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A screen shows the option of how much to tip on a bill
(Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Mimi McCroskey calls it “pressure tipping.” And she doesn’t approve.

The Denver etiquette specialist tips 20% to 25% before tax at a full-service restaurant. But she tips less, if at all, at the newer options that began popping up in the pandemic as empathy for frontline workers encouraged generosity — as well as opportunistic digital tip jars with the dreaded “suggested tip” screens that cause folks to fumble awkwardly while paying.

Three dollar signs rise out of a grocery cart

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“It is called a gratuity. It has never, ever, ever been compulsory,” said McCroskey, who provides personal dining etiquette lessons for all ages at the Bridges School of Protocol in Denver. “The better answer is to tip whatever you can afford.”

Whether one can afford it or not, the general rate of tipping in America has hovered between 18% and 20% for the past two decades, according to archived Zagat Guide data. If you ask Toast, a restaurant tech company that tracks tips of its restaurant clients, the average tip peaked at 19.9% in early 2021. In the two years since, eating out costs 24.2% more in the Denver area than it used to, according to the U.S. Consumer Price Index. And higher menu prices mean that 20% tip is taking more dollars out of diners’ wallets.

The cost of a restaurant tip in Colorado

Consumers appear to be pushing back. Restaurants that use Toast saw tipping decline a half-percentage point since the pandemic. The average tip at full-service restaurants was 19.4% in June, making it “the lowest average tip … on the Toast platform since the start of the pandemic,” the company said. 

Meanwhile, tips at quick-service restaurants, i.e. fast-food restaurants, are flat this year at 16.1%, which is down from a 16.8% peak in early 2018. (Toast got its start a decade ago and along with companies like Square, helped usher in the era of digital tipping for, well, nearly everything.)

The Toast Restaurant Trends, which didn’t count cash tips, cites “tipping fatigue” and inflation as reasons for the decline. There’s also restaurants that have added their own service charge. 

I think it’s a problem for the American restaurant industry and not the American consumer to figure out how it’s going to pay its labor force.

— Mimi McCroskey, Denver etiquette specialist

McCroskey said tips are an American custom, whether we like it or not. A century ago, some states outlawed tipping, which was considered a bribe. Some cultures even refuse tips. But even though leaving a tip is optional, it’s a business decision owners and managers make to use a “suggested tip” screen, especially when someone is just picking up their to-go order. 

“I think it’s a problem for the American restaurant industry and not the American consumer to figure out how it’s going to pay its labor force,” she said. “We want to tip. We want to be fair. But we should be allowed to determine our own level of fairness and it shouldn’t be imposed on us by the fact that the restaurant industry can’t get itself together.”


Colorado, by the way, does have a tipped minimum wage, and it’s well above the nation’s meager $2.13 per hour. The tipped minimum is $10.63 in Colorado and $14.27 in Denver. If tips don’t add up to minimum wage, employers pay the rest.

Tipping may be tiresome but, she added, it’s a courtesy.

“If they’re going to spend hours packing your bags (of groceries), tip whatever is right,” McCroskey advised. “Common sense and common decency should be our guide and we shouldn’t submit to pressure tipping.”

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Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...