It was 2015 when I first began to grapple with tipping when ordering at a counter-service restaurant. I had ordered a fried chicken sandwich at Pine State Biscuits in Portland, Ore., and a friend chided me for not tacking on a gratuity to my credit card payment. I hadn’t even considered it.

They’re working hard back there! They’re getting paid so little!"

But I’m just ordering at the counter! I always tip waiters well, but this is not a waiter! I’m not a terrible person!

I lost the argument, and ended up going back to leave a cash tip.

Turns out, I’m not alone. As small, independently owned cafes, smoothie bars and fast-casual restaurants in the United States have adopted customer-facing touch-screen payment systems in recent years — and as credit cards have replaced cash for even the smallest purchases — Americans and (heaven help them) foreign visitors have been confronted with a new kind of tipping. Point-of-sale systems, with touch screens asking you whether you’d like to tip $1, $2 or $3 for that latte or 15, 20 or 25 percent for a salad, have been spreading like an infectious disease — or an infectious new dance craze, depending on your perspective.

(Tipping via credit card is nonexistent or at least much less common at large chains like McDonald’s and Burger King. Starbucks, though, allows tipping when customers order through their app and managers are free to put out a tip jar, said a spokeswoman.)

So, is leaving a tip wherever you’re asked now the norm? Four years after the Portland incident, I usually do tip when I order a coffee and find a screen turned toward me, but that’s in part to avoid the pang of embarrassment that comes from hitting “No tip,” which would be visible to the person behind me in line and often behind the counter as well. But I’m still not sure if that’s the right thing to do.

I set out to resolve this issue by speaking to customers on a sticky summer Saturday at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in New York City’s Greenwich Village. They did not help much.

For Lora and Daniel Vimont, from Jersey City, the answer is absolutely yes. They usually tip 30 percent at their local cafe, and left a $2 tip on an $8.71 bill for a cortado and an iced latte at Stumptown. “In this country, people are paid ridiculously low wages,” said Ms. Vimont.

But Sam Cotter of Manhattan, with an iced cold brew, was holding his wallet tight. “Why should I tip 18 percent or 20 percent when they’re getting an hourly wage? It really bothers me,” he said.

(For the record, Stumptown employees are paid at least $15 an hour, the New York City minimum wage, and divide tips in addition to that. Some cafes pay tipped employees less, though they are guaranteed $15 an hour if tips don’t make up for it. The minimum wage is lower in most of the country.)

Back to my survey: Ariana Kudlo had tipped — but only because she had ordered an espresso drink that took some work: an iced vanilla latte. “Not for coffee. They just pour it and set it down,” she said.

And Patrick Robles had tipped a dollar on his iced tea, but only because he was a regular. Out-of-towners would have no obligation to tip, he said. “I tend to in places I come back to often. If I want to expect consistent service, it’s good to tip.”

Then again, he admits he’s not sure if he’s right. “I don’t think there is a standard etiquette,” said Mr. Robles. “If there is one, it’s not openly discussed enough.”

Agreed. So if people could not resolve the issue, could data? Toast, a Boston-based company that provides point-of-sale platforms to thousands of restaurants and cafes around the country, provided me with 2019 tipping statistics for customers paying with cards in establishments that had activated a tipping module, the vast majority. In cafes, 48.5 percent of customers left tips, and for fast casual restaurants, it was 46.5 percent. The average tip for both was around 17 percent.

A recent survey from CreditCards.com also found Americans split on coffee-shop tipping: 24 percent of Americans “always tip” baristas and 27 percent “never tip.”

Clover, a Toast competitor, provided data for tipping at tens of thousands of American restaurants under the category “fast food,” which includes cafes and fast casual restaurants. In May 2019, customers paying with cards tipped 42 percent of the time that tipping was available to them.

Add on the handful of customers who throw cash in the jar after a credit card transaction, and we may be edging toward a 50 percent rate — enormous growth over counter-service tipping a decade ago, when tipping at counters mostly involved the highly optional act of throwing change in a jar.

“The friction of leaving a tip has gone away,” said Aman Narang, the president of Toast, calling the rise of tipping “great” for restaurant workers as the cost of living increases in the United States and wages don’t necessarily keep up.

Business owners and workers tend to agree. I spoke to many, and not surprisingly, few see a downside. Nicholas Mallia, the director of operations at Paris Creperie, a counter-service restaurant in Brookline, Mass., that is a Toast client, said the switch from adding tips on paper receipts to digital-prompt machines, was “the turning point for us.”

“This was a quick and easy way for people to choose an option,” he continued. “They’re really only going to hit ‘no tip’ if something egregious happens.” He can now tell potential employees that in addition to their base pay, they can also expect two to three dollars an hour in tips.

But non-tippers are still a sizable bunch. And they have defenders, including Mark Roth, the chief operations officer for Chanson, a combination counter service and full-service cafe in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood known (at least by me) for its buttery kouign-amann pastries.

Chanson uses a point-of-sale tipping system, and 60 or 70 percent of customers leave tips, Mr. Roth said, but they shouldn’t feel obliged to do so. “It’s more up to the individual guest,” he said. “If they have a really great experience and want to recognize that, that’s a wonderful thing. But I certainly don’t think that in a counter service paradigm, it’s a requirement or onus on the guest to have to tip.”

The phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Mr. Roth previously ran high-end cafes in South Africa, and said that adding a tip via touch-screen on card transactions is common there as well. There are even signs in some countries where tipping used to be restricted to full-service restaurants, that things are changing.

“We see a steady increase in the number of quick-service restaurants (cafes, delis, bakeries) in the U.K. and Australia who use our product to increase their tipping practices,” George Urdea, the chief executive of Nobly, a London-based point-of-service system provider, wrote in an email.

According to Nobly’s most recent data, 27.5 percent of its quick-service clients in Britain have activated tipping modules on their systems, along with 9.62 percent of its clients in Australia. It could not provide tipping percentages. But Clover, which also has clients in Britain, showed customers tipping 18 percent of the time when the function was available. So though high percentages of British customers are still not tipping,but they may eventually come around.

Another area of tipping that has expanded — and confused customers along the way — is ride-share services. Tipping in taxis has always been standard, although when New York City required taxis to begin taking credit cards in 2007, the machines that offered 20, 25 and 30 percent tipping options, shocked many passengers. (They soon came around, and by 2009 average tipping had risen from around 10 percent to 22 percent.)

Uber held off on tipping until 2017, but since then has made tipping available not just in the United States but in 48 countries, including many where tipping is not customary. The company would not provide specific data, but a spokesman said countries like the United States and Germany have higher rates of tipping, whereas countries where tipping is not standard, like Brazil, have lower numbers. Lyft could not provide the percentage of riders tipping, but did say that its drivers make an average of $30.84 per hour, of which $2.27 per hour is tips, well under 10 percent of their income. So while tipping is widespread, it is either in extremely low amounts or not yet the norm.

I was able to get some numbers on European tipping from FreeNow, the European ride-share service that is a joint venture from Daimler AG and BMW Group and was formerly known as MyTaxi. It shows tipping for rides varying widely across Europe: Germany is the country with the highest tipping rate, with 83 percent, compared to 53 percent in Britain, 48 percent in Poland, 46 percent in Italy, 39 percent in Spain and 35 percent in Ireland. How much people tip is lower than in the United States: Poland is on top, with an average tip of 12 percent.

I’d read these numbers as a sign that tipping is likely becoming standard in ride-share services in the United States, and, with plenty of stories out on how Uber and other car-service drivers struggle to make a living, the right thing to do. But counter-service tipping is still a judgment call, and perhaps should be based on the service you receive, your own budget, your status as a regular and perhaps your knowledge of workers’ salaries overall or at the particular establishment you’re frequenting.

In other words, we are still at a point where it’s up to you to decide where you stand along the generous to stingy spectrum, and know you are in good company. (Or at least in some kind of company.)

“We don’t do what other people do,” said Daniel Vimont, of the high-tipping Vimont family, as he sipped his cortado at Stumptown. “We do what we do.”


Seth Kugel is a former Frugal Traveler columnist for The Times and the author of “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.”


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