1. News
  2. /
  3. Business

Eating out in a pandemic: How much are we supposed to tip, anyway, Tampa Bay?

Florida restaurants were allowed to fully reopen, and diners are venturing out. We ask etiquette experts: At this point in the pandemic, what are the rules on gratuities?
Allison Harris waits on customers at Baba in St. Petersburg in May. So what's the protocol for tipping in the time of the coronavirus?
Allison Harris waits on customers at Baba in St. Petersburg in May. So what's the protocol for tipping in the time of the coronavirus? [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published Oct. 29, 2020

In our family, we call it a Christmas tip — adding a little extra green to the gratuity on the restaurant bill for some holiday spirit.

And has there ever been a time when, to paraphrase the old song, we needed a little Christmas more than right this very minute?

It’s a pandemic dilemma. With Florida restaurants allowed to fully reopen and more people venturing out, what’s the advice on tipping your servers?

And who better to ask than experts on modern etiquette?

Most of us have been taught to tip 15 to 20 percent of the bill — though some industry experts say 20 percent is the more recent standard. (Interesting sidenote: Tipping guides, including one from The Emily Post Institute, suggest we calculate the gratuity on the pre-tax amount, not the total.)

Diane Gottsman, an oft-quoted expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, has advice on her website for dining out in a pandemic. On her list: BYOB hand sanitizer; stay masked while interacting with your server; cough or sneeze “privately;” do not tarry at a table; and instead of saying something to a fellow diner not following the rules, speak to the manager.

“If it’s your server, you can certainly say, ‘I don’t think you know your mask has fallen below your nose,’” she advises. (I plan to use this at my grocery store where employees must wear masks but sometimes sport them low-rise, like they are stylish jeans instead of health precautions, leaving two of their three critical face-holes unfettered.)

Under “Tip Respectfully,” Gottsman suggests in these unusual times stretching to 20 percent and beyond if you can, with 25 mentioned in one scenario. When the bill is particularly low — such as $5 for a taco and coffee — consider leaving an additional $4 or $5 if that’s possible, she advises. Yes, that’s double the cost, but the gesture will be appreciated.

“If you can, why not,” Lizzie Post told me recently. She’s the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post, who wrote the book on etiquette a century ago. “Throw a twenty in there if you’re able to. Just any amount of generosity, whether it’s your spare change, whether it’s making your tip as big as your order or more. Any ways to help.”

Gottsman told me that servers “interfacing with the public on a regular basis are obviously taking some risks, more than those who are quarantining at home.” It’s a good point: Those (hopefully) masked workers taking your order and clearing your plates are braving an uncharted world to make a living.

Should you tip when you pick up or order in? Yes, for the same reasons. AARP suggests 15 percent for delivery, 15 to 20 percent for takeout.

And if the restaurant service is bad? Some insiders suggest you do not stiff — you tip a basic 15 percent, but also speak to the manager.

There is one large caveat in all this tip talk. While some of us find ourselves in the position to be generous — not vacationing or spending money on gas commuting to jobs — others are out of work or worried about bills. Tipping big is for those who can.

“One of the things that etiquette does really try to do in the realm of tipping is to not overly burden people or set up expectations that are too hard to meet,” Post said. “You don’t want to say, ‘Okay, everybody, 50 percent, everybody double your bill.’ You have to say ... if you can.”

Suggestions for supporting businesses even if you can’t tip more: “Say thank you. Do reviews. State how awesome your take-out or delivery experience is,” Post said.

So are what are diners doing?

Phil Kuzma, manager at The Mill restaurant, which does a bustling brunch business in Tampa’s SoHo district, calls an appreciative tip “a really big deal.” He knows, having hustled tables as a server himself. Half the servers at his restaurant support themselves with other jobs, he said.

“I think the COVID thing has changed people,” he said. “I think they beef up their tips a little bit.”

Blair Hensley and his brother own the Florida Cracker Kitchen restaurant in Brooksville, a popular spot where you can get Okeechobee Gumbo and mullet dip. He said the pandemic meant tough decisions, including cutting staff from 49 to 16. But customers have been “very generous, with open hearts,” he said.

Gottsman calls tipping a way to “pay it forward.”

"It’s just about showing kindness right now,” she said.