Before credit cards and apps, tipping was easy. If restaurant service and food was good, you tipped around 15-percent.
Tipping in its purest sense is an expression of gratitude for a satisfying meal or drink. I dined in a French restaurant for the first time at the renowned Chez Odette, now closed, in New Hope, Penn. during middle school with my parents. I took French and ordered a full-on, Paris-style meal of escargot and mussels.
A delicious moment came after the crème brûlée. I nudged my dad to leave a tip larger than the usual 15 percent because we all enjoyed the food and service from our young, handsome French waiter. As my dad put down a larger than average bill, the waiter showed his dimples and said, “Merci, pourboire.” I smiled at him and eagerly told the family that the French word “pourboire” meant “for drinking.” It sounded so exotic. I wanted to travel to France for more good meals.
Rather than memorable interaction with our servers, tipping is fast becoming a transactional affair. The explosion of screens seeking a tip before an item is cooked, delivered or picked up can make your head spin.
I began an informal survey about tipping. My cousin said, “We tip at table service restaurants. Why do I tip when a counter clerk hands me a pre-wrapped sandwich? That is his job.”
Computers have dramatically changed our interactions with everyone including foodservice staff. From fine dining to quick service chains and take out venues many companies and restaurateurs have installed tipping options as part of their digital payment platforms.
Before you tap your credit card, key it online, or tap “done” on an app, a screen often pops up suggesting tip dollar amounts. For those using printed checks, owners may select the option to print tipping suggestions for the bill. Marketers plan the placement of the suggestions to encourage customers to tip more than they might stuff in a glass jar or write on a check.
At his three East Bay restaurants including fine dining Esin in Danville, co-owner Curtis deCarion does not offer tip dollar amounts on the printed checks. “The staff and customers seem satisfied with our program. “We like that our guests’ choose the tip as a reflection of the food and service and not as a suggestion from us,” said deCarion. The average tip at Esin, upscale tavern Revel in Danville and gastrobar Social Bird in Lafayette is 20 percent.
Back to my survey, I asked a friend in Livermore about tipping. She immediately responded, “Employers should pay a fair wage negating the need for tips.”
Tipping in restaurants has a long history. Servers in some segments of the restaurant industry have long grumbled that tips are variable compensation and base wages are low. Some restaurateurs have added a service charge to increase servers’ pay and benefits. Others such as Danny Meyer, owner of restaurants in the Union Square Hospitality Group, attempted to eliminate tipping by increasing server wages—and menu prices. After complaints about the costlier checks, Meyer lowered prices in 2020 and relaunched tipping, also present at his Bay Area Shake Shacks.
Baristas at Starbucks on Main Street in Pleasanton recently voted to join a union. A statement referenced in a Pleasanton Weekly article did not mention tipping as a negotiated issue, a point raised earlier at other unionized Starbucks locations. I spoke with store manager Sierra Torres about tipping last week. Torres noted that automated tip options for credit card payments was implemented in early 2023, and baristas regularly receive an additional dollar an hour from tips.
During a visit to the store for coffee and kale and mushroom egg bites, the barista seemed positive about the automated options and gave me a heartfelt thanks for my tip.
Beyond the surprise of encountering tip screens for takeout at a table service pizza parlor, I have a pet peeve around tipping. At the end of a pleasant restaurant meal with a group, I cringe when someone asks each person what they will tip. Tipping is a highly subjective action. I may love my soup and someone next to me served from the same pot may hate it. Dollar options eliminate the math, but tipping guilt continues to hover over some tables.
The reality is, there are strong cultural and social mores around tipping. In Japan tipping is taboo since good service is expected. When I lived in London, the only place for tipping was the bar counter. My British friends tell me the Americanization of tipping has arrived at U.K. restaurants where service charges or leaving a tip is common.
Societal change marches on, and I keep tipping. I recently brought brisket sandwiches and flowers for a visit with my sister. After the florist cut the stems down, I placed cash in the prettiest tip jar I had ever seen—and received a big smile in return. Acknowledging extra care and receiving a thank you is what tipping is all about.
Editor's note: "Tri-Valley Foodist" is a new blog for Embarcadero Media by Pleasanton-based culinary writer Deborah Grossman.