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  • Elisabeth Richardson

To tip or not to tip? And why does it seem like every business has a tip jar?

I sent my son to pick up a take-out order from Carrabba’s. The order total before discounts was $56 and he added a $10 tip. When I questioned him about it (in a very loud voice), he said it was customary to tip the take-out person 20%. Sure, I thought, customary when it’s my money that’s doing the tipping. But I began to wonder if he was right; maybe there was some standard for tipping that I didn’t know about and maybe I had inadvertently cheated dozens of restaurant workers out of their wages. Maybe.

I asked a local Facebook group about tipping policies and received more than 200 responses, some of which were very heated and devolved into accusations of being cheap or whether it’s our responsibility to close the wage gap. All valid concerns, but I really just wanted to know what to do when faced with a check that had a line for a tip.

Almost 50% responded that they don’t tip for take-out, and the others tipped anywhere from $2-3 to $20% of the bill; the most popular tip amount was $5. One restaurant worker said that take-out specialists are usually paid $2.89-$5 an hour; another person responded that when she worked at Outback she made $2.13 at the takeaway window. Clearly, many of these workers depend on tips to round out their income.

However, some restaurants rely on hosts for this service and they usually make at least minimum wage and often $10 or more per hour.

I was getting lost in what my obligation was and how to figure out if these workers needed tips to supplement their hourly wage. But I was focused on the wrong issue. Was it really my responsibility to figure out other people’s wages and then decide if they needed my tip? Maybe my responsibility was to simply figure out if I felt the service being provided deserved a tip.

I consulted The Emily Post Institute, which said, “No obligation; 10% for extra service (curb delivery) or a large, complicated order.” While meeting my obligation was part of my concern, the larger issue for me was one of generosity.

Then I got to thinking about that awkward moment at coffee shops when they flip the screen around and ask me to “finish the transaction,” which means I pick one of the three tip choices or “no tip” and then sign my name. I feel like it might as well say “loser” because that’s how I feel when I press “no tip.” I’m sure there’s a software designer somewhere who engineered that screen to illicit just that emotion. A friend of mine took exception with that and wrote, “I hate that tip screen!! If I order coffee and the person hired to make coffee for customers makes my coffee, I do not tip!”

I agreed 100% until I had a conversation with Sienna, a barista, at a local, independent coffee shop. She recently graduated early from high school and is earning money to attend college in the fall. She recommended putting an espresso shot in my chai latte, something called a dirty latte, and it changed my life. Now that I know Sienna’s story and she provided me with excellent advice, I tip her. Maybe that’s the point of tipping? Extra customer service. Friendliness. Knowledge.

So all things considered, I’ve decided I’m most comfortable with a $5 takeout tip or 10%, whichever is greater, and up to $1 on coffee—not because I feel obligated but because if I’m provided with excellent customer service, I want to recognize and reward that.

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