Dear Mister Manners: During the pandemic, I was pretty generous when picking up takeout from a restaurant. Is it OK to go back to tossing a dollar or two into a jar? And if I hit "no tip" on a checkout screen, will the staff judge me?
(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a weekly column that delves into a smorgasbord of dining-etiquette dilemmas. Please submit your questions at the bottom of this page.)
In our increasingly cashless society, the same convenience that empowers us to pay for takeout through an app or on a touch screen at the point of purchase has accelerated a movement where tipping is a near-universal option no matter whether we are dining in or dining out. And often, that’s regardless of whether we are picking up an iced tea for one or a three-course meal for six.
Though many of the challenges of the pandemic are receding from view, some of the habits we cultivated during those anxious months may be well worth preserving. Particularly if you want your favorite restaurant to survive — and during the Great Resignation, to retain a staff that is earning a livable income.
Having found a space they loved for their own long-planned restaurant, business partners Lacey Irby and chef Ryan Brosseau were about to arrange their lease financing just as COVID-19 began making front-page news. Saved from certain adversity, they paused their plan until the following year, opening Dear Margaret in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in January 2021. “We focused exclusively on takeout for the first four months,” says Irby, describing the intensive research her team put into designing packaging that ensured meals made it to their patrons’ homes looking and tasting as good as they did coming out of Dear Margaret’s full-tilt kitchen. Their pomme frites, in particular, got VIP treatment, lovingly placed in special corrugated containers that kept them as crunchy as if they had just emerged from the fryer. Irby reports her customers were only too happy to tip — and generously.
Focusing on why tipping is vital, even for patrons who grab and go, Irby says: “Ordering from a restaurant is a luxury. You don’t have to cook; you don’t have to do dishes.” That alone should be worth a monetary thank-you for the hard-working staffs toiling to provide their clientele with an enjoyable experience, say many restaurateurs.
Are they judging us if we don’t? “If I had a customer who didn’t tip me a penny for six months, I would provide him the same service I would as a customer who consistently tipped generously over that same six-month period,” says Ricardo Lory, owner of Chef Global’s Kitchen in Naples, Florida. The 23-year-old entrepreneur and first-generation American started his business after being laid off from employment as a line cook in the cruise industry, another among millions of job casualties courtesy of the pandemic.
Along with his father, Rene, and mother, Wilda, themselves veterans of the restaurant industry, Lory established a takeout catering business operating from the family’s garage. “I had -$53 in my bank account,” he recalls, nonetheless building his business into a home-grown operation taking up to 35 large orders a day. “The hours we worked were insane,” he said. “We were at it from 11 a.m. till 2 a.m. every day for nearly a year.”
His community took notice — and then some. “People didn’t come solely to buy food; they came to support us. They saw the importance of what we were doing in a community that had no restaurants open.” One of the biggest surprises for Lory was how generous the tips were. “They’d pick up a $10 or $15 order and would give us $45 or $60, telling us to keep the change,” he said.
Victor Rojas, general manager of José restaurant in the Bluffview neighborhood of Dallas, experienced the same spirit of generosity. After a one-day shutdown at the start of the pandemic and the furloughing of most of its staff, the eatery received a surprising proposal from the landlord: would the team consider re-opening for takeout only, as a means of feeding overworked and exhausted workers at local hospitals? And just like that, José was once again operational — this time with a new mission.
In addition to preparing lunches for organizations such as Feed the Front Lines, the crew quickly assembled a plan to offer takeout for a community hungry for comfort food. “We stripped the entire dining room and converted it into a staging area for assembling and bagging. We’d have a line of cars outside and our staff running out with food orders for the customers. Busboys, hosts, servers, bartenders … everyone did everything. We did what we needed to do.”
With four staffers manning the phones and pickups scheduled in 15-minute increments, the staff would ask patrons: “Would you care to leave a gratuity for the team?” Customers consented without hesitation, tipping 20 or 25%. “Our regulars were doing everything they could to ensure we would survive,” Rojas said. The restaurant would then follow up with customers once they had gotten their food home, wanting to be sure they had enjoyed it, along with asking for feedback to polish the restaurant’s new modus operandi.
With such days in the rearview mirror and indoor dining back at full strength across the country, takeout isn’t as substantial a piece of business as it once was for José and Dear Margaret, but the generosity and goodwill of their regulars has not abated. The tipping norm for their restaurants — takeout or dine-in — remains at 20% or slightly above.
As for Lory, who left the confines of his parents’ driveway and debuted Chef Global’s Kitchen food truck in March 2021, he has not let successes such as being recognized by Gulfshore Life magazine go to his head. Well aware of the sting of inflation for small businesses such as his, he himself tips as generously as he can, whenever he can. “I’m very thankful my food truck is successful. If I’m somewhere and I place an order for $15 and have a twenty in my wallet,” without hesitation, he said, “I’ll give them that twenty.”
So, where does that leave the rest of us?
Let us never forget the long hours and exhausting days restaurant workers endure to keep us happily fed. Or the blazing temperatures encircling a food truck that is baking both inside and out.
Must we tip for a can of soda a cashier has retrieved from a refrigerator behind a counter? Probably not. But has your neighborhood coffee shop seen to it that your oat milk latte is extra frothy? Has your favorite Thai spot made sure your napkins and utensils are in order and your food is still savory and scrumptious by the time you’ve walked through your own front door? If so, a gratuity — along with a smile and a thank-you will go a long way. And if it took a pandemic for that reality to hit home, far better late than never.
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