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Show of support: Customers serve up sizeable tips as COVID slams Atlantic Canada's food service sector

Diners seem to be carrying less cash, so tipping via card is more common since COVID-19.
Diners seem to be carrying less cash, so tipping via card is more common since COVID-19. - SaltWire Network

While restaurants across the East Coast are in survival mode because of COVID-19, many customers are showing their appreciation to lighten their losses.

Laura Kirkpatrick, communications and events coordinator for The Bicycle Thief restaurant in Halifax, said staff is seeing "a noticeable uptick in gratuity" this year.

"They see how hard our servers and support staff are working behind their masks and appreciate how our exceptional service has never wavered with all the regulations in place," she said, while acknowledging customers are tipping primarily with cards this year.

The Bicycle Thief restaurant in Halifax said there is a noticeable uptick in tipping this year. - SaltWire Network
The Bicycle Thief restaurant in Halifax said there is a noticeable uptick in tipping this year. - SaltWire Network

In March, restaurants across the country closed their doors to adhere to physical distancing measures while ramping up takeout and delivery services. Statistics Canada said sales in the food services and drinking places subsector fell by 36.6 per cent (seasonally adjusted) to $4 billion.

"This is the largest decline since the beginning of the series in 1998," reported the agency.

Diners stepping up

"Our servers are working with fewer tables in the restaurants and depend on tips from guests to pay their bills and expenses. We are so lucky to be still open and have the most supportive community to keep us busy during these times," said Kirkpatrick.

"They (staff) work extremely hard in the span of a shift and depend on the generous tips of our guests."

The Bicycle Thief, a sit-down restaurant with an outside patio, averages 15 to 20 per cent gratuity.

"For takeout, it all depends – we don't know the exact numbers for this, but people are tipping more than usual when they see how hard our staff are working to make them feel safe in our restaurants," said Kirkpatrick.

The Dancing Goat Café and Bakery in Cape Breton is also experiencing the same generosity, with one customer stepping up to tip "$50 for two coffees."

The eatery noted an increase in cards rather than cash for tipping, with a 10 per cent gratuity for dine-ins and takeout.

In St. John's, NL, Oliver's Restaurant said that while it has not noticed a "massive difference in gratuity since the pandemic," guests have continued to be generous.

"As we are a high-end restaurant, tips have always been generous and continue to remain this way. However, we have a lot more conversations about how the pandemic has affected our business and several more questions about how we are doing amidst it all," said the serving staff in a collaborative statement.

"Most payments are taken on debit or credit. Thus, people tend to add the tip to their total. While we still get the occasional cash tip, there was much more of that before the outbreak. Carrying cash has become much less common. Therefore, we have noticed this change in both payment methods and tip methods, but we do not prefer how people tip."

Oliver's Restaurant in St. John's, NL, said guests have continued to be generous. - SaltWire Network
Oliver's Restaurant in St. John's, NL, said guests have continued to be generous. - SaltWire Network

Oliver's staff said there is a typical misconception when it comes to gratuity.

"Servers receive all of the given tips as 'bonus money.' Realistically, a lot of our tip money is divided between the other restaurant staff (for example, kitchen cooks and dishwashers, hosts, etc.). We wish people did not view tipping as something that solely benefits us as servers and could understand that we share that, and it isn't as much of a bonus for us as it seems."

To ensure their customers' health and safety, including the workforce, Oliver's Restaurant, like many eateries across the country, changed their business model this year.

"For dine-in service, we decreased our capacity and limited the number of tables in use. We also installed plexiglass dividers between all tables to ensure customer safety. When customers arrive, we have provided hand sanitizer for them to use, and require a mask while moving around the restaurant."

And as for takeout, guests place their orders over the phone and visit the restaurant to collect.

"We either deliver the food to the curb or follow all safety precautions for customers to come into the restaurant and collect. We also use DoorDash for food delivery," reported Oliver's Restaurant.

This year has been a challenge for all those in the foodservice sector, say Oliver’s staff.

"Our hours have decreased, and shifts cut because of the pandemic, so we rely on tips to help with our living expenses as our actual paycheque isn't nearly what it used to be."

Summer struggle

The Sunset Room in the Shipyard building located in Summerside, PEI, changed strategy and said there is excellent support from the community. - SaltWire Network
The Sunset Room in the Shipyard building located in Summerside, PEI, changed strategy and said there is excellent support from the community. - SaltWire Network

Cameron Davies, owner of The Sunset Room in the Shipyard building, located in Summerside, P.E.I., agreed that the summer restrictions had a "major impact" on his business – primarily a wedding venue.

"With 27 weddings booked for the year, we were excited for a busy season full of happy newlyweds and celebrations. However, with COVID, we were forced to cancel or postpone all but one of these events. But I must say that we are extremely grateful for the level of support we received during our season," said Davies.

While Cameron did not comment on gratuity, he did mention the support from locals that helped keep his business alive while switching strategy.

"In response (to COVID restrictions), we tried all kinds of new things. We opened a beer garden in our outdoor courtyard, we added a takeout window to the front of the building, we tried new things like paint nights, trivia, and live music," he said.

"I'd be lying if I said the season wasn't a struggle but there is no question that our customers truly stepped up and gave us the support we needed to make it through."

Jared and Jocelyn Tobias, owners of the Willow Bakery and Cafe in Kensington PEI, said support since opening their business in March has been outstanding.

"We have so many customers that we see daily and weekly. The support from the community is more than we could have ever asked for," said the couple. "We think people love the community like us and want to see small businesses grow and succeed. And yes, we believe tipping has increased – since we opened, customers have been great with it."

The couple thanked those in the community for supporting them.

"We want people to know how appreciative we are that they keep coming in and supporting us in these challenging times. We wanted to have this business for our community, and they have not let us down at all. Without them, we would be able to continue our passion."

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