Tip buffet servers less than restaurant servers, but tip well for great service
As with a restaurant, a buffet can be a bargain or a bit pricey, depending upon the variety and quality of foods served. Likewise, the amount of tip given to a buffet server should be based on a percentage of the meal's price and the quality of service, but that's where things get different.
Buffet percentage tipping
While the going rate for tipping servers in restaurants runs from 15 to 20 percent on average, tips for buffet servers average only 10 percent. The downgraded tip amount is because a buffet server generally provides less service than a typical restaurant server. For instance, at a sit-down restaurant, the server may take your drink order, deliver drinks, take your food order and sometimes even deliver the food to your table. The server will also check up on you several times during your meal before delivering the check.
In a typical buffet-style setting, the server brings the drinks and possibly the cutlery and napkins, then refills drinks or clears plates as needed. The buffet server will also fetch items such as steak sauce, hot sauce or a cup of coffee for the dessert round, but only upon request. There's less work for the buffet server since patrons fill their own plates and take them to their tables.
Tipping without percentages
Instead of tipping a specific percentage of the price of the meal, some buffet diners choose to tip the server $1 to $2 per person served. If the buffet server provides only basic service and is hard to find when you really want extra assistance, $1 may do. Likewise, if the server goes above and beyond and brings extra drinks, plates or items to your table or provides exceptional service, a tip of $2 or even more is appropriate.
Tipping based on the buffet's services
The 10-percent or $1-$2 tip rule applies to typical buffets in which the server brings drinks to the table and takes used plates away. If the buffet has a self-serve beverage station, a $1 tip is appropriate, unless the server provides exceptional service. At any type of buffet, pay attention to how much work the server does on your behalf and figure the tip accordingly.
While buffets don't typically add gratuity to a bill automatically, they may do so for parties that are larger than a standard table size. For instance, if tables and booths seat four but your party has seven diners, the buffet restaurant may add a gratuity to the bill up front. Many buffets display such information on their websites or on signage at the cashier's counters. If unsure and dining with a party of more than four, ask the cashier if the gratuity will be added in automatically.
If the gratuity is added to your bill up front, there's no need to pay the server an extra tip, but feel free to do so for exceptional service.