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Tipping Caterers: Why, When and How much?

Should you tip your caterer or not? Unlike other service professions there are no hard and fast rules. So most people end up being confused and unsure of what to do. Tipping caterers can become awkward when you’re confused of what to do.

In a sense, catering is just like a restaurant. You’d likely tip at a restaurant so why not tip a caterer? A tip is a great way to acknowledge and thank the servers, bartenders and event captain for their great service.

Many catering contracts include a Service Charge, which is generally 18% of the total bill. Check the contract to see if this charge is the gratuity. If it is not, or if there is no service charge, consider leaving a cash tip on the day of the event.

If you’re having a larger event with many catering staff, we recommend giving cash to the Banquet Manager/Captain to distribute to the individual waiters, bartenders and kitchen staff. This is usually the most efficient way to distribute the tips to a large staff. Small bills are helpful with this option. If you’re having a smaller event, such as a party in your home, it is usually easiest to give the tip directly to each staff member and doing so adds a personal touch

In our area (Washington, D.C.), $50-$100 is the standard tip for the Banquet Manager and the Executive Chef and $25-$50 is standard tip for the individual servers, bartenders and kitchen staff.

If the bartenders are separate from the caterer (usually the case when you have a separate contract for the bar), 10-15% of the total bar bill is a fairly standard tip. Again, double check that the service charge is not the tip.

Not sure how many servers, bartenders and kitchen staff you will have? Check your contract. If it’s not clear, ask the caterer in advance.

Tell us about your tipping caterer story.

Happy planning!

45 Comments

  • Beth L July 20, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    This post is so helpful!! We didn’t know if and how much to tip our caterers for our upcoming wedding reception. Now we know and won’t have that awkward moment at the end of the night! Thank you!

    Reply

  • Diana August 17, 2013 at 9:28 am

    What if the caterer is providing buffet service charging $30 / hour for waiters and $35 / hour for a chef / sous chef? Would I still tip? If I was at a restaurant – in Toronto, Canada – the waiters make around minimum wage or perhaps up to $15-$20 / hour in a 4-star restaurant plus their tip. The work involved is roughly the same as it would be in a restaurant – setting up tables, clearing tables, replenishing food etc. Is it required that I tip on top of the catering cost when the staff make $30 / hour each for buffet food service?

    Reply

    • Keita M. August 17, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      This is a good question, Diana. I’ll start by saying that the custom in Toronto might be different so please consider that I am answering as if you were having this event in the US. First, keep in mind that even though the caterer is charging you $30-$35/hr per staff person, it is very likely that the individual staff people are not making that full amount (most caterers keep a portion of the fee to cover contingencies* or as a finder’s/admin fee of sorts). Second, tipping is never compulsory. At the end of the day, if you feel that the staff are being adequately compensated for their services, then you should feel secure in your decision not to tip. Of course, on the day of the event you may feel that the staff went above and beyond the call of duty and have earned a tip.

      All that being said, there is a good argument that it depends on what type of caterer you have hired. If you have hired an on-premise caterer, such as the caterer in a country club, then your comparison to a restaurant is a good one. In a country club, like a restaurant, the room is already designed and the waiters’ work is usually limited to the tabletops (setting place settings, clearing, etc). In this case, it can be more acceptable not to tip (although I generally feel that some small tip should be given). If your caterer is off-premise, however, such as where you have rented a blank reception site, then the staff’s work is much more involved than at a restaurant. This work is often unseen by the host and the gusts. In addition to what you mentioned, the set up and breakdown of the room (considerations of room flow, last minute changes, unloading and loading tables and chairs, placing tables and chairs around the room, etc) and clean up of the event site (most event sites using off-premise caterers have strict clean up rules so that you can get your security deposit back, down to where to place full trash bags) is much more involved . In this case, a tip is generally expected because of the level of work the staff performed.

      Also, consider that the staff may pool tips. In those cases, a portion of your tip will be given to people that you never meet, such as the person packing the truck at the warehouse or the dishwasher at the event.

      I hope this helps! If you feel comfortable doing so, raise this question with your caterer. Please come back and share what they advise. I’m sure your experience will help other readers in a similar situation.

      *An example of a contingency I heard about just this week from a caterer: The client ordered a certain number of staff and then on the morning of the wedding, ordered more pieces of equipment. It was too late for the rental company to deliver the equipment so the caterer had to pay another person to pick up the equipment. This was not a cost the caterer could have passed on to the client. The portion of the staff fee that the caterer held back was used to pay this extra driver.

      Reply

    • Tressa May 6, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      Just because the company is charging $30 an hour for the server, that doesn’t mean that is what they are making. The company I worked for charged $25/hr for waiters, but we only made $15.00, the company kept the rest often to cover event insurance.

      Reply

  • Linda Suchak December 11, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I HIRED A CATERER FOR A MEMORIAL SERVICE. THEY SET UP A BUFFET AT THE FUNERAL HOME WHERE THE SERVICE WAS HELD, BUT THERE WERE NO WAIT STAFF PRESENT. OUR GUESTS HELPED THEMSELVES. THE FOOD WAS DELICIOUS AND BEAUTIFULLY PREPARED, BUT THERE WERE QUITE A FEW LEFTOVERS THAT WE PACKED UP OURSELVES . I THINK THE CATERING STAFF(ONE PERSON CLEANED UP THE REST. WOULD 10% BE AN APPROPRIATE TIP?

    Reply

    • Keita M. December 12, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for the question, Linda. $25-$50 is the standard tip for an individual server so whether 10% was an appropriate tip for your server depends on the total bill. My condolences and I’m happy to hear that the catering went well.

      Reply

  • cara December 13, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    If not at a venue but in your home for a small cocktail party (40) with some passed hors d’euvres and some stationary items, what is appropriate? There is one chef, two servers, 1 bartender. They will bring, prepare, serve and clean up. The estimate was not broken apart for food and service so do not know what is built in.

    Reply

    • Keita M. December 24, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      It sounds like the staff will perform customary tasks so a customary tip is appropriate: I recommend $25-$50 for the servers and bartender and $50-$100 for the chef. Exactly what you tip in that range will depend on the total bill and how well the staff performs. (If they do an excellent job, I tip on the high end of the range. If their performance was satisfactory, I tip on the lower end.) I would also ask the caterer if the tip was included in the bill (it probably isn’t but it can’t hurt to ask!). Have a great party!

      Reply

  • Pam Dooley January 5, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    My husband and I cater crawfish boils and cajun dishes and we never expect a tip but are overjoyed when we receive one. Usually IF someone tips they give us $200. We only cater large parties so the $200 is about 10% of our average bill of $2000.

    Reply

    • Keita M. January 7, 2014 at 12:12 am

      Pam, exactly- tips are not expected but they are definitely appreciated! Thanks for contributing to the conversation (crawfish boils – yum!)

      Reply

  • AJ January 9, 2014 at 9:54 am

    What should you tip if you order food from a catering company, however, they are just delivering the food? I myself set up everything for the event which is usually an office meeting.

    Reply

    • Keita M. January 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm

      Since the person is delivering but not setting up or serving the food, I believe that a “driver’s” tip is appropriate – maybe $10-$20, depending on the size of the order, if they bring the food into the event area vs leaving it in the delivery area, etc. Use what you would tip another delivery person that is making a large delivery (such as furniture) as a guide. Thanks for the question, AJ

      Reply

  • Christina January 17, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    I’m glad someone wrote this. I have been in the catering industry for 10 years as a catering staff and event manager. I wanted to add something: I agreed to have case tip or write a check at the end of the night of the event. They would really appreciate it. When our tip go “on the bill” the catering office tend to not give us the fair amount and of course we can’t ask how much the tip was to see if it was split fairly. Also Uncle Sam love to take a piece of your hard earn tip.

    There is nothing wrong if you are host to ask how many staff will be working the event so you can individually tip everyone at the end of the night. Sometime the chefs leave before the event because they are not needed at the end of the event for breakdown.

    Reply

    • Keita M. January 19, 2014 at 12:52 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Christina. And you make a good point that certain staff may not stay until the end of the event to break down, which is when most hosts distribute tips. When the client asks how many staff will work the event, they can also ask if any staff are scheduled to leave before the end.

      Reply

    • Lisa September 13, 2015 at 8:10 am

      Christina, you brought up a good point about chefs who leave early. Our cateres arrive in 4 hours here for my party today so thank you for the heads up. Uncle Sam takes a huge chunk out of EVERY paycheck we bring in. That’s not a selling point to me. If you don’t like paying so many taxes vote To show it or else declare your cash earnings so you pay your fair share like the rest of us who get W-2s.

      Reply

  • Vilma January 18, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Very nice article, just what I needed.

    Reply

    • Keita M. January 18, 2014 at 10:17 pm

      Glad you liked the article, Vilma.

      Reply

      • Linda May 26, 2014 at 8:02 pm

        I am still confused. I just had a very expensive, large dinner party for 60 at my home. The caterer charged me between $140 and $200 per hour for each of the 4 staff – Chef, Chef Assistant, Bartender and Waiter. The work was extensive and they did a great job, but with the hourly fees of a total of $1800 and the total food bill of $3,900, I don’t know what to tip. 18% of the food bill seems excessive. Please give me some advice.

        Reply

  • Jessie February 4, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Hey there! Quick question: I’m having my wedding at a summer camp where I also happen to work. The kitchen staff is salary-based, so they try not to work other hourly employees unless they have to. The meal is running like a camp meal (buffet style for 45 minutes) and the “kitchen ladies” are also wedding attendees who are giving me a lot of their services as a wedding gift. I’m essentially only paying for food.
    That said, I would love to tip them anyway. They are the hub of camp in the summer and are going out of their way to make my day something special. The gift of service takes the bill to a nominal charge of less than $100. Would $20/each be acceptable?

    Reply

  • Drew March 18, 2014 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for this information. We have a charity BBQ coming up in May. The caterer quoted $6.50 all inclusive. He’ll bring his rig to the site, set out the food and pack up. Any tip would cut into our charity. Please advise.

    Reply

  • Brandi April 18, 2014 at 9:15 am

    We are ordering food from caterers for a party. It is a husband and wife team and we are going to pick up the food ourselves. We are picking it up the day before so we are responsible for heating and serving it. What is the tip etiquette here since they are only preparing the food for us?

    Reply

  • Khalifah May 22, 2014 at 11:11 am

    I am new to event planning and many points were raised in this thread that are very helpful to me, thank you.

    Reply

  • Karen June 30, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    I’m having a family reunion of about 30 people in July. The catering company is preparing the food and getting it ready for transport. I’m picking it up at their kitchen and returning their pans, serving utensils, etc after the event. There is the customary 18% service charge added and its stated that this is not a gratuity. How much should I tip? Thanks!!

    Reply

  • Viviana August 5, 2014 at 1:51 am

    Ok…so here is why I am not sure how to tip.

    My catering bill is broken up as follows:

    $ 108 Coffee Equipment Rental
    $ 87 Kitchen Equipment Rental
    $ 25 Serving Equipment Rental
    $ 55 Delivery
    $2,747 Service Charge (for 3 servers, two bartenders, one floor supervisor & back of house staff)
    Contract specifies that this does not include gratuity
    $ 900 Hors D’Oevres
    $2,250 Dinner
    $ 450 Bar Mixer Package (we are providing alcohol)
    $ 80 Coffee Service

    So do I tip on the total of all of this or just on the food & service total?

    Reply

  • John B August 14, 2014 at 12:34 am

    I am throwing a party at my house for 40 people. I have a bartender making drinks, I am supplying the liquor. He charges me $20/hr. I asked him not to have a tip jar out so my friends don’t feel obligated and I will tip him. When I asked him how to do that, if he keeps track of drinks or something, he said tipping is a gratuity and not required. He leaves it up to me. I admire that, but I don’t want to under tip him out of ignorance. Assuming he does a great job, does doubling his hourly rate make sense? A little more?

    Reply

  • Molly August 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    What should I tip if there is a service charge but the invoice says “server gratuity not included?” I am having a party for 60 people and the chef and one server will do set up, butler pass, and clean up. There is a $125 charge on the bill to have chef and server stay the duration. Do I tip them each separately (and how much?) or do I just slap a 20% tip on the bill. The bill, including the $125 charge is about $1800.

    Reply

  • Sam September 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    My friend used an agency to find a personal chef for her Husband’s 50th Birthday dinner in her home. There was a contract written and payment was sent to the agency. $500 for the chef and approx $375 for food – 8 people for dinner. She also paid another $150 for a service fee (finding the chef). There will only be a chef – no servers. The Chef will buy the food, prepare the food in the home and is expected to clean up after. Would you still recommend a tip of $50-$100 for the chef in this instance? Thank you for your input.

    Reply

  • Kathleen September 8, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    I am having an event where we are ordering food from a restaurant/caterer, which will be delivered to the venue already cooked. The food will be set up as a buffet but there were be 2 servers on site for 3 hours to help setup and clean up. The caterer charges $25/hour for each server. What would be an appropriate tip for each server? Do we need to give anyone else at the company a tip?

    We are also hiring a bartender from an agency for $40/hour for 8 hours. We purchased all the alcohol ourselves and everything will be open bar. What is an appropriate tip for the bartender?

    Reply

  • Janis Chevalier October 13, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Do you tip the chef if the Chef is the owner of the business and personally puts on the event in your home? This was an event for about 50 people. We also had a bartender whom we tipped but I never know what I should do about the owner.

    Reply

    • Keita M. January 8, 2016 at 2:02 pm

      Yes, we definitely understand your dilemma! We can see why it seems odd to tip an owner. However, if you think of the tip as a reflection of your happiness with the service (which is the what we recommend), we recommend that you also tip the Chef. Hope the event went well!

      Reply

    • jeri dexter January 18, 2016 at 1:35 pm

      I had a cocktail party for 50 guests.
      I paid $3500. to the chefs who shopped for food etc.
      The bartenders, servers, delivery and food were paid seperatly..
      What sort of a tip should I give the chefs?

      Reply

      • Keita M. January 18, 2016 at 8:21 pm

        Thanks for the question. In our area, $50-100 per chef is typical. This range seems appropriate for you because not only did your chefs act as chef’s at the party, but they also shopped for food, etc before the event. Hope the event went well!

        Reply

  • Janeria October 23, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Question,
    What if you’re renting out a restaurant, and it’s left up to you to tip the waiters, what then? I’m renting out a restaurant for about $8000, do I tip the waiters on hand 18% of that? I’m not sure how to proceed.

    Reply

  • sofia December 30, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Great article, clear and to the point. But I do have a question regarding setting tables and chairs and removed then after the party. How much should I asked to a company who required this services from us? Thank you very much. :)

    Reply

    • Keita M. January 8, 2016 at 1:54 pm

      Hi Sofia! We recommend that you tip the workers that do the work of setting up and breaking tables and chairs down directly. Does this answer your question?

      Reply

  • Jennie Gilchrist February 7, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    please sign me up for newsletter.

    Reply

  • Ivy April 1, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    I’m a Sales manager for a mid size catering company in Chicago. I was a recent bride as well and had to work with a preferred list of other vendors. It is common here to have gratuity as an option with the suggestion of 18-20% of Food and Beverage as appropriate. The average catering staff member makes $10-12 an hour and often has a large set up and break down. They work pretty hard to make your event great, so a tip for great execution is well deserved. It is best to give cash to the event captain. Beware of service fees because most of the time the staff never sees that. Anything on your contract that says gratuity should go to staff.

    Reply

  • Colleen April 13, 2015 at 12:17 am

    Our chef bills for his time and the staff time, in addition to the catered food costs. Gratuity is added to the bill. Should this gratuity be based on the cost of food plus chef/staff time, or just on the food? I feel that in a restaurant, gratuity is based on both, since cost of staff and chef are factored into the pricing. Additionally, most caterers who do not bill separately for the time of the chef/staff build that cost into food pricing as well.

    Reply

  • Marilyn May 22, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    I hired a cater for a luncheon. It was delivered, with a delivery fee and setup. No staff was required it was a buffet and I cleaned up and I washed their serving dishes and am returning to their business. I was very pleased with the food and setup. What would be the appropriate tip?
    The total amount was $1200?

    Reply

  • Lisa S. September 25, 2015 at 4:46 am

    Great article, comments, and questions! We are having an at-home party with approx 65 guests. The caterers and service staff are a separate company than the bartender and event planning/coordinating company. Your article is very helpful with what needs to be considered. Since the article is a few years old, are the listed percentages/numbers still appropriate numbers in 2015? Also, I don’t want my guests to feel obligated to tip the bartender. Are there any etiquette rules on letting guests or bartender know we will tip at the end of the night? Our party will also have entertainment acts that are brought in by the event planning/coordinating company. Does each act receive tips? Would we include this as a lump sum to the coordinator at the end of the night?

    Reply

  • Lucy A. October 17, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    We recently hosted a baby shower for my daughter at a catering hall. The food was served buffet style. Our group consisted of 48 people yet they only had one member of their staff tend to the tables with the assistance of the catering manager. The bill was approximately $1,400, and included in this total was a 20% gratuity. I thought this charge was outrageous. Is this the going rate or am I justified in thinking 20% gratuity was too much for the service provided?

    Reply

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