As a Brit living in America, nothing confuses me like the etiquette of tipping. 15%? 18%? 20%? Cash? Card? Is it voluntary or an unwritten social rule? And what about takeout?

That last one is the most confusing. Are you expected to tip on a takeout order and, if so, how much? Surely it’s less than if you were sitting in a restaurant being waited on, right? Let’s investigate.

First a story — a story of extreme takeout non-tipping gone awry. At a Palm Beach Outback Steakhouse, an order came in from a large nearby church: 25 steaks, 25 chickens, and 25 potatoes, totaling $735. The server in charge of the order spent most of her shift packing the food, double checking it and carrying out to the waiting car. But for all her efforts, she didn’t receive a tip.

Frustrated and upset, she spoke out on Facebook and promptly lost her job. Because she had spent so much time on this one order, she was unable to wait on other diners and only made $18 in tips that day. The story quickly picked up steam as people began to debate whether or not tipping on a takeout order is compulsory. Servers at chain restaurants typically make minimum wage and rely on tips to bolster their income.

Out of sight, out of mind

Sitting in a restaurant, we are able to observe the hard work of the wait staff. They take our orders, carefully note any amendments to dishes or dietary restrictions, bring our food, refill our water. Their efforts are visible and they’re also present when we’re handed the bill.

Not tipping in this situation would be extremely rude. But when we can’t see the work being done, do we assume that the effort being put in is less? Maybe.

Takeout tipping etiquette

There are some guides on tipping available, with a classic guide coming out of The Emily Post Institute. Emily Post established herself with her seminal book Etiquette in 1922, and though times have changed, her family maintains that “the principles of good manners remain constant.” The Emily Post Institute suggested that for Wait service (sit down): 15-20%, pre-tax is appropriate. And for Take Out: No obligation; 10% for extra service (curb delivery) or a large, complicated order. No obligation? Hmmm.

I asked around among my friends to discover their take on the takeout situation. “Delivery people the same as waiters: 20%, but, if I order for pick-up and go get it, then 15% for packaging it up,” my friend Stephen said. According to my friend Richard, “If I’m going to the same place regularly then I’ll tip, but if it’s a one-off probably not.”

An actual waitress weighs in

The Salty Waitress, a fantastic advice column from a real-life waitress that runs in The Takeout, offered this advice: “Don’t feel compelled to leave more than a few bucks. Takeout orders — lunches, quick dinners, etc. — are pretty cheap, right? So even leaving a few bucks on a $20 order is more than fine.”

So what should you leave? “A dollar isn’t wrong,” she says, “though $2 would probably absolve you of that guilt. If you’re only ordering takeout a couple times a week, what’s an extra $2 to make sure those diner servers really like you? Being a regular creates a relationship, no matter how casual. Hey, you might even get some extra fries out of it.”

While there is no definitive guide to tipping on takeout, it’s a safe bet that leaving at least a couple bucks will show the staff your appreciation for any work they’ve done behind the scenes in preparing your order. You, meanwhile, can leave the restaurant without a crippling sense of guilt and self-loathing. After all, nothing is better for the appetite than a clear conscience.

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