Just Starting to Go Back to Restaurants? Here's How Much to Tip

Before you dine out again, consider these insider tips.

As we reported last July when we covered what to tip during the pandemic, dining out is such a luxury. This fact was amplified by how much many of us missed it when the experience was taken away—or far more anxiety-provoking—for about a year from when the coronavirus first arrived in the U.S. until vaccines were accessible.

Now as more restaurants reopen for dining in and vaccines are available for all staff and diners, many more of us are booking seats to revisit all of our pre-pandemic faves. If my hometown is any indication, it's like the roaring '20s. Many higher-profile spots have tables booked straight from 5 to 9 p.m. or so every weekend, and often on weeknights, too.

Data confirms this isn't just a blip: foot traffic at restaurants has increased 41% since January, according to the data scientists at Zenreach. Yet with some servers stuck in the tough position of enforcing changing mask mandates, not to mention the alarming increase in "maskual harassment" (the pressure to pull down their masks in order to get tipped), the conversation around restaurant staff pay is ongoing—and bringing many larger discussions about hospitality industry compensation to light.

Getty Images / oleksii arseniuk, Freepik / Macrovector

"For more than a year, the hospitality community has been on life support. When the shutdown occurred, many professionals were forced to leave the industry," says Chris Diebel, founding partner of Bubba Southern Comforts in Des Moines, Iowa. "As restrictions have lifted, demand for restaurants has returned much faster than these small businesses can handle. The hospitality workforce was decimated by COVID-19 and renewed recruitment efforts haven't kept pace with demand. We understand that is frustrating for customers who have been waiting to go back to their favorite establishments and experience pre-pandemic levels of service. However, it is going to take months to get things back to some semblance of normal."

This is echoed by Aldo Zaninotto, owner of Osteria Langhe and Testaccio restaurants in Chicago.

"We, as most restaurants across the country, have had a shortage of staff due to the fact that employees do not feel comfortable returning yet, have moved away from the city or took the time off to make career changes. For many restaurants it is a big struggle, and customers may see or feel that impact during their dining experience. It's important to keep that in mind and not put the blame on the waitstaff that's working extremely hard to provide a great experience."

Since the pandemic began, 80 percent of workers nationwide have reported a decline in tips of at least 50 percent, Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says in an interview with Conde Nast Traveler. And nearly 20% of Americans confirm they tip less than they did before COVID-19, according to a new Harris Poll conducted for Fast Company.

We get it: The economic situation is tight for many, but that means it's also tight on restaurant staff. In some states, minimum wage for servers is about $3, so they rely on tips. That tallies up to just $120 for a 40-hour work week, which is not nearly enough to even pay rent (not to mention cover the cost of food, family expenses, insurance, medical costs, etc.).

"Servers essentially work on commission. By leaving a minimum tip of 20%, you are acknowledging the basic transactional services rendered: an order was taken, drinks and food were served, a check was delivered and someone cleaned up after you," Diebel adds. "Tipping more than 20% rewards service that goes above and beyond the basics: charming personality, great recommendations, attentive without being cloying."

Here's where it gets even trickier: Even if you are generous with the tip for your server, the kitchen staff that's also getting slammed right now might be coming up shy. I spoke to Simon Goheen, owner of Simon's, and Joe Tripp, chef-owner of Harbinger (both in Des Moines, Iowa), and they both agreed that server tips have been remarkably generous all year since many of their clientele view the staff as family. But that leaves the kitchen staff struggling unless a tip pool is enacted, which can create a challenging dynamic between the front-of-house and back-of-house staff.

Now might be the perfect time to revisit a concept that's championed by the likes of Union Square Hospitality's Danny Meyer and Spoon and Stable's Gavin Kaysen: the universal hospitality charge. With this auto-gratuity, often around 18 to 22 percent, the entire staff is more likely to receive a fair, consistent wage, from the dishwasher and the busser to the executive chef and the server.

That likely requires a larger systemic change, however, to really take hold and become commonplace. Until then, Tripp and Goheen suggest tipping your server kindly, and if you have the means, seek out a manager to leave a bit extra for the kitchen. (Some restaurants even list a "kitchen coffee" or round of drinks for the staff on the menu as something you can purchase.)

"That extra money can be a big help for hospitality workers that are still getting on their feet after a tough year," Diebel says.

As you ease back into dining out, it can be helpful to remember to be generous as long as your financial situation allows … and to be kind.

"It's going to take months to get things back to some semblance of normal, so we are asking customers to show some grace as we tackle the lingering effects of the pandemic," Diebel concludes.

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