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Small restaurant tipping etiquette

What is your opinion about tipping in a small store-front restaurant staffed, owned and run by one and the same person? Cooking is done on the side with a make-shift stove and there's a tiny fridge and microwave.

This, it seems to me, is even more of a counter than a counter, the waitstaff isn't getting paid minimally in favor of tips, so it feels to me as if the whole bill should be what she charges, which is somewhat random in and of itself.

Still, it feels funny. Do y'all agree that in such a tightly-run place (that is no salaries; what you pay is going to the chef and owner), tipping is not really part of the deal? What do you think please?


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  1. to me it would depend on who's doing what. if i order at the counter and then pick up and take to the table. no tip. if i order and they bring it to the table and check back, a dollar or two. buffet but drinks are refilled. ditto. a restaurant with takeout where they don't keep you lingering and get the order right, same again.

    the old-style rule was not to tip the owner of a business, but it doesn't hurt and i don't always know who the owner is.

    1. I always go by what feels 'right'. Do you think they'd refuse it?
      I'd tip a couple of dollars just for the service they're providing me.

      1. The notion of not tipping owners is outdated when it comes to the situation you have describe. In cases as such, yes the owner owns the business, but in reality, he just bought a job.

        I choose to tip

        9 Replies
        1. re: fourunder

          Could you expand on "he just bought a job"? Do you mean his profit margin is so scant he's really making minimum wage? I dunno--really. And if you have some knowledge of this, I'd like to hear it.

          1. re: Masonville

            Not the poster you refer to, but it's likely that this small business owner you describe is not even making minimum wage. It's possible that after the cost of products, rents, insurance, etc, that they are operating at close to a loss, which is why they don't have staff.

            And yes, I have experience with this. People have this idea that small business owners are rich, but this is rarely the case, they are scraping by, trying to give you something nice that they have built their lives around (aka bought a job).

            So, if you value the service, leave a couple of bucks.

            1. re: cheesemonger

              Thanks for the response. My default inclination is always to tip, but sometimes get hung up on the possibility of being considered a fool for tipping the owner.

              1. re: cheesemonger

                Call me nuts, but the owner could always just raise their prices

                1. re: jgg13

                  True and then scare off the normal people who tip. This is not a fast food joint ala Taco Hell, with plenty of corporate backing. This is a mom and pop, and if you like them then you should vote with your dollars, including tip or they may not be willing or able to be there for you.

                  1. re: jgg13

                    You're nuts! ;p

                    When small owner-operated places are competing with chain stores/restaurants with high volume and serious cost-of-goods negotiating power, raising prices may lose you customers.

                    Like others have said, I consider tipping to be part of the deal, no matter who serves me.

                    1. re: cheesemonger

                      I frequent various M&P type joints where it is pure counter service. They always have the now-ubiquitous tip jar (aside: I was at a non-M&P today that had a tip jar both at the cashier and where you picked up your food!). I don't normally put money in tip jars, but will often do it at these spots simply because I like them as people. I feel no obligation to do so, and don't think anyone else should either.

                    2. re: jgg13


                      The math is such with your suggestion that everyone who has been doing the right thing now pays more to bring the person who has been doing he wrong thing in line. One should not prepare a business model for the outlier.

                2. re: fourunder

                  I'd totally second fourunder's take on this. I owned a small retail business for several years that had some element of food service involved. The entire time I owned it I never took a salary and never made a dime in profit; actually lost quite a bit of money and finally sold it at a fraction of what I had put into it. Great idea............... horrendous market timing.

                  Anyway..................... anyone assuming I was rich or making even a decent amount of money from the business would have been totally wrong. I felt funny having a tip line on my service checks, but sometimes the tips really helped keep us afloat while looking for a buyer. If the business has been around for years, perhaps you could conclude that the owner is turning a profit (or the business would have closed). In the case of a newer business, and especially in today's economy, I don't think you can conclude anything necessarily.

                  In the area of small businesses, people very often ARE literally 'buying themselves a job'. In an economy like that of the last couple of years, they are often lucky to be making a minimal living from it. You cannot conclude that, if they're not they'd be doing something else. Many people today just don't have those options.

                3. If the brain power some people use looking for excuses to stiff servers could be harnessed as energy, our electric bills would be down to zip.

                  It's a couple of bucks, tops. Feel like a big spender and/or impress your date.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Muskrat

                    Have you got a name for this sort of alternative energy? Cheapskateoleum?

                    1. re: Muskrat

                      I SO totally agree with you!!! I cannot imagine anyone calling themselves a chowhound who wants the BEST of food, the BEST place, the BEST service and wants the BEST reason not to tip!

                      I really hope that cheap tippers (with the inner sphere going to the non-tippers) their hell is serving themselves as waiters/owners over and over again, trying to save some money to buy themselves outa hell.

                    2. It depends - if it's counter service and there'a tip jar I tip the change, if there's no tip jar I usually don't tip. If it's table service, I tip my normal amount regardless of whether it's staff or the owner serving me (i.e. how do I know, and why should I care).

                      1. I don't worry about the dynamics of a restaurant before I tip. Depending on the service, they'll get whatever I decide is appropriate. I'm not going to tip 10% just because the person is the owner and I'm not going to tip 50% just because the servers split it.

                        1. Thanks for the thoughtful responses!

                          1. I do not agree with your rationale. We tip for service. When service is minimal, then tipping may be minimal. For instance, if you place your order at a counter, stand there and wait for it then carry it to your table, tipping is purely optional. In that scenario, if someone (anyone, even an owner) comes to your table to check on you, refills your drink or clears your plate then you need to leave some sort of gratuity. If the owner takes your order, cooks your food, delivers it, checks on you and clears you dishes you tip the standard 20%, more if the food prices are as low as they usually are in that sort of place.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Kater

                              I 100% agree with Kater. It is not clear from the original post what kind of service is being provided, but you should pay for the service that is being provided, if any.

                              It is not analogous to not tipping the owner of a salon if s/he cuts your hair. The employee-beautician receives a portion of the cost of the cut and when the owner cuts your hair, s/he keeps the entire price (not that I would be comfortable not tipping in that situation either).

                              A waiter does not receive any part of the cost of the meal, so when an owner serves you, s/he is not receiving any more of less than if a waiter served you, except for the very minimal hourly wage of the server. The owner cannot charge more because s/he is doing the serving, but it still takes time away from his/her other duties. A tip is really a part of the cost of the meal. The cost of service is not built into the meal itself, which has a relatively small profit margin. If you like this restaurant and want it to stay in business-tip!

                            2. I wouldn't tip there. I only tip if they are bringing me the food. It's their job to make the food and give it to you, whether they "bought a job" and love doing it or not.

                              1. I've posted on this string previously, but something else just occurred to me. It's arguable, I suppose, that you could do a calculation in every instance of the "value" of the effort expended by any given server in any given encounter. Apart from being wildly subjective (and ignorant--in many instances, you really have no idea what effort was involved), it suggests bringing micro economic analysis to every dining encounter. Plus, what's the "value" based on? Something you might value enormously--a smile, a flirtation, a kindness, some cleavage, a Cary Grant impersonation--may cost nothing or a lot. Also consider the fact that most of us reflexively tip at least 15% and possibly (routinely?) 20% in high end restaurants just because 1) it's habitual or 2) we don't want to appear to be a cheapskate. So why do we get all ideological and justicey (pardon the coinage) when it comes to a small restaurant? I can recall at least one instance in which a jerk at a high-end restaurant actually insulted me and I felt I had sufficiently punished him by 1) telling him about it and 2) tipping "only" 10%. So this creep gets 10% and a small-time owner gets nothing?

                                1. Hi all (OP here) -- thanks for the thoughts. I am interested to hear the sort-of preponderance of opinion, I think, that tipping is part of the price, so pony-up. And there is somewhat-predictable sniffy attitude associated with the opinion, as if there were an attempt to weasel out of an owed bill here, and possibly not in a better-established place.

                                  I take all the points and as an opinion, am not really sure where to put my own. I guess it most resonates that it's not as if this sort of place is pulling in a fabulous profit, so, the argument goes, give an extra something.

                                  FWIW in the place that inspired the question, as it happens I felt the bill was rather too high; way too high in fact. e.g., we ordered among other things 2 empanadas and were charged for each as a separate order though the price is less to order two together, etc. There were more such things and I didn't in any way want to argue or work it out really. But then when it came time to tip on top of everything, it did just sort of feel as if overall, the bill was more than adequate, IMO, for the food and service. So I was, it is true, using the owner-operator paradigm as a bit of an excuse to not pay more. And so I posted to try to help me figure out if I had any justification for this apart from feeling a little singed by the bill (there was more involved than just the empanadas, but it doesn't really matter the details for this discussion I don't think. The point is only that the bill seemed very high already).

                                  As well this happens not, as referred to by another poster, to have been a chowhound-type find. The food was adequate and the whole experience fine, but not something to write home about. In part, truthfully, because the bill was steep. Value matters to the overall experience for me.

                                  Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful consideration...

                                  13 Replies
                                  1. re: aliris

                                    It is interesting that you are now changing your 'post/story" Oh so NOW you wanna say you feel the bill was unfair???

                                    You wanna be an under-tipper. It is OK. Claim that, own that, justify that. but do not ask others to absolve you.

                                    You in NO As NO!!! way indicated that you felt the bill was overpriced in your post.

                                    You want CH to condone your cheap tipping. You had not the will, courage nor honor to work out your issues at the place, the ONLY pace they should be worked out..at the place and point it occurred. You just want to sit back and complain and want others to make you feel good about yourself. Deal with your actions. Eat at Micky D's

                                    1. re: aliris

                                      Your perspective is interesting. From what you said I gather you think it is unfair for a place to charge more for a single empanada served to two separate people than if they serve two empanadas to ONE person. You don't say anything about the method of service (ie- with separate plate, box, utensils, condiments...... or how much the price difference is).

                                      You'll find that posts here often get very detailed analysis and inconsistencies do stand out.

                                      1. re: Midlife

                                        Quine: come on ... are you telling me you know entirely and completely how you feel about a slightly icky happening and can completely analyze it? I was curious about the perspective from how I first posted it, generally. That's not to say that entirely covered my deep and complete feelings about the encounter specifically. At the time I posted first, I knew there were likely additional psychological, subjective perspectives to dredge up, but I didn't really need to at the time, to post the question as originally posted. That's what I was curious about. On later introspection and in light of what was posted I came to understand that probably some of my feelings had to do with also feeling a little cheated on the price. I say *feeling* -- that's not to say that I actually was cheated or had good justification for (possibly) feeling such.

                                        The question remains from a general perspective. From a personal, that-encounter perspective, you might be happy to know that I tipped rather adequately, I believe, about 15%. But why the specifics of my actual actions matter, I do not know. I was and remain, interested in the general question, as I encounter the situation often. I was trying in fact to parse my own feelings of surprise at the higher-than-expected bill out of the question as to how people treat this sort of operation tip-wise.

                                        Midlife - method of service was highly informal, with plastic spoons on ceramic dish rinsed in front of us. Handed over the counter to me, though if I hadn't gotten up and offered to take them I'm sure the lady would have brought them around. She was very amiable, obviously very much wanting to make us feel "at home". As for the charge, I don't really know what to think in terms of cost. I know only that the bill *felt* high. Again, as to whether that's justifiable, I don't know. $18 for 2 empanadas and a bowl of soup felt high to me, but I have no doubt some will chime in declaring this a true bargain. The specifics of your own particular feeling about bargain:pricey are rather hard to get any handle on objectively. Cost:benefit also involves, of course, the quality of the food, which also felt to me a tad disappointing. All those things figure in, of course, But none of them alters the original question, attempted to be posed from a more 'pure' standpoint (i.e., does this type of *venue*, follow the counter-paradigm, the hair salon-owner paradigm, the hooters-wait-person paradigm, or what?, etc)

                                        1. re: aliris

                                          This has got to be the funniest example of garble speak I have read in a long time. It''s simple; tip as you wish to tip. It's only your face in the mirror each day. But don't expect to come here and have people justify your feelings of being cheated or being cheap.

                                          1. re: Quine

                                            So you're saying that tipping has absolutely nothing to do with customary practice? And there is no interest to be had in other's perceptions of the practice (e.g., tipping at a counter, etc)?

                                            1. re: aliris

                                              I am saying that people tip as they want. Then they try to justify/gain acceptance/rationalize. If you have NO second thought about your tipping ; nothing you can post here nor anything anyone else says here will change that. Live with your decisions

                                              If you felt good about your tip, you would need no approval. You would need no justification. You would need no rational...what if it was Tuesday and it was raining and I had a black hat on and two whatevers were on a marcal paper napkin and the forks were plastic!!!!
                                              Get over it. You felt bad about your tip and now you want someone to bless your paradigm. ROFL!!! Get a midlife=method.

                                              1. re: Quine

                                                I don't agree. Tipping is a social convention, and convention is a rule-bound phenomenon. A little instruction and hints about others' common practice and understanding is helpful.

                                                1. re: Quine

                                                  I don't get your (what seems to be) lashing of aliris. The OP is trying to find what is appropriate to tip in the general case and you are just insulting them and calling them cheap because of the one specific case (where the tip was actually 15%, which seems fine to me). It isn't appropriate to just, "tip as you wish to tip". It may be legally appropriate, but it isn't right to tip 5% for amazing service. Why do you feel the need to insult aliris instead of giving guidence on the appropriate social norm?

                                            2. re: aliris

                                              Whoaa... what did you say there? I don't really understand what you're trying to get across...

                                              In this case, I agree with Quine - tip what you want. You don't have to justify it to anyone.

                                              1. re: sockhead

                                                I agree.
                                                I also have thought hard about many ideas on tipping. I had no idea there were so many variations regarding this concept.
                                                I believed, and have believed, that there is an 'across the board' 20% additional, the way of tipping, unless the service is horrible and everyone tips the same no matter where the place is.
                                                Chow has been an educational forum for me to learn lots of things.
                                                My idea(s) and habits have changed from where I was just a few days ago, based on the opinions of some very solid, thoughtful and credible debates I've been a part of.
                                                I no longer will tip cash when I can use my credit card to do so and I will begin to tip accordingly to reflect the service I receive.
                                                It's been interesting.

                                                1. re: latindancer

                                                  "I no longer will tip cash when I can use my credit card to do so and I will begin to tip accordingly to reflect the service I receive."

                                                  Insert paws clapping.

                                                  It is an interesting debate at times, Jfood bows to your listening to other views.

                                                  1. re: jfood

                                                    Well jfood, thanks and I have a huge confession to make. I appreciate your generosity.
                                                    I don't think my behavior is anything to be proud of regarding this subject.
                                                    I've, of course listened to everyone's views, and I appreciate and have learned from everything said here.
                                                    However, given the emotional component to some of the threads I tend to gravitate to (tipping is one of them) I tend to go overboard and post things that aren't exactly, shall I say, accurate.
                                                    I'm not sure why I got caught up in the 'cash only' debate on another thread. Perhaps to provoke? Make it more interesting and compelling? I don't know. My views weren't what I posted, not even remotely, and I single handedly cause the thread to be closed. I said some stupid, completely inaccurate things about this subject and I don't do any of the things I said I do. I pay for tips on my credit card. So....sorry is all I can say to everyone who got caught up in my ridiculous game.

                                                    1. re: latindancer

                                                      everyone posts of their own free will. And if memory is correct maybe one or two of jfood's posts got deleted as well on that thread. Ooops

                                                      jfood has learned to do a better job at hitting the "back" button versus the "post my reply" button, but 100% is still a carrot in front of his nose.

                                        2. The operative thought I got from the OP is that the owner/operator seems to be charging arbitrarily (I'll admit that there're more places than you think that do this). If the owner has the power to arbitrarily charge, then of course proven high-tippers will probably see a difference in what they'll be charged.

                                          If I see someone making my food in earnest and it's good I tip 'em for service -- whether I think they own the place or not.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: shaogo

                                            Wow let's take elasticity theory in economics and overlay tipping.

                                            The owner continues to increase the service fee until the customer cries uncle. Then he knows the true "tipping" point (pun intended). People like monica covington pay, let's just keep it nice at 0%, and people who do not care (many on these boards have postured this position) pay 40%. If there is a normal bell curve between the lower and the higher then the server gets his/her 20%.

                                            Sounds like a PhD dissertation. But wait, jfood remebers he once googles this and there are already some very well written economic discussions on the topic. May have to dust off the favorites list


                                          2. I guess the answer to the OP is that the right thing to do is whatever the social convention is where s/he is (which I know is not much help to the OP). Where I am, I doubt whether anyone would tip in the circumstances outlined - for the reasons the OP identifies.