“Tip jars” are becoming more common at food trucks and food carts around the country.  The tipping system puts discretionary power in the hands of the customer. Do you know how to use that power wisely? Ideally, good service is rewarded with good tips, and bad service is punished with bad tips. In practice, however, that’s not how it usually plays out.

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If you want to tip fairly, follow these guidelines.

Determine the “tippable” total

If you used any online coupon codes or discounts, calculate the tip based on how much you would’ve paid without it. Otherwise, you’re punishing the server for the food truck management’s efforts to bring you to the truck. For example, if you have a 2-for-1 coupon, you may only have had to pay for half of your meal, but the server still did the full amount of work.

If there is a tax on your bill, you should technically calculate the tip based on the pretax amount, since the service you received has nothing to do with the tax. But since the difference between a tip on the total (including tax) or the pretax amount is not significant, it’s not a recommended squabbling point.

Evaluate your service. The key is to objectively judge the service you receive and the service alone. If the food isn’t good, and/or the prices are outrageous… all of this affects your dining experience, but is not always the server’s fault. If you’re unhappy with it, don’t visit the truck or cart again, or write a negative review somewhere.

The service itself should be judged on:

  • How well the food matched with your order
  • Whether the food was hot and fresh
  • How attentive the server was to your needs
  • How quickly it took to get your check and have your payment processed
  • Whether the server’s demeanor was courteous and professional

Give the benefit of the doubt. If the service was not quite stellar, it may not be the server’s fault. Unless they were rude or neglectful, you might want consider the following:

  • Did the mobile bistro appear busy and understaffed?
  • Mistakes in orders do happen, and it’s hard to know if the server, chef or both were responsible. If your server works hard to fix a problem, it’s kind to give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Does your server seem new to the job? Serving customers at a food truck does take some practice and skill; you might want to give a new service employee a bit of a break.

Determine the tip. The general guideline is 20% for excellent service, 15% for solid service, and 10% for bad service. On average, people that do tip at food trucks tip approximately 18%.

Even if you order from a truck or cart that offers only pre-packaged food you are still expected tip at least 10%. Usually, the person that takes your order has to jump through hoops to get your order together complete with utensils, extra napkins, bags etc. They go out of their way to take care of you, so you should take care of them back.