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Which To-Go Orders You Tip and Which You Don’t




Have you noticed that it seems like tip jars are popping up everywhere?!

Because of it, I get asked a lot about when a tip is pretty much necessary and when one is just a way for someone to pick up a little extra of your cash.

With so many chain restaurants that were previously only dine-in offering curb side to-go service, the question I probably get asked the most is about tipping the person who hands you your to-go order. (If you happen to not be eating in the restaurant because bringing your kids out seems like more than you can handle at the moment, you’ll enjoy this post I wrote about why MANY restaurants are actually banning children. Should Unruly Children Be Banned from Restaurants? )

Here’s a question a reader emailed me. (BTW, if you have an etiquette question, you can send it to me at: I’ll do my best to get answer!) You know that I don’t usually print your actual letters; instead, I write the essence of the letter. Yet, this was a case in which “we’ve all been there,” so I knew you’d want to read it just like I received it!

Dear Maralee,

Thank you for putting your time into teaching something that really matters!

Last week I went to Red Lobster®. I was in a hurry and ordered ahead for takeout so that when I got there, I could pick the food and leave. They gave me my bill and I paid by credit card. There was a place to leave a tip on the receipt, so I did.

My question is this: In a situation where I’m not being served, should I still leave a tip?

I talked it over with several people at the office when I got back, but no one seemed to have a solid answer. Thanks for your help on this one!

The  Answer:

You were correct to tip!

Anytime you’re picking up a to-go order from anything other than a drive-through window, it’s standard practice to leave a gratuity (a monetary thank you) for the service provided by the person who prepared your order.

Why tip for something that just took a few minutes to bag up, when if you were eating in the restaurant that same person would be serving you for maybe an hour or so?

There are a couple of reasons:

First, even if a sit-down restaurant advertises to-go service, it’s a special offering, and not the norm. You tip for this service for the same reason you tip the person who delivers room service when you’re staying at a hotel.

May I vent for a moment? Thank you! Why does the hotel add a 15 to 25 percent surcharge that they keep and don’t share with the person who delivers the food to my room? It seems to me that he or she is taking the long journey from the kitchen to my room and back again. That money should go to that person, not the corporation’s general profit fund. (Depending on the hotel (three stars or five) tip 15 to 20 percent on room service.)

I do feel better now, thank you! And yes, for me that was fuming! :)


Now, back to why we need to tip….

Secondly, the person handing you the order is a waiter earning the main portion of his or her wages on tips. Even if the person who is actually handing you your meal is the hostess, more than likely, it was boxed-up in the kitchen, brought-up to the hostess stand and set down next to him or her by a server. When a server is on “to-go duty” it takes time away from providing service at his or her in-house tables and limits the number of diners the hostess can sit in the server’s section because of the demands of filling to-go orders. On a busy evening, a restaurant can have 15 to 20 or more orders leaving the server no-time to wait regular tables.

How much to tip?

It’s not a lot, but enough to help make up some of what they’re missing out on from having fewer diners sitting in their section. You want to leave ten percent of the bill or $3.00, whichever is more. (Due to the slow down in the economy with fewer people eating out, the standard tip when dining in is now 20 percent. 15 percent is gone.)

One last question you might have? If this is all correct, then why don’t you tip at the drive-through window of quick-service restaurants like Chick-fil-A® ?

Answer: Those associates are working diligently to serve you, but are considered in restaurant terms as filling an order, or completing a task, not providing a special service since to-go windows are a standard part of each restaurant. Plus, and this is the most important part, those associates are paid minimum wage or more. At standard restaurants the hourly rate for a server is usually $3.00 or less. Tips are meant to make up the difference. When you don’t tip, you’re causing them to earn less than minimum rage by providing you a convenient service that you desire. It’s just the decent thing to do.

Keep in mind that none of the income of associates at fast food restaurants or Starbucks is tip-based, so the lack of a tip isn’t causing them to earn less than minimum wage while serving you.

Hugs and blessings,


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  • DeDi

    I don’t agree with tipping when I’m picking up to go food – I’m a great tipper when I’m being waited on – refilling tea glasses, removing dishes from the table, providing extra napkins, etc. but to go food – I just don’t see it. I enjoy your tips though – you’re providing a great service!

  • Ava Kinsey

    50 years old and I didn’t know this!! From now on, I will be tipping for to go orders!

  • Su

    Hi Maralee
    This is really helpful to me because I’m never quite sure if I’m being correct in how I tip when I’m in the US because we don’t tip here. I always get anxious that I didn’t tip someone that I was supposed to!