Is tipping spreading or dying out? Canadian customers see both happening

Hassel Aviles think it’s time to tip our hats farewell to tipping.

“You’re giving so much power to the guests, and often times it’s problematic,” says Aviles, who worked in front-line service for decades. In her experience, tipping has been a source of sexualizing workers — she’s personally been encouraged by colleagues and managers to dress and act a certain way to collect more cash.

Yet tips can make for a sizable boost in workers’ wages: Sabiha Bhatti, a former Starbucks server in Vaughan, says she could make up to $15 extra in a shift through tips, particularly during the holiday season. Tips aren’t a bad idea, she says, regarding it as a nice way to appreciate workers: “They’re making your lunch or dinner, and you’re thanking them.”

Canadians became more inclined toward tipping in the pandemic, with research last year from Dalhousie University in Halifax finding 20 per cent of respondents anticipating tipping more than they did before COVID-19. But restaurants are shifting their policies in both directions, creating uncertainty about whether to tip and when.

“I went to Subway today for the first time in a long time and now I got a prompt to tip at check out starting at 15 per cent,” wrote a user on a recent Reddit thread. “People hardly have enough money now to afford eating out and now we’re expected to tip for fast food? … I’m shook.”

Two years ago, Subway Canada gave franchisees the option to add a tip function at checkout. It came about “in response to guests wanting to recognize staff, but who infrequently carried cash,” says spokesperson Amanda Chouinard.

Other quick-service chains have allowed gratuities for years. Starbucks Coffee Canada introduced a tipping option in its app in 2015.

“Starbucks customers are not expected to pay anything extra to receive the best service in our stores,” said spokesperson Leanna Rizzi, but some customers “frequently” express appreciation for employees by tipping, either through a Starbucks Card or with cash.

Bruce McAdams, associate professor of hospitality, food and tourism management at the University of Guelph, says he doesn’t see tipping being well-received by customers at big quick-service chains, partly due to tip fatigue.

“I think the average consumer would say, ‘Listen, I’m tired of this. You just charge me what you need to charge me. Pay your employees more,’” he said.

It’s too early to know if tipping in quick-service is growing, or if there’s been significant uptake from customers, says Restaurants Canada.

“We have seen a few in the quick service start to dip their toe in that water,” says James Rilett, the organization’s vice president for central Canada. “It’s something that’s never really been done.”

Rilett notes the movement in the other direction — some sit-in restaurants have moved away from gratuities in favor of raising prices on their menus.

In May, Barque Smokehouse in Toronto almost completely eliminated tips in favor of upping prices and worker pay. Owner David Neinstein says customers are told that menu prices include tips, but if anyone still insists on tipping, he lets them and divides them equally among his workers. His staff make a minimum of $22.25 per hour — to align with a Toronto living wage of $22.08, calculated by the Ontario Living Wage Network group as of last November.

Aiana, an Ottawa restaurant, hasn’t had tips since it opened in 2020. The minimum wage there is $18.60 (which is the Ontario Living Wage Network’s minimum wage for Ottawa), but owner Devinder Chaudhary says most of his staff make more than that , ranging from $20 to $37. Paying workers this way not only gives them a steady income, Chaudhary says, it also helps them work as a team instead of competing against each other.

Neither Neinstein nor Chaudhary agree with quick-service chains introducing tips. It’s a way to push labor costs to customers instead of the company, Chaudhary says.

With higher inflation and costs of living, etiquette expert Lisa Orr says there aren’t hard and fast rules for when to tip.

“We are at a turning point,” she said, noting she expects the etiquette around tipping at quick-service restaurants to become clearer in a year. “We’re still in a bit of a gray zone.”

While Orr prefers workers get paid a fair wage, she says tipping can fill the gap until that happens. (Ontario upped pay for restaurant and liquor servers to minimum wage this year, though it still doesn’t meet Ontario Living Wage Network’s living wage estimates for various regions.)

Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University says companies and franchise owners will have to look at what service customers expect if workers are going to ask for tips.

“I’m not entirely convinced that in a coffee shop, in a context where you just wait for a coffee to be poured, the coffee will be poured faster,” said the director of Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

If the question is how to incentivize staff to provide good service, there are alternatives to tipping. For example, Charlebois points to “mystery customer” systems, where franchisees’ service and food are evaluated by a secret shopper, and can reward their teams with bonuses for a job well done.

Aviles, who is the co-founder and executive director of Not 9 to 5, a non-profit group advocating for mental health in hospitality and food service, would like to see the government eradicate tipping and ensure all workers make a livable wage.

“We saw with COVID how quickly things can change, right? How quickly laws can be put down and how quickly the support can be there if needed,” she said. “It’s not that we can’t do this.”

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