It's complicated, we get it.
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When I lived in New York, I worked at a pie shop on the weekends while in school. I was paid hourly, and had a little jar sitting right in front of the register to collect tips if customers were feeling generous. Some people frequented the shop often and spent hours there pounding away on their laptops, while others came in just every so often for an after-dinner treat. And while, I never necessarily expected a tip from either the regulars or the occasional visitors, it was always nice to walk away with extra cash in my pocket from the jar. I found that I was usually tipped by pie eaters that spent significant amounts of time lounging/working in the shop, and from guests that invited friends to hang out and enjoy a slice of blueberry or salty lime pie. As the setup of this pie shop was very similar to a coffee shop, or even a fast-casual eatery, where the “rules” for tipping tend to be a bit more fluid… I always wondered what the mindsets were for those who tipped versus those who did not. All of which is to say, when it comes to your favorite coffee shop or fast-casual restaurant that you hit a few times within any given week, the parameters for tipping, understandably, become grey.

The discussion of tipping is a sensitive one, both for the tipper and the person receiving the tip, especially in the growing space of fast-casual dining. As customers, we take a few things into consideration before giving a little extra, such as the quality of the food, quality of service, price of the meal, the personal relationship to the staff (if applicable), and frequency visiting the establishment. Other variables include the fact that at a fast-casual restaurant, you’re not receiving table service. And at a coffee shop, you can reason that pouring a cup of coffee of doesn’t exactly take the same level of effort as making an espresso drink—so, if you order a low-maintenance beverage, do you tip? What exactly are you tipping for?

My short answer is: The barista is still providing a service, and that service (handing you a cup of hot, fresh coffee that you didn’t have to brew yourself) is what you’re tipping on, simply out of courtesy. If you go to your local coffeeshop every day for a $3 cup of coffee, most would agree it’s not necessary to tip every time you purchase that cup of coffee. However, tipping every few cups, as a gesture of gratitude for keeping you well caffeinated, is a good practice to adopt. (I mean hey, take into account the fact that you can *afford* a $3 coffee on a regular basis, which isn’t a luxury everyone has—producing an extra dollar for the tip jar isn’t going to hurt you.) And at many fast-casual spots, your tip isn’t going directly to the person who rang up your lunch; it will be divided among the staff… so you’re not necessarily tipping an individual for their service as much as you are tipping the entire team, simply for providing you the luxury of convenience.

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Etiquette aside, there are major benefits and incentives to tipping, especially at places you go to often. Tipping is karmic goodness. You become a friendly face and staff members are more apt to go the extra mile for you. Many of us have, at some point in our lives, waited tables, tended bar, or poured coffee on a daily basis and can relate to the fact that tipping, even a little, can go a long way. Cooking Light Diet Community and Content Manager Matthew Moore (who has years of food/beverage service experience under his belt) shares, “If you tip frequently and often, I’m going to remember you, be super nice to you, note your order preferences and be more likely to serve you quicker than everyone else, and probably give you a free coffee on your birthday or something. It’s the whole ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ scenario.” I likewise can totally attest to giving out freebies to customers that were always kind and generous in terms of tipping. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

Tipping came to the forefront of restaurant culture when Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, decided to do away with the tipping system in 2016, opting for better wages for the entire staff. Customers in return would pay a fixed cost for dining at his restaurants. These gratuity-free restaurants had to find a way to make up the increased staff costs in their food prices or cutting back overall costs of operation, but established a more reliable income for the staff, who previously relied heavily on tips.

One of the most apparent differences in a full-service restaurant and a fast-casual restaurant is the way in which a server or cook is paid. Full-service restaurant servers generally make around $2 an hour plus tips—thus, their livelihood is based on tipping. Typically, at a “sit-down” restaurant, it is customary to tip between fifteen to twenty percent of your total ticket cost (before taxes). At fast-casual concepts, being that you usually get your food at a counter rather than being “waited on,” a tip based on the cost of your meal isn’t considered necessary. However, most fast-casual restaurants operate on hourly wages based off the national minimum wage of $7.25, or more based on the individual's state minimum wage or the restaurant's set wages. At the end of the day, the latter (excluding tips) is not yielding much more than the former. To put things in perspective, a salary from the national minimum wage is roughly $15,080 before taxes. So I’ll reiterate, every dollar counts for food industry workers—it’s not easy work. Regardless of whether you’re working full-service or fast-casual, the nature of the job entails long hours and plenty of wear on the body.

Point being, when it comes to these tipping “grey areas,” just remember that you are a customer receiving a service, and you should try to honor that relationship courteously by leaving a dollar or two in the tip jar. If you frequent a favorite ice cream shop regularly, know the baker who makes the best cupcakes in town, or routinely gather with friends or colleagues at your local coffee shop, go ahead and go the extra mile when it comes to filling out the tip line on the bill or dropping your change in the jar. It will be greatly appreciated.