It’s pretty much impossible to talk about food without talking about tipping these days. The conversation around when—and how much—to tip has gotten both louder and muddier over the past few years. Particularly in the wake of the pandemic, many have argued that because tips support workers’ livelihoods, they should be seen as nonnegotiable—regardless of setting. While tipping at least 20% at full-service restaurants is widely accepted as the norm, doing so in fast-casual settings has remained a hotly contested gray area.
Now Shake Shack founder and hospitality leader Danny Meyer has waded into the tipping debate with his own take: You shouldn’t feel obligated to tip on quick food transactions, like picking up takeout or ordering a cup of coffee. “If you’re just taking out food and it was just a transaction—I give you money and you give me a cup of coffee—I don’t think there’s any obligation to tip whatsoever,” Meyer said in a CNBC interview July 6 when asked how much customers should expect to tip for fast-casual experiences versus full-service dining.
This latest tipping (or anti-tipping) wisdom is notable coming from Meyer, who, along with being the founder and former CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), is chairman of the board at Shake Shack, his national burger chain. Shake Shack and Daily Provisions—the New York–based cafe chain he also founded—are the sorts of businesses that traffic largely in quick transactions and takeout orders.
This is far from Meyer’s first time weighing in on the tipping debate. In one way or another, he’s been at the center of it for years. In 2015, Meyer made an at-the-time radical move of eliminating tipping entirely from his restaurants, casting it as an outdated practice dating back to slavery. He instead raised menu prices, saying he was factoring a fair living wage into a “Hospitality Included” policy. Though he was not the first restaurateur to eliminate tipping, the announcement led to a stream of restaurants following in his footsteps, proving just how much influence he wielded in the industry. After five years of mixed success, he reverted to a standard tipping model during the pandemic as profits dipped and layoffs spiked.
While in his recent CNBC interview he described USHG’s conception of “Hospitality Included” as “ambitious” from a financial and cultural perspective (it included a retirement plan and family leave opportunities), he also said that once the pandemic struck, it felt “inhumane” to strip customers of the option to provide extra compensation to service workers.
Now, though, Meyer has made clear that he doesn’t think tipping should be required or expected on all transactions. Despite his assessment, Meyer’s fast-casual chain Shake Shack and Daily Provisions (part of USHG) use digital tablets at their ordering counters and prompt customers to tip. His comments come at a time when many customers are already feeling hesitant about tipping on the sorts of sales they may not have left extra on top of in the past.
Paired with the effects of inflation on food prices and the advent of oft-opaque service fees folded into the bill at the end of the meal, the recent shift in standards has repelled some diners from tipping at all. According to a recent study, two thirds of Americans say they’re tired of the practice, with many claiming post-COVID “tipping fatigue.”
Still, there’s no denying that many food service workers—whether they wait tables or work at a counter-service fast food restaurant—rely on tips to make a sustainable living. That’s particularly true in expensive cities like New York, where Shake Shack is based. As writer Adam Reiner argued in Bon Appétit in May 2022, “When you don’t tip servers properly, you haven’t paid the true price of your meal.” At least as far as a burger to go or a quick coffee order goes, Meyer seems to disagree.