VPR Cafe: Answering The Age-Old Question, 'What To Tip?'

Mar 20, 2015

Whether you’re going out to a nice dinner or grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch, the same question inevitably comes up: What to tip?

Sally Pollack, food writer for the Burlington Free Press, has been investigating this issue, as well as researching new forms of tipping.

Pollack says that tipping is almost required when there is table service. She spoke to Peter Post, manager of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, which Pollack describes as the “arbiter of etiquette and taste.” Post told Pollack that if you eat at a restaurant with table service, 20 percent is the right amount to tip, which can be calculated before tax. Why not 25 percent? “He pointed out as the price of meals have gone up, essentially people are getting paid more, servers are getting paid more as a percentage of the bill and it’s easy to calculate 20 percent,” Pollack says. Post also recommended tipping 10 percent at a buffet and 15 percent at a restaurant where you order at the counter and the food is brought out to you.

Many restaurants are adopting tablets and electronic methods of payment at their establishments, which Pollack says poses a whole new tipping quandary for the customer. “This is somewhat complicated for people, or it can be, for people like me,” Pollack says. “You swipe a credit card and then you’re presented with a screen and it gives you options of the percent you might want to tip. If you’re only buying a cup of coffee and a muffin, all of a sudden [you have to choose between] 15, 20, 25 percent. And some of them it’s hard to find the option for no tip.”  

"You're presented with a screen and it gives you options of the percent you might want to tip. If you're only buying a cup of coffee and a muffin, all of a sudden [you have to choose from] 15, 20, 25 percent. And some of them it's hard to find the option for no tip." - Sally Pollack, food writer

Pollack spoke to Sara Solnick, a behavior economist at the University of Vermont, about the new tipping tablets. Solnick says she thinks the tablets are devised visually to lead you to a number, encouraging customers to leave a tip. One of the founders of Clover, an electronic payment system, agrees with Solnick. “[He] told me that 83 percent of people leave tips this way and restaurants report they are definitely getting more tips via this digital tip jar,” Pollack says.

Restaurants throughout the state have adopted new payment tablets, many of which have raised customers' tip amounts.
Credit Burlington Free Press

A restaurant in Burlington told Pollack that the tablets are turning their “tip world upside down.” Pollack says employees like it because they are getting more tips and it’s convenient, although customers may feel a little more pressure to leave a tip. If you can’t find the “no tip” option, should you ask? “Absolutely,” Pollack says. “Peter Post said it may be awkward asking, but if you’re not sure how to use the machine, if you’re having difficulty, ask.”

Another new method that Pollack encountered during her research was something she calls “tip wars,” in which restaurants are generating tips not through tablets, but creativity. “At Uncommon Ground in Burlington, one jar said ‘Snoopy’ and one said ‘Snoop Dog,’ and you could vote with your money,” says Pollack.

"At Uncommon Ground in Burlington, one jar said 'Snoopy' and one said 'Snoop Dog,' and you could vote with your money."

Another restaurant that is using the “tip wars” method is Mad Taco in Montpelier. Their tip war is ongoing, where people are asked each day who influenced the world more, choosing from pairs such as Jackie Robinson versus Queen Elizabeth, Mozart versus Lebron James and Stalin versus Shakespeare. Nick DeCoteau, who works at Mad Taco, says that they have been getting more tips since they started using the creative method. “They absolutely get more tips that way because people have fun with it,” Pollack says. She says it’s also a great topic of conversation between the customers and employees.

The VPR Cafe is produced in collaboration with the Burlington Free Press. It is made possible on VPR by Otter Creek Kitchenware in Middlebury's Marbleworks District, offering over 70 lines of kitchenware with personalized customer service.