Sunday, June 16, 2024

Do I have to leave a tip at a takeout restaurant?

Is it wrong not to leave a tip at a takeout restaurant?

Each state in the United States sets its own minimum wage law, but in most states there is a different, lower, minimum wage set for employees who receive tips as part of their compensation. Tips may be customary at many restaurants and for many employees, and these tips might bring what they earn up to that state’s minimum wage. But it’s challenging for diners to know if they are tipping to help their server make a living wage or if they are tipping to reflect good service offered, or both.

Unless a restaurant has a posted automatic gratuity policy, which some establishments use for large parties, diners are still left to determine how much if anything to tip. Once they do decide to tip, do they calculate the tip on the pre-tax bill total? Do they leave 15% of the bill? Twenty percent? More?

Some restaurants offer a handy guide at the bottom of each bill to indicate how much varying percentage tips would amount to. This saves diners from having to whip out their phone’s calculator to do the math. It also signals to diners that while a tip might not be required, it’s an accepted norm that one would be considered.

A question arose, however, from a reader we’re calling Bill about whether it’s wrong not to leave a tip where no table service is involved. Bill wants to know if he goes to pick up a pizza or orders a cup of coffee and a doughnut or waits at a counter for a clam strip plate if he should be expected to leave a tip with the person collecting his money.

While it may strike some customers as annoying, many takeout establishments have a built-in option for tipping when they use some point-of-sale software to settle the bill. In other words, a screen pops up with various percentage options for a tip that then gets added to the bill. Again, this sends a message to customers like Bill that, yes, tipping is customary and likely expected, even at those takeout places he likes to frequent. (Those big tip jars on the counter also send a similar albeit low-tech signal.)

But that doesn’t answer Bill’s question about whether it’s wrong to not leave a tip at some places. The right thing is for Bill and others to decide how much gratuity should be left. And while they can think whatever they want about the customer, the right thing for whomever is collecting payment is not to treat the customer any worse if he or she or they decides to forgo tipping. On occasion, lousy tippers get outed on social media. While the venting may feel good, I’m not convinced such shaming results in converting lousy tippers to good ones.

For me, I choose to tip well for good service (even at takeout) not just because it’s the norm in the United States, but because it’s clear, if we’re paying attention, how hard most restaurant workers work and because it helps them make a living wage.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


1 comment:

NathanH said...

Mr. Seglin,

I'm not sure you answered the question. If you are going to write the article, shouldn't you do the research to find out if those cashiers/employees are allowed to be paid less due to the fact that they can accept tips.
I, for one thing, will never tip where there is a tip jar if I know such employee makes at least state standard minimum wage or more.
So, you are saying at the County Fair I should tip the concession stand after just paying $8 for a small fry? Please Mr. Seglin, tell us which employees are allowed to earn below minimum wage due to that fact that THE STATE allows them to collect tips, and you will find your answer there.