Is New York’s Year of Lavish Tipping Coming to an End?

As the pandemic eases, data suggests customers may no longer see service workers as deserving of “hazard pay.”

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As New Yorkers return to eating inside restaurants and riding subways, another aspect of city life is returning to normal: tips.

Average tip for online and in-person food orders in New York City

Source: Square.A seven-day average of hundreds of thousands of in-person and online orders at hundreds of New York City “quick service” restaurants.

The pandemic turned New Yorkers into big tippers, particularly in the first months of the shutdown.

Now, as the city reopens, average tipping on takeout, delivery, drinks and other restaurant meals is slowly but steadily returning toward prepandemic levels, according to data from millions of credit card transactions starting in mid-March 2020.

We obtained data on New Yorkers’ tipping habits from two app-based payment services, Square and Toast, and conducted interviews with restaurant workers, bartenders, owners, baristas and delivery drivers across the city.

Average tip for takeout and food delivery orders in New York City

Source: Toast.A 14-day average of millions of transactions at more than 1,200 New York City “quick service” restaurants made over the time period shown.

Together, these sources tell a similar story.

Tipping skyrocketed when the city shut down — a time when the city’s essential workers were celebrated with nightly ovations.

Dan Demarti, an owner of Olea, a Mediterranean restaurant in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, said the start of the pandemic coincided with the only noticeable change in tipping he had seen in the restaurant’s 15-year history.

“I think people were extra generous,” he said. “I know they were.” (On average, tips at Olea have returned to about 20 percent, he said.)

This increase is consistent with what we know about why people tip in the first place. Research shows we tip to show gratitude (a reason that might have loomed large during the worst of the pandemic); to conform to social norms; to reward good service; to impress other people; even just because we feel guilty if we don’t.

Colin Paul, a barista at The Chipped Cup coffee shop in Hamilton Heights in northern Manhattan, says he has noticed that the $20 tips from regulars on a single cup of coffee have mostly stopped.

“They felt bad and were happy that we were still open,” he said.

Surveys also show that many Americans tip because they recognize that food-service workers depend on tips for their livelihood, said Ofer Azar, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who has conducted studies on tipping in the United States and Israel. Those jobs became riskier last year.

“It could be perceived as an equitable, fair hazard pay,” said Mike Lynn, a professor of services marketing at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.

The logic that made sense for the increase makes sense in the other direction: If the tip increases were a form of hazard pay, there could be a decrease if the hazards of being a service worker are perceived to be lower than they were in the spring of 2020.

“As those risks go down, the need to pay for that will go down,” Mr. Lynn said. “If tips go back to normal, I think that’s a reasonable indication that perceptions are returning to normal.”

Nick Drake, a barista at baba cool in Fort Greene, said he noticed the increase when the pandemic began, and again during the virus’s second wave in the city starting late in 2020. Now he’s not so sure.

“Now I think we are going back down,” he said. “People don’t feel bad for restaurant workers.”

The government’s stimulus checks, first sent out in April 2020, might have also played a role.

“When the government sent the paycheck, the help, that was very easy for us,” said Juan Luis Herrera, a bike-based food messenger in Manhattan, referring to fellow deliverers. “People were paying like crazy.”

There is no perfect or perfectly representative source of data for an informal and often cash-based practice like tipping. Although the data shown here reflects millions of orders, they are not necessarily indicative of restaurant and bar orders everywhere in the city, or of credit-card transactions as a whole. (Brooklyn and Manhattan are probably overrepresented.)

Data from Square and Toast reflects tipping at “quick-service” restaurants, and the data from each company describes slightly different kinds of orders and transactions. But the trends derived from the data were consistent with the stories of most food service workers contacted this week.

There were exceptions.

Cilla Chester, a bartender at Judy’s in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, says tipping rates have remained high as the city has reopened. “People are tired of being at home,” she said. On average, she said, her tips have remained consistently closer to 20 percent, up from about 15 percent before the pandemic.

The data also suggests some possible long-lasting changes in behavior. Although average tips have gone down, the data from Square indicates that the share of orders receiving some tip — even a small one — increased with the onset of the pandemic, and hasn’t changed much since.

Percent of online and in-person food orders with a tip of any kind

Source: Square.A seven-day average of hundreds of thousands of in-person and online orders at hundreds of New York City “quick service” restaurants.

The pandemic has also prompted conversations about norms and tipping that may — eventually — affect averages citywide.

“Not everything is going to go back the way it was prepandemic,” Professor Azar said.

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