Like it or loathe it, tipping has been a part of Australian restaurant culture for decades. Traditionally reserved for service at finer-dining establishments, a gratuity is now being left at more casual eateries, largely thanks to the growth of in-venue ordering technology.
Developers for web-based platform Me&u – which works by diners scanning a QR code with their phone to order and pay with an interactive menu – have reported an eightfold increase in gratuity nationwide after enhancing tipping capability in June.
Meanwhile, HungryHungry online ordering platform – used by food and drink vendors at outdoor events and large venues such as the Melbourne Cricket Ground – has seen the value of tips increase by 13 per cent since June.
A spokesperson for similar mobile platform Mr Yum reported tipping frequency increased by almost five times across all orders between August and March.
"Tech is making it easier to tip, and people are bloody grateful to have hard-working staff back in their favourite bars and restaurants," says Me&u founder Stevan Premutico. "When tap-and-go payments took off at pubs and cafes, that caused more people not to tip. Now ordering and payment platforms have simplified the tipping process."
Data provided to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age by Me&u suggests Victorians are Australia's most generous diners when it comes to tipping, outspending NSW customers 11 per cent, and double Queenslanders.
"I think Melbourne's high tipping spend is a reflection that food and hospitality is such an important part of the city's culture, plus a longer lockdown means people are more appreciative to be back out and about," says Premutico.
Me&u launched in 2019 and is now used at more than 500 venues in Australia, with a major focus on pub drinking and dining.
The startup recently partnered with Australian Leisure and Hospitality (ALH) Group, operator of venues such as Young and Jackson in Melbourne and the Crows Nest Hotel in Sydney. The contactless ordering technology is set to be introduced at all 330 ALH venues by midyear.
"We're also launching a nationwide drive to support hospitality workers with our Tip to Hospo Day next week," says Premutico. On April 22, Me&u will match dollar-for-dollar every tip raised on the platform, increasing gratuity for workers and hopefully encouraging diners to tip bigger.
Above "the obvious monetary benefits", Coogee Pavilion bar team leader Roisin Yau says tipping is about recognition of the work hospitality staff do.
"Since reopening, there is a real sense of gratitude for the role we play in people's lives," she says. "It's been a tough year, but it's wonderful to see initiatives such as Tip to Hospo Day that celebrate all the wonderful people that make up the industry".
Rosa Gomes is venue manager of The Boatbuilders Yard bar and cafe on Melbourne's South Wharf Promenade. She says customers seem to understand the hospitality industry has gone through "a bit of trauma" with COVID restrictions and lockdowns, and the tendency to be generous with tips is more prevalent.
"It's a nice reminder that people appreciate hospo staff are working when everyone else is out having a good time."
But new research commissioned by online restaurant reservation platform TheFork reveals 46 per cent of Australians also claim to never tip when dining out.
"Unlike other countries, tipping doesn't have one accepted standard in Australia, and our research found that Australian diners had plenty of excuses as to why they don't tip," says Gary Burrows, country manager of TheFork Australia.
"Diners quoted everything from missing the opportunity when paying digitally, through to not feeling it was their responsibility to supplement wages, and even responding to the already high price of dining out."
One thousand people deemed to be frequent diners were surveyed. Seventy two per cent of respondents in Adelaide said they never tipped, compared to 44 per cent of Melburnians and 33 per cent of Sydneysiders.
"We found that Australians are most likely to tip at dinner, with just over half likely to leave a gratuity in the evening," says Burrows. "Breakfast is always more of a casual affair in Australia and this carries over to tipping, with less than 40 per cent of diners leaving a tip before lunch."
In the fine-dining space, Sydney restaurateur Tristan Rosier says his tips are comparable to pre-COVID levels.
"I find tipping at fine-dining restaurants is more or less staying the same as it was a decade ago actually, with most customers tipping about 10 per cent of the bill if they choose to leave a gratuity," says the owner-chef of hatted Surry Hills restaurant Arthur.
"What's changing, especially at smaller restaurants like ours, is that kitchen staff are receiving a greater percentage of that gratuity behind the scenes.
"We split tips evenly across all staff as each service is a collective effort. There are times when our chefs might run a dish to the dining room or clear a table, for instance."
However, according to chef Jessi Singh, tipping has hit an all-time low at his modern Indian diner.
"Most people think everyone is paid well in Australia, so they don't have to tip them," says the owner of Daughter in Law in Melbourne and Adelaide, and Don't Tell Aunty in Sydney.
"People forget how hard-working staff give up the prime of their life to make sure guests have a pleasant experience. Customers are much quicker to write a bad online review than tip for great service.
"But tips are crucial for staff morale. It keeps them going day after day in a demanding industry where everyone's a critic."
Conversely, Aaron Crinis, owner of Italian bar and restaurant Glorietta in North Sydney, says he has experienced a definite increase in tipping post-COVID.
"It's actually become a helpful advantage in trying to attract great staff amidst the hospitality staffing shortage we're currently experiencing," he says.
What drives a customer to tip?
Professor Maros Servatka from the Macquarie Business School says there are multiple factors, but the strongest motivation is likely social norm.
"If it's the socially appropriate thing to do, then people will usually do it," he says. "For example, an Australian who doesn't tip at home will usually tip in the US, where they know tipping is expected.
"Other people tip to reward the experience. 'You were kind to me, so I'm going to be kind back'."
Guests may also want to be known as a good customer, says Servatka, and will tip if they plan on returning to the restaurant and want a great experience.
"There's also the need to live up to the expectations of others," he says. "If the waiter is nice, the customer might tip accordingly because they don't want to feel guilty.
"People may also be more likely to tip if a staff member is hovering over them. When you know you're being watched, you're more likely to comply with the social norm."
While the increasing uptake and functionality of online ordering platforms may be driving more tips for casual-dining staff at the moment, Servatka says contactless technology could lead to customers tipping less in the long run.
"The danger of the new platforms is that people won't tip if there isn't an employee to look upset when no gratuity is left. Or, when a person does leave a tip, they're not rewarded with a staff member's smile and a 'thank you very much'."