British Columbia

The secret to better service at Chinese restaurants during Lunar New Year

Handing out red envelopes to service staff is a little known tradition that can usher in goodwill and great service around the Lunar New Year and beyond.

Usher in goodwill for the Lunar New Year with red envelopes for staff in service industry

In 2014, then Liberal leader Justin Trudeau handed out lucky red envelopes to celebrate the Lunar New Year during a meet and greet with the Chinese Freemasons at the Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

If you plan on heading to your favourite Chinese restaurant for the Lunar New Year, there's a simple way to get in the wait staff's good books and it's not just tipping, says a Vancouver food writer.

But you'll still have to pay up by channelling your inner choi sun, or fortune god, and hand out lucky money.

"​Depending on who they are, you might slip them a big envelope or a little envelope — everyone gets one," says Lee Man.

Red envelopes, or lai see in Cantonese, are typically given to children by married couples. But, the tradition has grown in the Chinese community to include service staff, particularly at restaurants.

Man says if you're considered regular patron, this is a way to show appreciation for year-round service, similar to Christmas gifts for your postal worker or barista.

CBC Radio finance columnist Mark Ting's children were thrilled about their Lunar New Year red envelopes filled with "lucky money" in 2015. Now, the restaurant industry is cashing in too. (Mark Ting)

Staff reciprocate with the intangibles that can make a dining experience special.

"They remember who you are, they remember your favourite foods, they make sure that you get a nice table when there's one available, they remember what your favourite tea is ... it's really about relationship building," he said.

How and when to do it

Man, who is also a restaurant critic, gives envelopes to all front of house staff.

Those on the receiving end are expected to offer wishes for good health and prosperity, before being handed the envelope, preferably with both hands to show respect.

"I'm going to be going to dim sum hopefully tomorrow ... and they'll come up and that is going to be a $100 dim sum meal for me."

Man admits he's on the far end of the generosity spectrum because he gives $10 per envelope and up to $20 for managers.

Most people, like his mother, generally give $5 per envelope and twice that for managers.

"You don't tip particularly well at Chinese restaurants," Man explained. "This is how you show that you have a relationship with the service industry."

Food writer and Chinese restaurant critic Lee Man says his wallet may take a hit around the Lunar New Year but he's happy to oblige when it comes red envelopes.

If it all seems a bit steep, he says not to be too concerned about the amount because it's about the gesture and, most servers get so many envelopes, they probably won't know what you handed them.

Too much pressure to pay

One warning though, Man says the whole experience can get a bit "hawkish" this time of year as restaurant workers try to cash in.

"No one takes time off around Chinese New Year," he remarked.

"The places are overstaffed cuz everyone's going to come up to your table and wish you a Happy New Year and you better have those envelopes ready if you're a regular at any of these places."

When he lived in Hong Kong, he says he saw restaurants empty out around the Lunar New Year, typically the busiest time of year, because of the demands around the tradition.

It can feel like a lot of pressure so he recommends being strategic with restaurants choices because there should be no expectation of red envelopes if staff don't know or remember you.

But if you want to change that, he says now's the time you can do something about it.