Local food delivery drivers rely on tips to make a sustainable income

SOCIAL SCIENTIST: Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. delivery driver Patrick Kirk says he's interested in keeping tabs on factors that impact tips, from customer age, order size, delivery distance and using certain polite phrases, to wearing his hair up or down. Photo courtesy of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co.

Most restaurant diners know that wait staff who provide excellent service should receive a 20% tip. But when it comes to their industry peers who deliver food to customers’ houses, proper etiquette is significantly hazier.

Further complicating matters are delivery fees that are frequently tacked on to orders. How much of that amount goes to the driver is rarely clear, as is knowing whether a tip on top of the fee is expected or merely a welcome bonus.

Brick-and-mortar parity

“We hope that people will tip the same way that they would at a restaurant,” says Megan Watts, director of sales and marketing for Takeout Central.

Founded in Chapel Hill, the company states on its Facebook page’s “About” tab that it “provides restaurant marketing, residential delivery and corporate catering from all of your favorite restaurants” in Asheville, plus the North Carolina Triad, Triangle and Wilmington. Takeout Central and fellow third-party delivery services such as Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats have become popular options for people to supplement their income. However, Watts says, the poor policies of some competitors — from inflated payment structures to withholding tips to not responding to drivers when they have questions or concerns — have led to more customer inquiries about exactly what goes to her company’s drivers, aka Delivery Heroes.

“Our base delivery fee is $3.49,” Watts says. “Drivers start out getting $3 of that, and then 50 cents gets added each time the distance increases to the next level.”

She refers to the three delivery tiers based on mileage that range from $3.49-$7.49 for the customer. Takeout Central also gives Delivery Heroes “slightly more than the base delivery fee” once they reach 300 orders, and they always get to keep 100% of their tips. But as private contractors, they must provide their own vehicle and aren’t reimbursed for gas, vehicle maintenance and other related costs. Watts says Takeout Central attempts to compensate by giving Delivery Heroes gas cards when prices spike and as gifts for reaching milestones or birthdays.

“They also get the opportunity to grow with us as a company,” she says. “Most of our office staff are former drivers from both Valet Gourmet [which merged with Takeout Central in 2016] and Takeout Central.”

Delivery culture

Still, Watts notes that “tipping is a necessary part of [Delivery Heroes’] payment to make delivery driving a sustainable income.” Roman Braverman, owner of Roman’s Deli & Catering, concurs and encourages customers to treat his company’s drivers “how you would want to be treated.”

Hourly wages at Roman’s increase the longer employees are with the restaurant, which uses company vehicles for most deliveries and covers the cost of gas when personal vehicles are necessary. The restaurant serves five delivery zones that carry a higher minimum order and corresponding delivery fee the farther away the customer is from downtown. Braverman says the amount of the delivery fee that goes to the driver likewise varies, and all tips are pooled and split evenly among the entire staff.

Meanwhile, Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. pays its drivers $8 per hour and gives them $2.25 out of each $3 delivery fee, plus 100% of tips. Like Takeout Central drivers, they must pay for gas and provide their own vehicle, which company President Mike Rangel acknowledges can cause wear and tear to the interior and exterior of the automobile, though he adds that the compensation — which he believes is the highest for food delivery drivers in the city — is why he has several employees who’ve stuck with the job for over 20 years.

Also helping keep money in his drivers’ pockets is a greater societal awareness of the importance of tipping, says Rangel. He points to Asheville’s large number of service industry workers who know the impact of tips as well as the normalization of delivery in people’s lives, from groceries to alcohol to new cars.

One of the newest additions to the Asheville Pizza fleet is Patrick Kirk, who’s been delivering since shortly after moving to town in April. Though he appreciates every tip, which he’s well aware is an extra amount on top of the delivery fee, he says he almost doesn’t want to expect gratuity despite it being an industry standard.

Kirk calls customer tipping “hit or miss,” citing regular customers who give roughly 50% on $15 orders, to larger orders in the $50 range that net him a mere $5 gratuity. Among the patterns he’s noticed are that tourists at hotels tend to tip well — $10 is the norm for supper — while lunch orders at various offices and Mission Hospital typically garner lower amounts.

He feels that customers who tip well understand the value of service, and he primarily sees this awareness with evening orders, which he says are often placed when people are coming home from work, have kids to feed and are too tired or simply don’t want to cook. Their meal then arrives around the same time the customers get home, and the appreciation is evident, from the verbal thanks from the adults to other members of the family.

“The kids are always excited, and even the pets. The dogs are always so happy to see us, and I’m like, ‘Can I pet your dog?’” Kirk says. “I think people appreciate it, and they know it’s a convenience for them, and that’s probably why the tips are higher at nighttime for dinner rush.”

There’s also the fact that delivery drivers at all three aforementioned businesses aren’t getting paid simply to bring people food. Kirk and his colleagues do plentiful prep work for the restaurant, including cutting vegetables and making sauces. Depending on the order, they also bring plates, napkins, plasticware, extra toppings such as Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes, plus cups for drinks.

“They probably see us just bringing the food, but we’re answering the phones, we’re taking the orders, we’re processing all the orders, and then we’re making sure everything is right, and then we’re driving it out there,” Kirk says. “It takes a little bit of time and effort on our end to make sure that what they see at their door is exactly what they ordered.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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7 thoughts on “Local food delivery drivers rely on tips to make a sustainable income

  1. dyfed

    This just in, tipped employees live off of tips, more on this as the story develops

  2. Johnny to the A

    Waitstaff and delivery drivers should not receive the same tip percentage. Waitstaff generally provides service throughout the experience/visit.

    Hand me a coffee, to go bag or the like and you may receive 10% if you are lucky.

    The real answer is for individuals to make better life decisions (including residing in a city with career options) and not burdening others with their existence.

    • Walter Sobchak

      “The real answer is for individuals to make better life decisions (including residing in a city with career options) and not burdening others with their existence.”


        • C-Law

          Taxpayer subsidized guaranteed universal income, tuition free universal college education, universal cradle to grave free healthcare, and free minimum universal housing….and citizenship should not be necessary to receive these basic human rights.

          I fixed it all! Everyone’s welcome! :)

          • bsummers

            Making the upper 0.1% pay the same tax rate that they paid in the 50’s would pretty much cover all of that.

            Oops, sorry – that’s just crazy talk!

  3. Anabeth

    Megan Watts’ expectation is way off base. I tip 20% at a restaurant because I am seated, served, checked on and cleaned up after. When your drivers do the same, they can expect a commensurate tip. The grauity is a thank you for the value I receive, which includes sitting down at a table that has been set and not doing the dishes. Any drivers who expect 20% should become servers.

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