Times are tough. Inflation is at a 40-year high. Restaurants continue to face budget-busting challenges from the pandemic and labor crisis. But that’s not all. As I write this sentence, food prices have increased by 18%, a number that may be even higher as you read.
Here’s the weird thing. You may look at the menu for your favorite restaurant and see a few price hikes, but nothing that seems anywhere near 18%.
What’s up? Are restauranteurs morphing into benevolent philanthropists? Uh, that would be a negative, although according to OpenTable data, as a group, restaurateurs say they got into the business because they want to take care of people.
That being said, the answer, my friends, is blowing through the bill. While nothing that follows has become standardized, it helps paint a picture of what is most certainly coming to restaurants near you.
FORGET FREE REFILLS
Bottomless sodas will soon be something for our kids’ I-remember-when collection to tell their kids. Soft drinks and coffee are not a massive expense for a restaurant, but they are not free, either. Finding enough staff to perform beverage refills will make the practice a thing of the past.
SPREAD THE PAIN
Even though pasta, for example, costs the restaurant about the same as it did months ago, you may see big jumps for pasta dishes. The price of some foods — steak, for example — have gone through the roof, so a restauranteur may shift some of that cost increase to other menu items to keep customers happy.
CHARGING FOR EVERYTHING
We’re hearing about restaurants charging for add-ons such as condiments, coffee cream, ranch and more. Don’t be surprised to see a slew of 50-cent or $1.00 charges on the bill for previously complimentary items.
CARE TO SHARE
More restaurants are adding a share fee or split charge (which should be disclosed on the menu, but don’t count on it). If you prefer to share an entree, you can ask for an extra plate, but get ready to be charged $5 or more for the privilege.
It’s happened to me a couple of times: I make a reservation, and then discover the restaurant requires a credit card and charges a no-show fee. I can see how no-shows affect a restaurant negatively. Still, it rubs me the wrong way to be charge for canceling far in advance (in some cases, up to three days).
GRATUITIES NO LONGER OPTIONAL
This one really gets my goat. With apologies to service personnel everywhere, a gratuity is not an entitlement. It is a reward for service rendered beyond what is expected. A gratuity should be a customer’s decision. And we should get ready to kiss that concept goodbye as more and more restaurants are automatically adding 18% gratuity to the bill, with a nudge to “please add more if you like.”
In the face of this kind of thing, I console myself that the whole activity of eating out is optional. It’s my choice, and if I choose to dine out, I’d better plan that it comes at a much higher cost than ever before.
I first saw this on a restaurant bill in 2020: COVID-19 Recovery Fee: 8%. What? Really? Another was somewhat gentler: Showing Love to Our Staff Fee: 7%. Another place calls it their Back-of-the-House Appreciation Fee: 6%. Or how about this one: Obamacare (Affordable Care Act): 20 cents. See how a restaurant can pass inflation to the customer in small bits here and there, hoping to make it unnoticeable? Between April 2021 and April 2022, the total number of restaurants in the United States adding service fees to guest checks increased by 36.4%, according to the Wall Street Journal.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
How can we slash the high cost of dining out? This is easy: Cook at home. Instead of seeing restaurant meals as routine, save dining out for special occasions.
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