In the US, there is an expectation of almost always tipping certain service providers like waiters and bartenders. Generally, it is expected that customers tip 15% for ordinary service, 20% or more for great service (or when in a large group), and even poor service is supposed to merit 10%. Tipping nothing is considered appropriate only for extremely bad behavior from the service provider.

Whenever the topic comes up, many people are enraged at the suggestion of not tipping. It's not unheard of for service providers to harass the customer or even throw them out for refusing to tip, and it is easy to find people claiming that they go further and sabotage the customer by spitting in their food, deliberately serving them very poorly, trashing their car, etc.

My question is 2 part:

  • Is there any legal obligation whatsoever for the customer to tip? I know some businesses have a mandatory minimum tip or service charge which is clearly shown in writing, I am excluding these from my question.
  • Is it legal for the employee to retaliate against a bad tipper? Even if the customer tipped nothing, they still paid the price of the service, part of which covers the employee's paycheck as well. What minimum level of service is a customer reasonably entitled to expect, legally speaking, even if they do not tip?
  • Are you openly declaring that you don't plan on tipping before the meal or whatever activity? – Brizzy Sep 9 '18 at 4:18
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    Leaving a tip, or not, is the last thing a customer normally does before leaving. How could someone who didn't tip be meaningfully "thrown out"? How could a server spit in the food of, or give poor service to, someone who has already finished their meal? Trashing the car is at least possible, but would require the server to (1) know which car is the customer's and (2) get there before the customer, who probably has a good head start, reaches it and drives away. – phoog Sep 9 '18 at 5:38
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    Furthermore, in New York at least, common wisdom is that even if the restaurant adds a service charge to the bill, it is not required to pay it. I don't know the legal basis for this claim. – phoog Sep 9 '18 at 5:39
  • @Brizzy Normally, I suppose people don't. But would it make a difference? – Consis Sep 9 '18 at 20:22
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    @phoog You can be thrown out on a repeat visit to the business. Also, eg. in the case of a bar, often customers order drinks several times, and tip each one separately. Even if you were tipping just before leaving, being yelled at and thrown out by the staff is obviously not the same as just leaving normally. – Consis Sep 9 '18 at 20:24

You are perfectly within your rights not to tip. Unless you start your dining experience with "I'm not going to be tipping you tonight, just to let you know." you will get the same service as anyone else.

Most businesses are within their rights to ask you to leave for any reason except those explicitly prohibited by law. So conceivably if you started off with the preceding sentence, the manager could ask you to leave.

Not tipping wait staff at most restaurants is still an awful thing to do. No customers like tipping.

Unfortunately, tipped staff can and usually are paid well below conventional minimum wage. That they can be is codified into law and would take a substantial amount of effort to change. Business owners are able to push the cost of paying their employees a livable wage onto their customers, and we are forced to accept it.

It's a hideously flawed system that is ever so slowly changing, but it doesn't change the fact that if everyone decided not to tip, wait staff in 95% of restaurants wouldn't be able to survive on their 'wages'.

So you are within your rights not to tip, you probably won't suffer anything negative unless you are aggressively up front about the fact that you aren't going to tip, and you will be punishing the person with the least power in the equation for the fact that you don't like how the system works over here.

Tipping a bartender is different and usually less necessary, and more likely to be drink is four bucks and a bit, here's a fiver keep the change. Tipping less or more than that may change the speed at which you get refills or attention.

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    "Business owners are able to push the cost of paying their employees a livable wage onto their customers, and we are forced to accept it." If tipping were forbidden, business owners would still push the cost of paying their employees onto customers, by raising prices. An owner of a business that can't make money will normally close the business. In New York, at least (where $4 drinks are rare), if a tipped employee's tips are not enough to bring the earnings up to the minimum wage for untipped employees, the employer is supposed to make up the difference. I suspect that doesn't always happen. – phoog Sep 9 '18 at 5:45
  • @phoog: I believe that is the law everywhere in the US; at least, it is true of federal minimum wage as well, and it is also the case in California. – sharur Sep 10 '18 at 16:21
  • Regarding tipped staff being paid below minimum wage, I was under the impression that they are actually guaranteed to earn at least the MW and if the tips are not enough the employer makes it up: webapps.dol.gov/elaws/faq/esa/flsa/002.htm Of course MW is still a very small amount of money, and not livable in many places, but that's a separate matter. – Consis Sep 13 '18 at 20:22

Is there any legal obligation whatsoever for the customer to tip? I know some businesses have a mandatory minimum tip or service charge which is clearly shown in writing, I am excluding these from my question.

No. There is no such legal obligation.

Is it legal for the employee to retaliate against a bad tipper?

It depends on the method for retaliation. For instance, some conduct might be disorderly or violent enough to be sanctioned by the penal code, or it might subject the customer to a risk of communicable diseases/infections, or reasonably cause the customer to feel frightened/harassed, etc.


Part One: Tipping is not required by law but there is a social stigma about not tipping, to the point that tipping anything below 20% will make most Americans blush, even if the service is exceptionally crummy. Tipping in the U.S. is a reward system that allows the customer to reward exceptional service and punish abysmal service. It is not unheard of for customers who will tip 0% to leave a note detailing reasons why they found the service so bad that they left no reward. On the flip side, it's not unheard of for over 20% tips to come in. Famously Far Right Talking Head Rush Limbaugh is rumored to leave tips of at least 100% for his meals and several other nice celebrities are known to have a larger tip than necessary.

Most minimum wage laws do allow employers who have employees receiving tips to pay well under minimum wage, but these can same employees can make in excess of minimum wage depending on the night, the type of restaurant, and even the section of tables they are working.

Part 2:

Depends on the retaliation. Staff may sit bad tippers with consistently poor staff, but this is anecdotal. Teenagers are typically the worst across the board tippers so they tend to receive slower service as are some foreigners where tipping is not practiced as regularly (in Japan, for example, tipping is considered extremely rude, as it implies that the individual receiving the tip will soon be out of a job for their poor work, and will need the cash to help out during this time). As mentioned else where, endangering the health of a customer such as spitting in the food of a consistently poor tipper is illegal. Either way, retaliation is not the best course of action because the key to a better tip is better service.

As a final rule, since it is not discussed, counter service that put out a tip jar has a lower expectation to receive a tip for service and there is little stigma against not tipping at these places than there is for not tipping at a dining service.

  • tipping anything below 20% will make most Americans blush, even if the service is exceptionally crummy - Consumer reports says 15-20% is normal for acceptable service. – MaxB Nov 17 '20 at 23:54

First, you got one thing wrong. The employees wage is not what the employer pays. The employees wage is what the employer pays, PLUS the tips that customers pay. By not tipping, even if legal, you are stiffing the employee. The employee then is perfectly entitled to think that you are a tightarse, and to hate you, and to make your life bad in any possible legal way. If you announce ahead of time that you are not tipping, then the employee is perfectly entitled to refuse you service.

If the system was different with no tipping, the salary paid would be a lot higher, and the cost of eating in a restaurant would be a lot higher. So you are just trying to exploit the system, and everyone else will feel that you behave in a disgusting way.

  • This and the answer by @Brizzy rather touch on socio-economic (rather than legal) aspects. I am mindful of --and sympathetic toward-- waiters with low wages, but OP should not be blackmailed into subsidizing the restaurant industry by tipping. Restaurant owners should start to think how to improve waiters' wages, and let supply & demand work this out. But patrons complaining about a reasonable increase of menu prices would be as hypocritical as owners' inaction. – Iñaki Viggers Sep 9 '18 at 12:42
  • See my second paragraph. The system works just fine except for freeloaders like the OP. – gnasher729 Sep 9 '18 at 15:01
  • That is exactly what I mean by blackmailing the OP. It is wrong to assume that customers have an obligation to subsidize the restaurant industry lest they be called "freeloaders". It is valid (and very honest) for the OP to question whether a patron ought to shoulder the hidden costs of eating out while restaurant owners comfortably look the other way, especially since the patron is not given the option to submit orders and retrieve dishes directly from the cook. If legislators and the electorate really cared, waiters' disadvantageous wages would have been addressed long time ago. – Iñaki Viggers Sep 9 '18 at 15:18
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    This does not answer the question that was asked, which is about legal consequences. – Nate Eldredge Sep 9 '18 at 18:20

There is no legal obligation to tip.

But the restaurant owner or manager can certainly ban you if they want for not tipping. In restaurants where there is a “server” you are getting a service beyond just being cooked a meal. Of course they have a right to expect you to pay for that service.

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    Why would the price in the menu be for cooking only? Does it ever say that? The "right to expect" may be moral (because guests know that waiters rely on tipping) but it is by no means warranted by law. – Greendrake Nov 17 '20 at 21:25

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