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If a restaurant adds the tip to the bill for large parties, even if it’s stated as policy on the menu, is the customer legally bound to pay it?

Amanda Lucci

If the restaurant’s menu clearly states that a large-party gratuity will be added, yes, you are required to pay it, said Diane Withrow, hotel and restaurant management program coordinator at Cape Fear Community College.

“It’s like if it said on the menu, ‘We’re charging for water,’ ” Withrow said. At the same time, “If I get terrible service and I say, ‘Look, this was ridiculous,’ it would be the same as removing (food) that’s substandard.”

Servers usually make less than minimum wage, so the majority of their paycheck comes from tips. If a server spends an extended amount of time on a larger party and the party decides not to tip them, that costs the server a lot of money. That’s why it’s common for most restaurants to add an automatic gratuity to the bill for a big party, an outside catering event, or even on prom nights, Withrow said.

“They’ve posted that that’s the charge, just like a hotel could post, ‘If you stay past checkout time, we’ll charge you for another night,'” she said. “It’s posted, so it gives them the right to do it.”

All of the local restaurants we talked to have some type of policy for a large-party gratuity, but none were opposed to removing the tip if service was terrible.

And many servers may choose not to add gratuity to a larger party’s bill, even if the menu says it will be added. If a server thinks you’ll tip even higher than the required percentage, they’ll often remove the automatic gratuity.

Withrow encourages customers to complain if they receive poor service, but she also said customers should think twice before being reluctant to tip.

“People have gotten very used to being in control over the pay of the server,” Withrow said. “I find it very interesting how people can be very reluctant. You got waited on, didn’t you?”

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27 Responses to “ If a restaurant adds the tip to the bill for large parties, even if it’s stated as policy on the menu, is the customer legally bound to pay it?”

  1. On July 22, 2010 at 5:13 pm roscoe wrote:

    Generally, I don’t have a problem with the tip being added in, unless the service was terrible. It saves me the trouble of doing the math. If the service does not meet my standards I doubt I’d make a scene when the server has my credit card number. I just wouldn’t go back, unless it was a favorite restaurant and the service is usually good. The bigger question is, by adding the tip into the bill, isn’t that charging some patrons more for a product (food) than others? That doesn’t seem right.

  2. On July 23, 2010 at 11:48 pm Alex wrote:

    Actually, at most restaurants, the servers make $2.13 an hour. So the vast majority of the income that they make is from tips. Even on small bills ($30-40), leaving no tip at all impacts a server greatly. There are also some restaurants that don’t automatically add on the tip, so be sure to ask your server just to make sure. If service is poor, speak with a manager & find out if there was a reason beyond the control of the server (i.e. short staffed or kitchen problems). There are many different things to take into consideration when tipping. So keep that in mind.

  3. On July 24, 2010 at 10:01 am Shaun Colley wrote:

    Also since many waiters make less than minimum wage, if the waiter does not make it back to minimum wage in tips, then the restaurant is required by law to pay the employee enough to have minimum wage.

  4. On July 25, 2010 at 2:18 am Jordan wrote:

    I hate that they can add a tip! Honestly, I usually tip well above the recommended 18% (usually closer to 25% or up to 50% depending on the cost of the meal) if the service is not bad. But if they add on the tip, I dont give them a penny more! It is just greedy! The definition of gratuity is: gift of money, over and above payment due for service, as to a waiter or bellhop; tip. Therefore I should not be forced to fork it over…no matter how long it takes you or how much effort you put into it! However, I am more than happy to give a “gift” to anyone deserving of it!

  5. On July 25, 2010 at 6:09 am A server wrote:

    In all honesty, the gratuity added to a large party should be considered the bare minimum. It’s relatively easy to get drinks, food, other necessary items out to two people–not so easy for 20 people. So yes it will take 5 times longer to get the drinks out, 5 times longer to ring in the food, during which everyone has sucked down their drinks, and then the kitchen has to get all of that food out at one time, hot and the way you wanted it. It will also take longer to get the check out to you, if you want it split more than a couple ways and longer to process your payment. If you have no problem tipping a server 15%(often, hopefully, more) for good service for two, why wouldn’t you reward them with a greater percentage for doing an admirable job of handling a larger party.
    As a server, deciding whether to add gratuity to a large party is always tricky. Do you take the guaranteed percentage and pray they’ll leave more? As soon as you mention there is gratuity on the bill someone will surely say “oh the tip is already on there, you don’t need to leave her anymore.” OR do you take a risk and not grat them, hoping that they’ll leave more than what the gratuity would have been and that you are not screwing yourself out of a tip?

  6. On July 25, 2010 at 10:12 am becca wrote:

    also, on big parties if you don’t tip at all or even enough, sometimes servers end up paying for you to eat out. Servers tip out usually on sales (usually around 3%), so if you have a big group and your check adds up to $200 and you just don’t tip, it’s like the server just paid $6 for you to eat there, and that’s not even including the taxes they pay. if you can’t afford to tip, eat at burger king.

  7. On July 25, 2010 at 11:00 am Server in a cooperate restaraunt in town.... wrote:

    Thank you so much for standing up for the servers all over. I have tried to spread a message like this one for years. People are un-educated about tipping and how much a server makes. $2.13 an hour. 80% percent of people tip 20% on great service. 18% for good. 15% was ok. 10% if the service was bad. Thanks again.

  8. On July 28, 2010 at 3:51 pm SUSAN wrote:

    This is concerning the question about the gratuity that is added in on your bill. We went to a local restaurant here in Wilmington (Hiro’s) that added the gratuity on to your bill if you were in a group of 6 or more. If you sit at their tables your are sitting in a group of 6 or more. My husband and I were sitting at table with a group of strangers. We still got charged with gratuity. Are we required to pay what they had on the bill. We did pay it but not more than that amount. They would have made more on the tip but it did not seem right the way they did it so they were paid what they stated and not more. The next time we went we received the worst service we have ever received anywhere before. And again they put in the required gratuity. We did not fill this was right. The service was dreadful. In such a situation are you required to pay it? Remember we are not in a large group.

  9. On July 28, 2010 at 3:55 pm Jim Ware wrote:

    We called Hiro Japanese Steak and Seafood House, 222 Old Eastwood Road, and a manager said this must have been a mistake on the server’s part. Like most other restaurants, their policy is to add an automatic gratuity for a party of six or more. If you feel that gratuity has been unfairly added, or that the service does not merit a large tip, you should let the management know.

  10. On July 28, 2010 at 7:24 pm nada wrote:

    I’ve also had bad service experiences at Hiro. Never going back.

  11. On July 30, 2010 at 8:38 am Kristen wrote:

    It makes me crazy for servers to say that as a patron *I* should tip well because they only make $2.13/hr.

    Tips are based on the caliber of the service received, not the server’s wage, period. If someone is reliant on tips to make a decent living, then they should make sure the service their customers are getting is the best it can be.

    Automatic tips are ridiculous. Again, if a server needs the tips to make up the gap, then make sure the service they give their customers merits a good tip. For a large party, it would be perfectly reasonable for a server to say at the very beginning, “I will do my best to keep things up to speed, but with a larger group sometimes it’s more difficult. It’s important to me that you think I took good care of you! Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything.” THAT person is going to get a good tip just for effort even if things happen that are beyond their control.

  12. On August 1, 2010 at 12:46 am Joe wrote:

    Having recently re-entered the world of serving after a 15 year hiatus, I can’t tell you how infuriated I get over how people go out to a restaurant, run a server RAGGED, get GOOD service…& leave a measly tip…& sometimes nothing at all.

    The restaurant I work at pays us $2.13 per hour & they DON’T require a gratuity on large parties. We (the servers) are, however, required to “tip out” to the bar & busboy. Last night 2 girls waited on a party of 38 people. Out of 38 people, THREE left tips. The total was several hundred dollars & by the time they both had to tip out to the bar & busboy…they actually LOST money for the night.

    If you’re going to be in a party of 6 or more you should have to pay a gratuity. I realize that most people tip well, but on a party this size it takes up a great amount of time that you could be spending with 2-3 more tables. If the service is bad you can always talk to a manager and have it taken off (I doubt any manager would say no), but for God’s sake…if you’re going to go out & have someone wait on you & fetch drinks & bring you food, don’t piss & moan & bitch about a measly 15%. Get a life people.

  13. On August 1, 2010 at 8:33 am Curtis wrote:

    In response to Kristins’ response. My feeling is that you have never worked for tips. If you had then you would know what it feels like to put in a full day of work and only make $37.00 (if you get $20.00 in tips)! The same person making minimum wage would make $58.00. All before taxes and tip out (server has to take care of the people taking care of them like the bussers, bartenders, & hosts/hostesses). You seem to think that tipping is ALWAYS based on service. While it should be; it is sometimes based on food temp, the temperature in the restaurant, the music being played, what the hostess was wearing, the kids in the booth behind you….and the list goes on. My point is the server takes the hit and the blame for more things that are NOT in their control than things that are. Like the policy of adding gratuity to a large party check. Several of you say as a way to make a point; as a matter of principal, you will not tip over the added gratuity. Once again, the server suffers and your point is no more made than if you hadn’t eaten there at all. Tipping is an understood etiquette; the server is not your servant; if they were you would be paying them A LOT more than the few dollars for service. Treat them with respect and the way YOU would want to be treated. If you can’t bring yourself to tip an amount that YOU would like to receive then don’t eat at service type restaurants.

  14. On September 14, 2010 at 12:35 am Gene Pittman wrote:

    I have to start this here. I have been a restauraunt owner so I take pride in my convictions. I don’t think working for tips should even exist today. Why should anyone have to go to work to be judged by strangers who could directly effect thier economic survival. I know waiters and waitresses and I can tell you that getting bad service most of the time is out of the waiter or waitresses control. The kitchen is slow….the food is cold..so many things come into play. If your having a bad day will effect what you tip someone. A waiter or waitress gets dressed, uses thier gas to go to work like anyone else. ALL GRATUITIES SHOULD BE BUILT INTO THE BILL! Tips went out with slavery! I am not a waiter or waitress, I am a restauraunt patron that is going to try and change the laws with tipping. Name me any other job that allows other people to look into how much you made (bussers, ect). When you go to work you should get paid. Not if the rest of the world is having a good or bad day…

    We are simply leaving these hard working (needed) employees out in the cold at the end of the day. I’m 57 years of age and let it be known that I am speachless about the fact that this type of employment is still in existence. God bless each and every waiter and waitress that leaves thier home every morning or evening hoping that all the stars line up so they can make a good living. Don’t make them gamble. Don’t make them wonder, Give them thier economic freedom that we all share at our jobs. If a customer wants to tip over and above the automatic gratuity they will in return for the good service. No one should have the right to say I don’t want that waiter or waitress to get paid today. NO ONE!

  15. On September 20, 2010 at 10:58 pm Robert L wrote:

    Federal Law: http://www.dol.gov/dol/topic/wages/wagestips.htm

    “An employer of a tipped employee is only required to pay $2.13 per hour in direct wages if that amount combined with the tips received at least equals the federal minimum wage. If the employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages of at least $2.13 per hour do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage, the employer must make up the difference. Many states, however, require higher direct wage amounts for tipped employees.”

    If your employer doesn’t do this, then he/she is breaking the law. Don’t have the balls to do anything about it? Get another job. Waiters make minimum wage like most everyone else in similar hourly jobs available to unskilled workers… AND they want a hand-out for just doing their job… pfff

  16. On December 6, 2010 at 2:42 am Tom Massie wrote:

    How about restaurant owners start paying more in hourly wages, so people can base their tips on their overall experience.

  17. On March 30, 2011 at 2:22 pm Nick Zachetti wrote:

    I dont’ have a problem with tipping. I do have a problem with mandatory tipping. Which is what they are calling it.

    Being a waiter myself in college, 8 people are at two tables pulled together vs 4 people at two tables separated with separate bills. I don’t see a difference. Except the larger table I can get the items to them at one time easier and only have one big request going vs two which requires twice the trips.

    If the establishment feels that they are overworking because of the tables are just combined, then they should just say ‘surcharge for larger parties’, not gratuity. They are trying to change the definition. Gratuity is a gift, and Ms. Manners says we don’t ask for gifts. It is ok and correct to add a service charge.

    The bottom line is that people feel that they are being forced into literally giving which never sits right.

    Paying for an extra service sits far better with people. Been there.

  18. On June 3, 2011 at 3:24 am anita russo wrote:

    You know what people IN THE SOUTH need to get more educated about tipping their server well for good service received.And people I am from the south. You can gripe and moan about Yankees all you want to but 90% of the people I wait on that are from up North are so much more appreciative of your good service than most people from the south, unless they have been waiters or waitresses themselves.I have been on both sides of the restarant business for 35 yrs. Ive’ been owner, manager, and waitress and if every person could be a waitress or waiter for one day then maybe they would appreciate the great service that the ones of us who truly love what we do strive to give every customer that comes through that door instead of expecting it for free.

  19. On July 3, 2011 at 3:12 pm Lloyd McCoy wrote:

    I don’t tip. But I also rarely go out to eat, but if I do, such as being obligated to go when I am with friends, I definitely don’t tip.

    If I went to a restaurant that included the gratuity, I would bring cash. If the bill was, let’s say, $650 and then with gratuity it was $720, I would just lay down some cash for $650 and then leave the restaurant. I paid for what I ate, and that’s that.

    If you tell me that if I don’t want to tip, then I shouldn’t go out to eat? Hmm, how about, I’m a human being, and I can do whatever I want?

  20. On August 1, 2011 at 9:58 pm Brenda wrote:

    The question is never actually answered…everyone is giving their opinion. Are you LEGALLY bound to pay the added gratuity??

  21. On August 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm JS wrote:

    Does anyone know the legal answer? I tip well, I’d just like to know if you are legally bound to pay an included gratuity that’s on a restaurant bill?

  22. On September 26, 2011 at 9:05 pm Don wrote:

    I asked a similar question of a major restaurant columnist (Steve Barnes) and here is his answer:

    “In New York, police and prosecutors generally hold that a tip is always voluntary, even if the menu says otherwise. In other words, unless there is a signed contract with a set gratuity spelled out, such as for a banquet, tipping is never mandatory. Just printing “A gratuity of 18 percent will be automatically applied to parties of six or more” on the menu doesn’t constitute a contract.

    In a resort town in northern New York in 2003, a man was charged with misdemeanor theft of services after he and his fellow diners argued with managers at a place called Soprano’s Italian and American Grill over the legality of requiring an 18 percent tip for large parties. The local district attorney later dropped the charges, saying that after researching the case she determined the man could not be forced to pay a gratuity.

    In New York City in the late ’90s, after miserable service led a large party to refuse to pay the automatic tip, restaurant staff prevented the group from leaving and called police. The cops declined to get involved. One of the party filed a $7 million lawsuit for false imprisonment and slander, among other things, and settled for having the restaurant make a $10,000 contribution to charity.

    And last year in Pennsylvania, some college students were arrested for nonpayment of a so-called mandatory gratuity, but the charges were dropped.

    In short, if you’re ever in a situation where you and a group dine together in a nonbanquet situation and you feel the service and experience you received does not merit the mandatory gratuity; and — this part is important — you and your group have the stomach (and time) for a situation that could become unpleasant or at least inconvenient before you’re eventually vindicated, then I’d say you should refuse to pay and make them call the cops. Staff assumes no one will want to go through the hassle of such a dispute; in fact, they bank on it — literally.”

  23. On February 1, 2013 at 5:17 pm a service worker wrote:

    i know this article is old, but can’t help but comment. after working service for many years that includes waiting tables and bartending I’m still amazed at all the cheap [people — The Editor] who refuse to tip. Moreover, if it is plainly stated in the menu that for parties of certain number that a gratuity or service charge or whatever chosen term is used and you dine with said number of people, then you pay. by dining you agreed to policies of that establishment. it is a contract in that there is offer of exchange of goods and services, you’re consideration of goods and services and agreement of said terms. offer, consideration and agreement. if before your ordering your meal realized there is a surcharge you could freely have left. you can’t just decide to unilaterally opt out of your end of the contract ie the total bill which includes gratuties or surcharges after goods and services rendered because you are a cheapskate. next time read everything before you agree to it and if you don’t like it, walk away.

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  25. On September 15, 2013 at 6:03 am WMT wrote:

    Being a traveler from Europe I am annoyed by US tipping habits. I understand the problem, which is caused by an appalling federal law, not requiring to pay the federal minimum wages independent of potential tips. In Austria, where I live, service personnel are (legally speaking) normal employees with a defined minimum wage, medical insurance and pension plan. This may sound like a dream for most of the US restaurant staff. The downside of this is, you may have noticed as a guest in our lovely country, that some service staff (not only in restaurants, but in shops as well) do not overextend themselves in being friendly.

  26. On March 12, 2014 at 10:03 am anonymous wrote:

    Wow, this question sparked a lot of comments, some not so nice! As the person who asked this question, I can say it was a strictly legal question and should have been answered by a legal authority, not someone who works in the business. The question does not mean I do not tip well, because I do, no matter the party size. But, again, is it legal to charge my large group more than your small group, which is what an automatic tip means? While I understand the reasoning I still don’t understand it being legal, unless it is for all size parties. If you go to a store, perhaps dealing with an employee who may ultimately make less per hour than a food server, and you ask lots of questions or take up more of their time, should you be charged more than the customer who takes less time? If you go to a store where clerks work on commission, should you be charged more for taking up a lot of their time, maybe preventing them from helping and making a commission from another customer or two?
    Whether a tip is added or not added, you may or may not have gotten good service. Often, I even add to an automatic tip if I feel that my group was more demanding and received excellent service. Regardless of the reasoning for tip being added into the bill, I still say that is charging one person more money than another. After all, there is no guarantee that a small party will leave a sufficient tip either. And, I play the game, go elsewhere, or eat at home.
    Bottom line, it is strictly a legal question, nothing more.

  27. On March 12, 2014 at 10:28 am Si Cantwell wrote:

    Ms. Withrow replied that it is legal for a restaurant to add a gratuity to the bill for a large party, as long as the menu warns customers of that.
    As an educator at Cape Fear Community College, MyReporter considers her answer to be definitive.

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