How much should you tip for a meal? Foodies offer advice for the COVID-19 era

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TORONTO — When Canadians are handed payment terminals when dining out or grabbing takeout, there’s usually a moment of discomfort as they quietly calculate how much to tip while restaurant staff hover nearby.

That anxiety has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic as many restaurants are on the brink of closure while some of their customers have lost their jobs.

“Some people take service quite seriously and they base their tipping on that. There’s other people right now that are very aware of COVID-19 and want to help restaurants, but that’s not everybody,” said Nicki Laborie, the owner of the Reyna restaurants in Toronto.

“I’ve spoken to so many people who actually have no idea how deeply affected restaurants were during COVID-19 because they were closed for two to four months.”

Many eateries have resumed operations since shutting down earlier this year, but the extent of their service is different depending on local health guidelines and customer behaviour. As confusion around restaurants continues to swirl, Laborie and other industry experts shared their advice on tipping in the COVID-19 era.

While they’ve all heard people talk about 15 per cent being an industry standard for tips, many agree that’s an “old-school” figure and definitely doesn’t account for the effects of the pandemic.

Laborie noticed plenty of dinners shift to 20 per cent in the years leading up to COVID-19 and in the pandemic’s early days, she was stunned by some of the generosity shown towards her staff.

“People were tipping 20 to 25 per cent. It was amazing for my staff,” she said. “Now that restaurants have reopened, I’ve definitely seen a major decline.”

When she dines out, she usually gives 20 per cent for good service, 25 per cent for an exceptional experience and 15 per cent for a bad meal.

The average dine-in customer tips 18 per cent across restaurants using payments company Ready, said Laurent May, who heads the Vancouver-based business that enables customers to pay for meals through their phone without interacting with a server.

Takeout orders see tips of about 11 per cent, but May says it varies widely: Ready has customers that don’t tip at all and others who tip between 20 and 30 per cent.

“Now is the time, if you can, to provide an additional tip, but the other factors I would think about are how was the ordering experience, was your food provided to you in a safe and COVID-compliant way and what was your overall impression of the restaurant,” he said.

Johnny Cheng, a food industry accountant who runs the @foodie.fob Instagram account, said he has been tipping more ever since COVID-19 began because of the challenges restaurants are facing.

He doesn’t think there should be a standard for tipping, but he does stick to a few rules.

“I usually tip when its restaurant takeout, but not fast-food or food court takeout,” he said.”

When he has a bad meal, he’ll give some feedback to staff, but never requests compensation.

If service has been exceptional, he makes an effort to stop staff to really impress on them how wonderful they have been and he gives them a five-star rating on food apps.

Some restaurants are embracing a policy that creates a new wrinkle: no tips.

Toronto’s Burdock Brewery did away with the practice, saying on Instagram that the move helps them provide a predictable living wage to staff during uncertain times, limit the back-and-forth with credit card machines that need additional cleaning and avoid race and gender prejudices by removing what can be an arbitrary customer choice.

Others are applying automatic tip rates or surcharges to offset the costs of extra sanitzation, lower customer volumes and physical distancing measures.

Cheng has yet to see a surcharge on his bills. If he does see it, he said he would subtract the fee before working out how much to tip.

Ryan Sciara, the owner of Sapori, has noticed customers have been tipping very generously on wine and charcuterie orders he personally delivers during the pandemic, but he certainty doesn’t expect the gratuity and often discourages it.

“My general rule is tip the most for dining in because it is the biggest risk, staff are doing the most amount of work,” he said. “I would back off a bit from there for delivery and then back off a bit again from there if you are just going to pick it up.”

Diners shouldn’t feel stress about tipping or feel forced to use a certain benchmark because everyone has different circumstances and tips are divvied up in a variety of ways depending on the restaurant, he said.

He recommends people stick to tipping rates they are comfortable with and that fit their means and the experience they had.

“People shouldn’t feel like, ‘Without me, this place is going to go under.’ That shouldn’t be on the customer,” he said, noting tips on some items will amount to a few cents or dollars.

“Any tip is appreciated. Some places are going to help keep their lights on with that tip, but that tip should be out of the goodness of your heart and because you love the restaurant or you’ve been there a bunch of time or you know the owner.”

31 COMMENTS

  1. Why do we maintain this archaic and unfair practice? Many owners not only deliberately pay wait staff less than they deserve, expecting them to work hard and earn a tip, but also insist on collecting and pooling the tips.

  2. I tip what I can afford but always a good tip if the service is good even if the food isn’t that good it’s not the servers fault and on delivery I always tip there risking there life’s to bring us food and if the foods not great or cold call the restaraunts and bitch to them

  3. 20%. Everyone needs to know that the server tips a percentage of their sales to the kitchen. Usually in the range of 3-5%. If you don’t tip or low tip, the server has to cover that tip out from their own pocket. If you haven’t worked in the service industry you may not know this. 😜

  4. As far as value for food in Sault Ste Marie, I find the restaurants overpriced here compared to other cities.
    As far as local levels of service, I find the Soo lacking. These are the only restaurants where I regularly see servers drop off the cheque at tables before even asking if everything is ok of if they’d like dessert. That’s considered a very rude concept and just not done elsewhere except for dives.

    • That is a pet peeve of mine too. I don’t want to see the cheque before I’m asked if I’d like any thing further…dessert, another drink perhaps. I’ve seen this manner of “service” in a high end restaurant in this city, where a friend and I ordered steak dinners. We had barely finished eating when she smacked the bill on the table. She apparently did not care if the meal was ok…at least she didn’t ask. The server received no tip.Zero. And we explained to the restaurant manager that, although the food was good, we left no tip for the server and the reasons we didn’t, hoping that the manager might give her feedback on how to serve her dining customers more appropriately. We left the restaurant wishing we had gone to a fast food place, or some place to grab some wings. We felt robbed of a nice dining experience, considering the money we paid.

  5. I give according to the level of service.
    Good service deserves a good tip (15%).
    Bad service gets an appropriate tip to let them know to try harder (5 cents).

    I refuse to go back to restaurants that add a tip to the bill. That’s just an admission that they do not pay the servers enough.

  6. I’ve tipped the same cost as my bill & recently tipped a waitress a $20 on behalf of a “ Karen” she had to deal with at a completely different table In a Sudbury restaurant.

    • You’re right, I couldn’t afford to eat in a restaurant. Especially after you add up the cost of appetizers, drinks and food. But my wife deserved to be treated out once in a while for working 2 part-time jobs and doing the majority of raising our kids while I transitioned to a new career and had to be gone a lot for work. I am sorry if my selfishness in this matter with the tip hurt you.

  7. Min 15%. But I’ve been a server for years. So I go by service. If its bad might get 10 to 15% if really good. They always get more. When amazing I talk to management and let them know they have a gem!!

  8. %10, everytime. Unless there was something exceptionally wrong with how we were treated. And of course if the service was beyond any expectation I try and give more.. Like Popeye(aparently hes a famous server in town) once got close to a tip.. around $70.

Comments are closed.