Servers, grocery shoppers, and delivery drivers are working hard so you can stay home and safe. Tip them generously.
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Woman using meal delivery service through mobile app.
Credit: Carol Yepes/Getty Images

In a matter of weeks, the restaurant industry as we know it has changed in dramatic ways. With so many venues shuttered completely, and others scraping by with takeout and delivery, or shifting to a community kitchen model to serve those in need, we have no idea what restaurants will even look like when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Some predict as many as 30 percent of restaurants will never be able to re-open, even when it is safe to do so, and there is no restaurant, from the tiny independent mom-and-pop operation, to fast-casual national chains, to three-Michelin-starred fine dining establishments, that is immune to the effects of this crisis.

Over 11 million people worked in the restaurant business at the time of the national closures, and most were hourly workers whose income is heavily supplemented by tips. Tipped workers are exempt from the usual minimum hourly wage, and in many places are only required to be paid between $2 and $3 per hour, with the assumption that tips will make up the rest. With so many restaurants shuttered, and those in operation scraping by on a small percentage of their usual receipts, tipping has suddenly become more important than ever.

Tipping in Times of COVID

Employees who earn tips have always relied on balancing out averages over the course of a shift or several shifts. For every miser who tips 10 percent, you might have a big spender who tips 25 or even 30 percent.  In normal business, any given slow shift will be balanced by a busy shift that follows. For servers, they have an opportunity to build face-to-face rapport with the people they are serving, which can make all the difference when it comes to their tips.

But the workers who have always suffered the most are delivery folks or takeout servers, because many people seem to feel that without the table-side service aspect, there is no need to offer more than a token gratuity, if anything at all. This has sadly gotten worse for some people in recent weeks. With contactless pickup and delivery, without that personal touch of seeing the person who is giving you your food, some people have either reduced or eliminated tipping altogether.

The same is even more true for people who are currently doing grocery deliveries. Most of the services that are facilitating these deliveries are not passing along service fees to their employees, so now is not the time to get penny pinching around your tipping. Be sure that you are being generous with all of the people who are keeping you fed.

But here are some of the most important things to consider about gratuities during this time.

Overall restaurant sales are a fraction of what they used to be.

Chef Paul Fehribach, James Beard-nominated chef/owner of Big Jones restaurant in Chicago, says that his receipts are a fraction of their usual business since shifting to a takeout and delivery model, which has impacted the number of employees he has been able to retain.

"There was an initial burst of support that had us at about a third of normal the first week," Fehribach says, "but it’s now settled into about a quarter, and staffing levels have followed suit."

It is more important than ever to realize that if the restaurant is doing 25 percent of their usual business, the staff is making only 25 percent of their usual salary, and if they are a tipped employee, an even smaller fraction of their tips.

Not every restaurant has a consistent group of customers.

Fehribach feels grateful that his is a restaurant that has been around a long time, with a loyal local customer base, so the tipping issue that so many are seeing has not been his experience.

"Tipping was huge and very generous the first week and has now settled down somewhat." Fehribach says. "But still at an exceptional level, where tips are comprising over 10 percent of checks, including simple pick-up orders. People are grateful to have us here to serve them."

But for newer restaurants, or restaurants that don’t serve a particular community, people do not feel the same personal connection. It is one thing when a restaurant is the spot you are considered a regular, or where you go for special occasions and feel an emotional connection; it is something else when you are just trying to get dinner on the table. For places that do not have that nostalgia attached, consumers seem to be tipping less.

Delivery people often have to pay for their own expenses.

It might seem like no big deal for someone to pick up your food at the restaurant or at the grocery store and drop it at your doorstep. But did you know that many delivery drivers are covering 100 percent of their vehicle expenses, including gas? And often, the "service" or "delivery" fee associated with your order is not passed along to your delivery driver. Sometimes that goes to the restaurant to offset packaging or other overhead expenses. Sometimes, it goes to the corporation on the other end of the app or web site.

What You Can Do

For starters, the most important thing you can do is remember that by going to work to make and package up the food you are picking up, doing your grocery shopping for you, or by going out to deliver your food to your home, the lowest paid people are quite literally putting their health and safety at risk. So, tip them accordingly.

A minimum tip of 10 to 15 percent of your bill for grocery delivery and 20 percent of your bill to a restaurant is the least you should be tipping. If your bill is very low, be extra generous, especially if your food was delivered to your home. That $18 pizza that showed up magically on your doorstep, without you having to put on a mask and gloves and get in your car and drive to the pizza place? That has got to be worth at least a $5 tip, and frankly, if you have the means, $10. That $100 bag of groceries that required someone go into a store and shop for you while physically distancing, taking twice as long as it normally does, that is worth at least $15, and again, $20 to 25 if you can afford it.

Take into consideration any extra challenges, whether it is a delivery from a restaurant that is far from you, or if your delivery requires entering a building, taking an elevator, going through security, etc. The more complicated the delivery, the more contact points for your delivery person. The higher the risk, the higher the tip. Ditto for grocery shoppers; if your order is extra complicated, or very heavy, up that tip amount.

When you are choosing your restaurants for either pickup or delivery, or stores from which to order supplies, pay attention to their location. Places in areas mostly served by a business district which is now a ghost town are likely doing even a fraction of the business that neighborhood joints in residential areas are doing, so do give them some love and tip generously as well.

Finally, remember that right now, there are all sorts of ways to express extra gratitude. Many people, myself included, are leaving baskets of snacks and bottled beverages on our porches as an extra thank you to delivery folks and our mail carriers. It is a small thing to do to let them know how much we appreciate them and their work at this time. People with kids at home are having them make some hand-drawn cards and signs saying thank you. Crafty folks who know how to sew and have supplies on hand are making and leaving masks for their delivery folks as a tangible thank you as well. None of these are a replacement for a cash gratuity but can be a real feel-good bonus for all involved.

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