Dear Helena,

About once a week, my girlfriend and I order sushi from a place on the next block. We pick it up since it’s so close. And every week we have the same argument: Should we tip? My girlfriend says no. She is a generous tipper in other respects (with cabdrivers, masseurs, and restaurant servers). She tips when someone delivers the takeout. But in this case, she says, “All they have to do is bring it to the counter. It’s not like they’re giving you any service.” Excuse me, but I’ve worked in takeout places, and scooping all the food into individual containers and packaging them up is quite time-consuming. It definitely deserves some recompense. Please set her straight on this point.
—Tuesday-Night Sushi

Dear Tuesday-Night Sushi,

Your girlfriend is in the majority: Most people don’t tip on takeout food. As is clear from threads like this one, many Chowhounds are in this camp. Steve Dublanica, a former server and author of the forthcoming Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity, says that when he worked in a high-end restaurant, “80 percent of the time, people did not tip on takeout orders.”

People who work in takeout places don’t necessarily expect a tip. Tony Giovanni, manager of Bleecker Street Pizza, says: “Customers tip for delivery, but there’s no need to tip for pickup.” Even a celeb like Miley Cyrus—that is, someone with money to burn—apparently considers tipping on takeout unnecessary.

But the majority is in the wrong. You should tip for takeout, because filling your order takes work. Someone has to take your order over the phone, and that order could be an extra-crispy, extra-sauce, half-anchovy sausage pizza—in other words, complicated. Or worse, it could be vague: “Yeah, I don’t have your menu in front of me, but do you have, like, a tofu in peanut sauce type dish?”

Assembling the order is more trouble than many people realize, says Patrick Maguire, who has worked in the restaurant industry for 10 years: “You have to accommodate any special requests, like ensure any dressings are on the side, package the whole thing up properly so nothing spills, and keep items separate so the bread doesn’t get soggy.” Some dishes, like curry, can just be shoveled into a container, but some need to be nicely arranged. As Dublanica says, “You don’t want your vegetables and potatoes and steak mashed together in a lump.”

When the person taking your order is a server and the restaurant is busy, there’s an opportunity cost for him in taking your order. While he’s wrapping up your Peking duck or burger and curly fries, he could be serving customers at a table and earning a real tip. While in some cases the person who takes your order or does the packing up won’t be the same one who hands you your food and thus receives the tip, it’s best to assume it’ll all even out in the long run.

Of course, filling a takeout order isn’t as much work as bringing everything nicely plated to your table, not to mention keeping your water glasses filled and clearing away your dishes. So you need not tip 20 percent. Instead, you should tip somewhere between a couple of bucks and 10 percent. Tip on the higher end if your order was particularly complex or if you had any special requests (like asking the restaurant to fill containers you brought from home). As when tipping for a latte, you should also reward the person with a smile and friendly remark.

If you hit the same takeout place regularly, it pays to tip. Maguire tips at his favorite pizza and sandwich joint, and says, “The staff remembers how I like my meatball sub, with the bun toasted with a little extra sauce and some grated cheese on top.” That’s good karma in action.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.

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