Don’t be a bill grouch

IcebergsI recently wrote about changing social norms, especially in the context of new technologies.

In an earlier piece I also argued the importance of penalty rates in the hospitality industry, to ensure reasonable living standards for those working in the industry, and to compensate them for working unsociable hours.

A recent unpleasant restaurant experience caused by a fellow guest, brought the intersection of changing social norms and hospitality penalty rates into focus for me, and also marred an otherwise lovely lunch.

This experience was another lesson in changing social norms, this time while eating out.

Penalty rates were designed to acknowledge those who work at times when others enjoy their leisure time: nights, weekends and holidays. There is a lot of talk in reply about a 24 hours 7 days economy. That’s all good and fine, but you can’t expect such a fundamental change to commerce at no cost to business and consumers. Workers on some of the lowest wages shouldn’t be the ones who carry the costs of a 24/7 economy demanded, allegedly, by consumers. If consumers want a 24/7 economy, they should be prepared to pay for it.
The assault on penalty rates is an assault on our values, The Vue Post

It all started with an invitation to help a friend celebrate a significant birthday at a lovely Sydney landmark restaurant. The celebration brought together friends and colleagues, many people who never met before.

The lunch was quite wonderful, and the service friendly and flawless. Everyone had a great time meeting new people. My usual practice at such events, where I don’t know all the other guests, and their propensity for consumption, is to open a separate bar tab, so our drinks won’t complicate the bill at the end of the meal. Especially as I am partial to a quality dry martini or two, and like to sample wines recommended by knowledgable sommeliers. Opening a separate bar tab is an excellent way of avoiding any issues that may arise from splitting a bill later with people you just met. On this occasion it proved to be a particularly wise practice.

Restaurant surcharges

When the bill arrived at the end of our three-hour lunch, everything was in order until one of our fellow guests noticed the restaurant applied their 10% weekend surcharge. Such surcharges are becoming an increasingly common occurrence in Sydney on weekends and public holidays.

The surcharge is designed to assist restaurants and cafés with covering the weekend and public holiday penalty rates they are required to pay to their staff. The restaurant in question discloses this surcharge on its website, and on its menus. The 10% surcharge does not cover the full cost of the penalty rates, but does assist restaurants and cafés in managing their profitability.

There was a time when such surcharges were illegal and if restaurants wanted to charge more on weekends or public holidays, they were required to provide menus that showed prices for each menu item incorporating such a surcharge.

The current law

However, common sense and commercial reality prevailed in 2013 with the passing of legislation enabling restaurants and cafés to add weekend and public holiday surcharges to their bills. This was done by way of regulatory exemption from the section 48 single price provisions of The Australian Consumer Law in Schedule 2 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth).

In order to utilise the exemption, restaurants and cafés must clearly and transparently disclose the surcharge on their menus or otherwise: see regulation 80A of the Competition and Consumer Regulations 2010 (Cth), titled ‘Single price does not apply to surcharges on food or beverage in restaurants.’

I settled our part of the bill promptly by credit card, including our meals, the clearly disclosed and legal surcharge, and an additional tip to our waiter and sommelier for providing us, and the rest of our table, with excellent and personable service.

Pay the surcharge, or find another restaurant or café

However, one of our fellow guests decided to cause a small scene by loudly questioning the surcharge and refusing to pay it, and was subsequently joined by a couple of other guests on the table in this approach.

Our waiter handled the matter incredibly calmly and professionally and, rather than pulling them up on their behaviour, let their surcharge slip. However, this meant he had to apply the tip I left him towards those unpaid surcharges.

I found this incredibly uncouth and unacceptable behaviour, but given the nature of the event, and the fact I have no existing relationships with the people involved, I chose to stay out of it and let it slide.

Nevertheless, if you are eating out on the weekend or a public holiday, and a surcharge is displayed on the menu and subsequently added to your bill, it is legal and non-disputable.

Pay it, or find a restaurant or café which does not apply a surcharge to their bills.

And, most important of all, try not to make a scene about it in front of people you just met. If you have an issue with such a charge, take it up privately with the management of the venue, don’t ruin the great time others are having around you with a petty little scene.

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