The first time I ate at a restaurant that delivered me a check with a surcharge tacked on to support the kitchen staff, I was miffed. Another hidden cost. The meal was over, the tab delivered, I wasn’t of a mind to make a scene, so I paid and left. Never to return to that restaurant again.
The practice is growing—adding a surcharge to a bill for the ostensibly noble purpose of providing a living wage to the kitchen staff (Recent Boston Globe Article). Most restaurants make note of the practice, in small print, near the bottom of their menu. Easy to miss if you’re not on your game. These days, I scrutinize menus before selecting a place to dine, and bypass any with the telltale fee. Thus, I’ve stopped patronizing Veggie Planet—a place I love—and ignore Pammy’s, despite the raves it receives, because each of those Cambridge eateries are early adopters of kitchen fees.
Why am I so boiled about this practice?
It’s not that I don’t want kitchen workers to get a living wage—I do. I’m happy to pay a fair price for a meal that includes paying all the staff well. What I object to is the so-called social consciousness of restaurant owners who proclaim to care about giving their workers a living wage, without actually paying them one. If it’s a slow night, and the kitchen fees don’t add up to a living wage for their back-of-house staff, does the owner ante up the difference? I don’t see that anywhere in the fine print.
If you’re a business owner, and you believe your workers should get a living wage, then pay them that wage. If that means your prices have to increase, then state on your menu that you pay all of your workers living ages, and the prices reflect that. Proclaim your conscience on your website, in your promotional material. If you actually pay a living wage, I will happily pay a few dollars more for my fish and chips.
In so many arenas of our economy, retailers have discovered that the easier, and earlier in the process, the monetary transaction gets addressed, the better the overall customer experience. When we order from Amazon, we pay in advance; we know intellectually that the transit cost is folded into the overall price, but when our goods arrive—with free shipping—we feel like we just got a gift. Folks who own vehicles grouse about the price of gas (paid out on an as-needed basis), much more than their monthly car and insurance payments. Those upfront costs are already factored into our lives, and we absorb them into our psyche. Similarly, once I load up my Charlie Card, I feel like I ride the subway for free.
So why are restaurants going the other way? Instead of making checks more complicated, they would be wiser to move in the direction of fewer add-on charges, not more.
There are a few places in the Boston area that do not accept tips; the total cost of everything is included in the stated price. The most comprehensive in this regard is Tasting Counter. Make your reservation, put it on your credit card, and that’s the last you deal with money. Arrive for an amazing nine-course dinner with accompanying wines (or in my case, nine exotic craft beers) and simply enjoy the evening. To be sure, Tasting Counter is not an everyday experience, (prix fixe is $325 per person) but the concept is fresh and the experience so wonderful, I’m surprised more modest places haven’t found a way to emulate.
Restauranteurs with a pretend social conscious: make it real. Pay your staff a living wage. Tell us it’s reflected in your prices We will patronize you. Not only for your food, but for your honesty.