You freeze up like Wile E. Coyote suspended in midair before a fall, then frantically select an option — any option at all — just to make the awkwardness stop. A few minutes later, as you walk to the counter to pick up your food, you kick yourself for adding $3.40 to your already $17 lunch tab.
Counter tipping is literally in our faces these days. It seems that every eatery from the craft barbecue joint (where we're already paying premium prices) to the serve-yourself frozen yogurt chain wants us to tip their employees. We’ve been put on the spot to tip for having three items rung up and bagged at a boutique grab-and-go store. Want someone to hand you a cookie at the bakery? Fine, but you’ll be asked for a tip.
Even though touch screen tip requests at counters are now as ubiquitous as the golden arches (dear Jesus, please don’t let McDonald’s institute tipping), each time it happens we suffer another wave of chagrin. The cashier is right there looking at us expectantly, and we’ll admit it: we care what the people in line behind us think.
The options might read 15% and 20%, but when you’re standing there that’s not how it feels. It’s more like choosing between “I’m a good person, really, I am,” or “I’m a high roller and I’ve decided you’re cool,” or maybe “I’m beyond awesome and you should date me.” Does tapping, “no tip,” say, “I’m cheap,” or “Get a better job,” or “Y’all should pay your own damn employees?"
Sure, the knee-jerk reaction for some is to think this is a cash grab and some people may find it easy to just say no. But for most of us, the solution isn’t a simple one, and though the practice is spreading aggressively at the moment, it’s not new.
The trend started growing around 2016 with the rise of point-of-sale systems at fast-casual restaurants. The use of these systems and payment tablets exploded during the pandemic to ease the burden on restaurants wanting to offer curbside service, to-go offerings and third-party delivery.
In 2019, before the pandemic was even on the horizon, a travel story in the New York Times explored the topic. With informal customer surveys and data from Toast (a Boston-based point-of-sale platform company that serves thousands of restaurants around the country), the article explored customer sentiment as well as the bottom line.
As reported in the write-up, Toast revealed that in 2019 at restaurants with an activated tipping module, 48.5% of customers left tips at cafes while 46.5% left tips at fast-casual restaurants. The average tip? 17%.
Restaurants can opt-out of the tipping module or set their own suggested tip percentages. Default options in the Square system are $1, $2 or $3 for transactions under $10, and 15%, 20%, and 25% for transactions over $10. If those numbers seem to inflate the value of counter service, you won’t be surprised that Square is also the company responsible for the rise of the dreaded swivel pad.
For independent restaurants, that extra revenue can be a blessing, making it possible to tempt potential employees with higher wages bolstered by tips. Skipping the tipping module costs them a chunk of change if customers are inclined by social pressure or decency to tip generously.
In a Facebook thread asking local owners and workers about their experiences, Kenny Mills, owner of The Original Chop House Burgers, called it “kind of a double edge[d] sword.”
“If we include the tip optional line, it seems to offend some but it is OPTIONAL,” Mills explained. “If we don’t include the tip optional line then some people who want to tip can’t. Why not just skip over it?”
Since it’s up to each of us whether or not we want to participate in this ritual, a standard of etiquette would be helpful. But before we get to that, there’s a bigger concern.
First, we had to be certain that the employees were actually getting the tips. Years ago at a now-closed ice cream shop in Irving, an employee stopped me when I paused over the tip screen. “Don’t bother,” he said. “The owner just keeps all the tips.”
After narrowly avoiding being boycotted far and wide when news leaked in the summer of 2019, third-party delivery company DoorDash changed its policy of using customer tips to subsidize wages it had already promised to its drivers. In November last year, they agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a government lawsuit over the “tip theft." Will some restaurant owners try getting away with this?
To get a better read on that part of the puzzle, we asked counter workers point-blank at a number of businesses throughout North Texas. Though no one was willing to speak on the record (and that’s fine because we’re all in favor of letting everybody keep their job), every response we got was quick and straightforward.
One cashier told us that the company puts a small percentage of the total tips into a fund and distributes it as bonuses at the end of the year, while the rest is distributed with paychecks. A long-time manager of a Dallas fast-casual restaurant said their employees receive their share of tips as a cash payment weekly.
Another restaurant owner we spoke with gives their employees a choice of $15 an hour or $5 an hour with tip share. Some want the stability of a higher wage, others like to gamble on the opportunity to make more and are anxious to work busy weekend shifts that typically pay better. Their most stable employee who runs things on slow days takes the higher hourly wage.
Most employees told us they get paid their share of tips weekly on their paychecks, based on the hours they’ve worked. Some businesses share the tip pool with the back of the house as well as the counter employees; others don’t. But at every place we asked, employees assured us that they were being paid tips.
So we can all feel good about service employees being paid more, but that doesn’t address the issue of feeling pressured to tip before you’ve received any food or service. What’s the etiquette, and what feels right?
A three-year-old Wall Street Journal article on the topic reports that according to the Emily Post Institute, there is no obligation to tip counter help, so there’s that.
While a passive-aggressive blank-stare game of chicken with the cashier would be out of line (not to mention slowing down the line) getting asked for a tip on demand comes in pretty high on the manipulative scale, too. Love it or hate it, up till now tipping has always been private.
A tip is something you scrawl on a slip of paper at a bar or restaurant after performing hurried math gymnastics or applying some kind of personal likeability checklist and tossing it into a mental algorithm that also factors in how much you’ve had to drink. That’s what it’s supposed to be.
Do we have to go back to tipping in cash to avoid up-front tipping? That would make it easy to say no to the screen prompt. But even before the pandemic made us wary of touching anything, most of us were ready to bid goodbye to carrying cash if we hadn’t already.
The manager of a food stand at the newly opened Exchange Hall told us (also off the record) that she encourages employees to earn their tips by being extra friendly and visiting with customers when time allows.
Still, for the customer, it’s hit or miss what service that up-front tip is actually going to pay for. And how much more should we be willing to pay for a smile, anyway?
“Who cleans the tables after you leave, who cleans the restroom, who has to put up with bad attitudes and coarse language, who restocks the goods, who cleans the windows all to enhance your experience?” Kenny Mills chimes in. “Is a couple of bucks for the teenagers who do all this going to kill you?”
Anyone who thinks these jobs are easy, treats servers badly or merely takes them for granted for “just doing their job” is clearly misguided and we’re happy to set them straight. But understanding that doesn’t get to the crux of the matter.
Most customers already “get it.” This industry is tough, especially for small, local businesses even in good times. And for most in the restaurant industry, the last 16 months have not been good times.
Maybe that’s why not many media outlets have yet tackled the topic and a search for a recent national story on the subject was similarly fruitless. Keeping complaints quiet and reasonable seems like the least we can do to make up for the year of abject terror the food and beverage industry has faced.
Tipping Towards Better Wages
But at some point, don’t businesses need to achieve profitability while paying decent wages that aren’t dependent on customer tipping patterns? That’s going to be a heavy lift for a lot of small businesses, but a reckoning on fair wages is long overdue in the food industry and beyond. If customers refusing to tip for counter service is what finally gets us to stop kicking that can down the road, then maybe the time is ripe.
Sure, there will be times when you’ll want to tip at the counter, and in some cases, it’s a no-brainer. A barista who makes you a drink that’s more than just a cup of coffee or serves you daily and knows your order by heart deserves a tip.
If (like me) you sometimes drive all the way across the metroplex for the eye candy gourmet treats at Detour Doughnuts (or your own favorite treat), it feels silly to balk at a few extra bucks on the tab. The Frisco shop is just one example among many local-owned businesses I want here for the long haul. I’ll gladly exchange a few dollars extra for the good they’re doing, even if it enables a practice that’s inherently unpleasant, and more to the point, a burden on some consumers whose resources are also stretched thin.
Maybe we also need to reward restaurants that don’t ask us for a tip every time with our loyalty. Their efforts to bring us the same thing we’ve always expected are just as challenging (and as valuable) as those who’ve become dependent on the tip modules to pump up their bottom line.
As for the “Would you like to leave a tip with that” moments, tip as much as you want, if you want to. Even though it’s not private, it is still a decidedly personal choice. But if one more screen in your face makes you ready to stop the tip flip, you might need an easy way to say no when a tip isn’t warranted.
“Sorry, catch you next time,” (even if you won’t) works fine. Or be brave. Avoid eye contact if it’s too much, take a deep breath, and don’t feel pressured to say anything at all. It’s really OK to just tap “no tip”.