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KANSAS CITY, Mo. –  It’s not always easy to know what tip is expected when we order food, get coffee or get a haircut, especially after COVID-19 made it harder for some to work and get paid in the first place.

Tipping servers, baristas, even your delivery driver is a custom relatively unique to American culture, but one we all should carefully account for while budgeting for a night out. And like everything else through the pandemic, the expectation for tipping has changed, with some workers who once provided their service without a tip now anticipating or relying on it for their income.

“It’s my whole life,” Brittany Gelhart, a bartender at Manny’s Mexican Restaurant in the Crossroads, said. “I’m a single mom, and that’s how I make my money.”

Flipping tables for tips

David Lopez, general manager at Manny’s, said his restaurant takes customers’ decision to walk through their doors very seriously. 

“We’re not here if it’s not for the people of Kansas City craving us,” he said.

Having been in business for 42 years, Lopez said his employees feel like family to him, something he works hard to ensure is reflected in their paychecks. He said his restaurant functions as a human network of helpers, something he believes goes unnoticed at times.

“Our bussers are gonna get 2% from the servers total ring. Our service bartender’s going to get 1.5% of the servers total ring. Our food runners are gonna get about half, 0.5%, something like that, as well ,too,” Lopez said. “So you’re looking at a lot of players helping that server take care of that chair, take care of that plate, take care of that seat and that is something that we really, really do well.”

But when customers don’t tip, the entire staff is affected, Janis Kliethermes, owner of Etiquette Kansas City, said.

“The servers, they might be sharing their tip with the hostess, the bus people and when people say, ‘Well, 20%, that’s a little high. Times are tough. I can’t afford to pay that much,’ I say, ‘Then you should reconsider dining out because 20% is pretty standard,’ and if you’re there more than the usual time, where they could flip that table twice, your tip needs to reflect that,” Kliethermes said.

Kliethermes said one of the main reasons people don’t tip is because they expect employees’ managers to pay them adequately. But unfortunately, many service workers rely on tips to make a living, something she said customers need to consider.

“Tipping serves two purposes,” she said. “Number one, it’s an incentive for the people providing that service to do their job well and two, it’s an opportunity for their clients to show their appreciation and what’s important to know is those that appreciate your tip and those that rely on your tip as part of their livelihood.”

Pros and cons to tipping technology

Chloe Parson, manager at Made in KC in Midtown, has worked for the company for nearly a year. She said she sees a bump in her take home pay from the tips that come through the door.

“The busier we are, or like if we have events happening and people are feeling generous, I notice it for sure in my paychecks at the end of the week,” she said.

But when tipping slows down, she said her weeks get tougher.

“It can get a little rough, but it’s different,” she said. “Cash tips are pretty low cause not a lot of people carry cash right now, which is just something to get used to.”

This is why Keith Bradly, owner of Made in KC, said his company guarantees a minimum take home pay for every employee, paying them more if their base pay and tips don’t add up to the minimum amount.

Through the pandemic, the business and café offered employees stability and a predictable way to budget.

“What’s typically an uncertain number, we try to make it more certain by guaranteeing tips, by sharing tips,” he said.

Further incentivizing customers to tip, Made in KC maintains a digital tablet at its checkout counter that prompts customers to tip after each purchase, usually recommending the buyer to tip anywhere from 15-25%.

“It takes a little bit of the guesswork out on the customer side,” he said.

Kliethermes said customers are comfortable with being prompted to tip digitally, especially as more people begin to recognize the strain and stress of the service industry.

“I think they don’t mind just because we were in such a lull for so long that those that can help are doing it,” she said.

But Lopez said he is concerned digital tablets have the potential to replace serving staff, like food runners and waiters. That’s why he said Manny’s has not digitized its payment methods.

“Now, you’re going to see all these restaurants, tablets, electronics,” he said. “Every tablet you see in restaurants that a server’s holding, know that that tablet is probably eliminating one and a half staff members.”

Inflation has made it easy for restaurants to choose to cut costs, giving fewer people jobs and allowing tips to reach fewer people who need them.

“I will keep servers in our business and my restaurant for as long as I possibly can because the human connection matters,” Lopez said.

But in an age where cash is a thing of the past, Bradley said the tablets allow transactions to run more smoothly.

“You’re already kind of down there anyway, pulling your card out or signing your name for the digital receipt and so it really just makes everything streamline for the barista’s end, as well as the customer’s end,” he said. “It just makes the transaction more seamless.” 

How much should you tip?

Whether a business chooses to digitize its payment methods or not, one thing remains the same — most service workers anticipate a tip, and the amount matters.

Kliethermes said the pandemic and remote living caused some services that might not have expected a tip, like food delivery and personal shoppers, to now heavily rely on it.

“Even if it’s just a few dollars, think about, ‘What does this service mean to you? How much of a convenience is it for me that I didn’t have to do it myself and how much effort was put into what they did to serve me?’ and that’s how you can come up with a fair amount (to tip),” Kliethermes said.

She said the standard for tipping delivery drivers is 15-20%; for servers, it’s 20%; and with baristas and bartenders, it’s $1-2 per drink, or 10-15% of the total bill. 

“The people (employees) that really want to do well, then they get a bigger tip and if it’s just a flat fee, then you might not get the service,” Kliethermes said. “That’s why people say it’s kind of like a checks and balances.”

With inflation, Kliethermes said the 15-20% tipping range is expected to rise eventually, as well. That’s why people who don’t feel comfortable tipping already, should reconsider dining out, Kliethermes said.

“I think you have to look at, ‘Are these places that you frequent a lot? Are they going to remember you?’ and especially with — I’m not a coffee person, but my friends that go, they have a list of six different things with how they want their coffee — to be prepared,” she said. “If you’re a regular and you want that good service, that’s what tipping is all about, to show your gratitude and appreciation for the good service they are giving.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s website has more information about tipping standards.