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At SF’s Fast-Casual Restaurants, Tipping Is Still on the Table

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Reevaluating service in a fast-casual boom

Patricia Chang

How should you tip your server when there isn’t one? That’s one question facing diners at fast-casual restaurants like Souvla and RT Rotisserie — businesses with the trappings of higher-end restaurants but without traditional wait staff, a category that attracted the curiosity of the New York Times last week. Other, maybe related questions for diners these days might include “Should I bus my own table?” and “do I have to get back in line to order dessert?”

Answers, of course, will vary restaurant to restaurant. But rather than an opportunity to skimp on tipping, fast-casual dining might offer customers an opportunity to reexamine what a tip is really for — service, rather than individual servers — and pay accordingly. Typically, a 20 percent tip, as at full-service restaurants, is recommended.

“I think people think of service in a very linear fashion, and the truth is, service is all of the touch points a customer has at a restaurant,” says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. At restaurants like Souvla, food runners are still delivering your plate, only “there’s not somebody coming back to your table every ten minutes to interrupt your conversation.”

At Media Noche in the Mission, customers order at a counter and pay on an iPad, which prompts them to offer a tip. Staff, including co-owner Jessie Barker, offer waiter-ly advice on the menu options, and deliver cubanos, drinks, and more to customers’ tables.

“What many people may not realize is that, while our restaurant is counter service, our servers’ jobs aren’t done once they have taken the order,” says Barker. “They are making drinks, running your food, bussing your table and genuinely making sure your dining experience is optimal.”

Without tips, Barker says her front-of-house staff couldn’t afford to work in SF on their salaries alone. “I think we’re lucky that most of our local diners are pretty savvy when it comes to tipping” she says.

But not everyone has gotten the memo. Only 75 percent of customers leave a tip at Media Noche, and the average tip ends up being just 12 percent.

Even if not all customers are tipping fairly, the act of tipping up front through Square or other POS services offers a new opportunity for restaurants to fairly distribute gratuity. “What’s really great in fast casual is you’re tipping the whole restaurant,” says Borden. Typically, “it’s benefitting more than the people in the chain of table service.”

For restaurants like 4505 Burgers & BBQ, a counter-service business on Divisadero, the results could be better camaraderie among staff and better service for customers. At some table-service restaurants, area director Andrew Ghetia suggests, ”you can see it among servers: Mark might not go help out Joes’ table, saying to himself ‘That’s not my section.’”

To Ghetia, that’s an unhealthy atmosphere. “Why would you approach a situation like that?” he says. “If you see a dirty table, clean it.”

“The biggest thing with us for tips is that we’re able to use them in new way to treat everyone equitably... to have a ‘one team’ kind of mentality.”

That’s the kind of generous thinking we could all use when deciding what to leave for a tip.

4505 Burgers & BBQ

705 Divisadero Street, , CA 94117 (415) 231-6993 Visit Website

RT Rotisserie

101 Oak Street, , CA 94102 (415) 829-7086 Visit Website


2272 Chestnut Street, , CA 94123 (415) 400-5458 Visit Website

Media Noche

3465 19th Street, , CA 94110 (415) 655-3904 Visit Website