I just had dinner at Table in Asheville, North Carolina. At the end there was an anomaly on the bill. An item Service Fee LW of $7.48 appeared “below the line”. That is, all the dishes and drinks had been totalled, and I was expecting to see “Sales Tax” before the total. Instead, this additional Service Fee LW appeared. I asked our waiter what it was. He said it was an additional charge the restaurant imposed, and that LW stood for “Living Wage”. “It goes straight to the staff”, he said, to reflect the cost of living in the area in which the restaurant was located. “Vivian charges it as well” he volunteered, referring back to the fact we mentioned that we dined at Vivian the previous night.
Now, Living Wage is a pretty “positive emotion inducing phrase”, and the more credulous person may think that charge is a good thing. However, a little thought shows that it is nothing more than the fee charged by hotels called a resort fee, or destination fee that allows them to post misleading room rates on Internet reservation sites. These fees are now generally seen as fraud, and more and more State Attorneys General are successfully bringing charges against the practice. Just this May, the state of Texas reached a settlement with Marriott to change their practices.
In the case of restaurants, the place where the wages of staff are calculated has always been in food cost calculations that price each menu item. Every chef in culinary school goes through this arduous learning and knows that in high labor cost areas (e.g. Dallas, TX) the final cost of the dish will be higher than lower wage jurisdictions (e.g. College Station, TX). Breaking part of the labor (or any other cost) out of the menu price makes published menu prices wrong and represents an attempt by the restaurant to hide its true prices.
In fact, if the restaurant is going to break out arbitrary things from costs, why not charge more if the waiter you get has a penchant for caviar? So that you can finance his caviar habit? Why not move 70% of the labor costs out of the menu prices into Service Fee LW? It is arbitrary, it can be anything the restaurant wants. Why not overhead for electric? Less attractive than Living Wage? How about Living Electric? Moved. These kinds of examples show the deceit and dishonesty of these charges. What Table should do is get rid of this practice immediately and go back to honest pricing. Reviewers who post pricies will have to up each menu price by the percentage of the extra fee to more accurately present prices in comparison with restaurants tht don't charge these fees.
Our waiter, Stuart, claimed Vivien was charging these charges. I checked my receipt, and they do not. Neither does Curate, Buxton Hall, Stable Cafe - Biltmore, or Neng Jr’s. In fact the only place I encountered these extra charges was Table.
Of course, someone may say that this is only 2.5%. But for how long? They can increase it whenever they want by any amount they want.
There is a bigger reason to go back to honest pricing: This kind of practice undermines the relationship between the customer and the restaurant. What extra charge will they invent next? This is the last thing that restaurants need at this time. Table should go back to honest pricing to prevent that erosion.