Experts say when you buy a $3 cup of coffee from a coffee shop, such as Bard Coffee shown here with its new, pandemic-inspired takeout windows, you should throw in an extra dollar as a tip. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Mainers may be known for their Yankee thrift, but when someone is in trouble they have no problem opening their wallets wide. Just look at how they’re tipping during a pandemic that has put restaurant servers’ livelihoods – and very lives – at stake.

Local restaurants report that diners generally have been tipping more generously, especially on takeout at the start of the pandemic.

“It was crazy,” said Alex Markakis, co-owner of the Cowbell Burger Bars in Biddeford, Lewiston and Scarborough. “You get a $20 tab, people were tipping $15 to $20 on top of it. They’d give the whole speech: ‘We understand what you guys are going through. We support small businesses.’ ”

We polled about 20 Maine restaurants and delivery services about tipping during the pandemic, and most said diners are tipping more than usual. Not everyone is leaving gigantic gratuities, though, and for diners, knowing exactly how much to tip under the many different pandemic circumstances – takeout, dine-in, counter service or delivery – can be confusing. In some cases, the uncertainty of tipping has led restaurateurs to reconfigure how they pay their employees to ensure pay is more evenly distributed in these tough times.

Even in normal times, “the entire idea of tipping is subject to interpretation and is, at its heart, a problematic system,” says Paul Bagdan, a professor in the College of Hospitality Management at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

“The recent environment leaves customers at a peculiar place,” he said. “Nearly everyone has had to cut back or be more cautious due to the pandemic. Being conservative is always on our mind. Yet, there is also a calling in most of us to take care of our fellow humans. This can be especially powerful during the brief relationship of a customer service transaction.”

That calling has led to generous tipping at venues ranging from neighborhood bistros to fine-dining restaurants in tourist towns.

Chef Ryan Hickman, owner of The Knotted Apron, has been primarily offering takeout and more recently outdoor dining at his small neighborhood restaurant in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood, with indoor dining now a backup in bad weather. He employs just two servers, who switch off waiting tables and packing up takeout.

“We’ve seen some very generous tips beyond the normal 20 percent,” he said. “Some people have left 50 percent tips. There is definitely less business, but more generous tipping.”

The story is similar at Pearl Kennebunk, where server Jesse Littlefield says dine-in tips are mostly 20 to 25 percent. There are exceptions, though, and they go in both directions. One couple, regulars who are still not comfortable with dining in, order takeout at least once a week and have been tipping 50 to 100 percent of their bill, Littlefield said. Another couple, visiting from New York City, came into Pearl to dine, had a long, friendly chat with Littlefield, “and they left 10 percent.”

Littlefield said the restaurant is fulfilling more takeout orders than ever before, and all the servers help with that, managing both phone and online orders, and pooling their tips. They are also responsible for more sanitizing – wiping down chairs, check presenters, computers and pens. Larger tips, she thinks, reflect customer recognition of “all of the additional steps that are needed to serve people safely,” as well as the fact that servers are putting their own health – and their familys’ – at risk just by showing up to work.

“I personally have not hugged my mother and my father since all of this started because I’m working directly with the public and I am exposed every day when I go to work,” she said.

Amit Mehrotra, an assistant professor at the City University of New York’s Department of Hospitality Management, says people should be tipping at least 25 percent for dine-in service during the pandemic. “If you want to be extremely generous, 30 percent,” he said. Littlefield and Markakis say the same. “Even if I have a bad experience, I’m not leaving anything less than 25 percent,” Markakis said.

An order of takeout sits outside Petite Jacqueline in Portland. Even if you are just ordering takeout, experts (and strained servers) say you should tip generously, as much as 25 percent. Staff photo by Jill Brady Buy this Photo

When tipping on takeout, Mehrotra said, remember that the employee packing up your order may be someone who, at that moment, is missing out on serving a table where they would likely get a larger tip – and tip accordingly. He suggests 20 to 25 percent, as if you were dining in. Bagdan, the Johnson & Wales expert, agrees that takeout “should be tipped at a rate closer to that of table service.”

At least one Maine restaurant,  The Buxton Common, weighs in on takeout tipping right on its website, suggesting a 15 percent gratuity.

Workers at fast casual restaurants with counter service have seen their hours cut, Mehrotra notes, so he suggests throwing in an extra dollar or two when buying a meal there, or the equivalent of a 15 to 20 percent tip, and if you’re buying a cup of coffee for $2 or $3, tip an extra dollar. Remember, he says, that the workers at your morning coffee drive-through “could be single parents. They could be people supporting their family. They could be the only ones employed in their house. This is a huge fabric of America.”

Bagdan said the more complex the counter service order, the larger your tip should be.

Reconfiguring salaries

Staffing a restaurant is harder than ever before because some employees are worried about coming to work, and employers have fewer resources to pay them. Some restaurateurs have gotten creative, taking a good look at tipping practices.

Allison Stevens, owner of The Thirsty Pig in Portland, where tips have remained about the same as pre-pandemic, promised her tipped employees that no matter how much customers are tipping, they will make $20 an hour, a figure that includes their tips.

“If this doesn’t happen, we raise their hourly rate,” she said. “So far we only had to kick in the extra hourly the first two weeks open.”

Daphne Comaskey, co-owner of Salt Pine Social in Bath, and her partners closed their other restaurant, El Camino in Brunswick, in February. When the pandemic hit, they also closed Salt Pine Social and switched to selling takeout-friendly food from that space under the name El Camino To Go. At Salt Pine Social, diners typically tipped 20 percent. The takeout average is more like 15 percent. Comaskey says she realized she had to “re-think the tip situation.”

Before the pandemic, her servers made $5.50 an hour and kept their own tips except for what they shared with the dishwasher. Now she pays them $10 per hour, and they keep enough of the tip money to bring their wages on par with the line cooks’ pay, $15-16 an hour. The entire staff then splits the rest of the tips evenly. As a result, everyone makes the same amount of money.

Mike Bolduc of 2DineIn makes a delivery in Portland pre-pandemic. In the pandemic, drivers’ tips “definitely took a jump up,” he said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Delivery tipping point

Drivers for food and alcohol delivery services also rely on tips, and for the most part customers are coming through. Mike Bolduc, owner of 2DineIn, says his drivers’ tips “definitely took a jump up” when the pandemic set in. Before, customers tipped 15 to 18 percent; now they’re giving 18 to 20 percent. “We aren’t going to your table to check in on you, but we’re driving to the restaurant for you, we’re waiting for the food at the restaurant for you, and we bring it right to your doorstep,” he said.

How much should you tip for delivery? Mehrotra suggests 18 to 20 percent. Remember the money collected for the delivery charge goes to the business, not to the person who is delivering the food, he said.

Thomas Brems, owner of CarHop, which delivers alcohol and recently started delivering restaurant food as well, said his company suggests tipping 18 percent, or 20 percent for large orders. The average tip during the pandemic has been 12 percent. That may be because the average order has been large – many people bought cases of whiskey and bulk bought boxed wine at the start of the pandemic – and even a modest tip on a large order can increase the final bill significantly.

We hurt, too

What if a diner can’t afford a larger tip? After all, it’s not just restaurant workers who have suffered financially because of the pandemic. Can’t someone who has been dealt a financial blow take a break from his troubles and visit a restaurant without worrying about tip shaming?

Opinions on that question vary. Littlefield would still like to see those customers, and suggests they also come back when things are better for them and give a little extra then. Others suggest coming out for just an appetizer and a drink, but Littlefield cautions: “Be aware of how long you linger, because we are at such a reduced capacity that if we have people come out and just want to stay there all night they’re taking up valuable real estate.”

Jennifer Charboneau, owner of Cook’s Lobster & Ale House on Bailey Island, says it’s “frustrating” for servers when diners sit at a table for a long time, get great service and a delicious meal, then tip poorly. “If you want to get out and have a bit of normalcy again but don’t have money for an average or better tip that was earned, perhaps find someplace that is within your means or be creative with your plans,” she suggested. “Order takeout and sit on the beach, where a tip is not expected.”

Bagdan doesn’t think would-be diners should stay home “because the industry still needs all of the customers it can get.” And Mehrotra said cash-strapped diners “should try to be generous as much as possible because collectively we are helping each other and we are helping our communities.”


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