 10 servers. Since then, some customers don’t tip for takeout meals while others tip 20 to 30 percent.
“It isn’t as if a takeout fairy brings the food out. People are providing a service to the customers. They are making, packing and bringing the food to their car,” Wickham said.
In this pandemic economy, business owners have no way to increase server salaries enough to make up for lost tips, Gursoy said. Restaurants operate on narrow margins. Allowable indoor dining remains at 50 percent capacity, but restaurant owners still must pay 100 percent of their expenses. Stimulus money that kept restaurants afloat earlier in the year has mostly run out.
Even if Gov. Jay Inslee increased allowable indoor dining, most diners feel safer ordering takeout. In a seven-month nationwide study, Gursoy and a team of researchers found that many people don’t feel comfortable dining in a restaurant. For the month of October, approximately 48 percent of those surveyed said they plan on dining at a sit-down restaurant during the month of October. Willingness to dine indoors increased 6 percent over the previous month, but a majority of people surveyed don’t plan on dining out. Fifteen percent of survey respondents reported they will feel more comfortable dining inside a restaurant when their communities’ ability to test, trace and isolate COVID-19 cases significantly improves. Eighteen percent said they will feel more comfortable to dine in when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.
“We’re finding most people don’t want to dine inside,” Gursoy said. “If you do more takeout, workers get less (in) tips.”
Setting the norm for tipping has been a challenge for some local business owners, but not necessarily because customers aren’t generous. Customers told the owners of Little Conejo that they couldn’t figure out how to add tips on the restaurant’s online ordering site. Co-owners Mychal Dynes and Mark Wooten decided to add an automatic tip. They debated whether to add a 15 or a 20 percent charge but settled on 15 percent. Dynes hasn’t received any comments — positive or negative — from customers about this new system.
For food businesses that aren’t full-service, such as coffee shops and restaurants that primarily offer takeout and delivery, you can probably continue whatever you did before the pandemic. That’s what Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, has done.
Anton wouldn’t offer an official position on behalf of his organization, but shared his personal tipping practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he and his family frequently go to a diner where they enjoy talking to the servers.
“It’s that social fabric that makes this industry awesome,” he said. “If this person relies on tipping, I tip as if I was sitting at the table. This is their livelihood.”