It's time to put the confusion at rest: how much should we be tipping at the counter, if at all?
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a tablet cash register with a tip jar coming out of it
Credit: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash/Getty Images

We've all been there: after ordering food or a drink at the counter of a local café or fast-food chain, it's time to pay, but the touchscreen gets flipped around just as you're pulling out your card. The screen lights up, asking for a tip with suggestions ranging from 15% to 20% of your purchase. 

It feels like everyone behind you in line can see your decision, and the cashier will be able to tell what you choose. When I'm ordering from a local, small business, I do like to give a tip as a token of my support. But lately, especially when I'm picking up takeout or getting counter service, I almost feel guilt-tripped into tipping.

OK, I'll admit it—if I'm just picking up something small (like a grab-and-go snack or coffee), I tend to skip the tip. But is that appropriate, or expected, or both? Neither?

To put the confusion to rest, I spoke with chef Bruce Mattel, senior associate dean of restaurant education and high-volume production at The Culinary Institute of America. We asked him the questions that have been on everyone's minds lately: why does it seem like I get prompted to tip everywhere I go? And how much should I tip?

EatingWell: So I'm in a local store, let's say a café, and the touchscreen at the counter asks how much I would like to tip after ordering a coffee. Am I expected to tip? Should I be tipping at the counter?

Bruce Mattel: So, I have been asking myself these same questions, frankly. What I have decided to do is provide a small tip in these instances (5-10% using the "custom" option) if the server has been attentive, kind and my order was delivered promptly and correctly. I don't think tips are expected in these cases but rather facilitated by the software being used in the POS [point-of-sale] systems.

EW: What if I'm at a fast-food chain? The screen asks if I'd like to tip, but I don't usually tip when ordering fast food. Should I start tipping whenever I'm receiving food service, including fast food?

Mattel: Again, I don't think it's expected, however, [it is] appreciated when a tip is collected. This is also an instance when tipping is suggested [or] facilitated by the POS system. In this case it may pull on the heartstrings of some customers who are empathetic to people working for wages that are near the poverty line. The businesses' benefit is that their staff makes more money that they do not have to supply. Makes for better morale overall.

EW: How much should I be tipping at the counter: a full 20% to 25% like I would at a restaurant, or just change/rounding up to the dollar, or somewhere in between?

Mattel: My rule is about 10%. In my opinion, larger percentages should stay in proportion to what to tip when full service is provided.

The Bottom Line

While the touchscreen may suggest a higher tip percentage, Mattel uses the custom tip option for a lower, reasonable counter-service tip. At the end of the day, it's up to you, the consumer, to determine how much you want to tip for counter service (that is, if you want to tip at all). Tips in these instances aren't necessarily expected, but they are appreciated and, in some cases, can help workers make ends meet. So when you have the extra cash, consider tipping—it could help out a food-service worker more than you'd assume.