A dining experience hard to swallow

By: Blogger

I enjoyed a short getaway over the long weekend — recharged the batteries and got a last glimpse of the sun before winter hibernation.

During the course of this self-indulgence I had time to browse some shops and, while doing so, took the opportunity to grab a late lunch at a café. 

It was Monday. Labour Day. A day for bargains, if you were so inclined. Most places I popped my head into were luring customers with offers of up to 40% and 50% off the usual price. And it appeared to be working, with plenty of people milling around and the car parks bustling.

The same was true of the café, which in this particular location held something of a monopoly for sustaining hungry and thirsty shoppers. But there was no discount here. Oh no. Here, instead of discounting, they added 15% to the bill – an unexplained "surcharge" presumably applied to counter the increased costs of paying staff the requisite 
time-and-a-half for working on a statutory holiday.

Ultimately, eateries (or any business for that matter) can charge whatever they like. However, to impose a surcharge legally, it must be clearly disclosed before you decide to eat there and the reasons for the surcharge must not mislead customers.

And that's the grey area.

In 2010 a Wellington company received a warning from the Commerce Commission after an investigation found the company recovered significantly more from the surcharge applied "Due to Holidays Act" than the actual cost of meeting its obligations under the Holidays Act, thereby risking breaching the Fair Trading Act.

The most blatant abuse of the public's general acceptance of surcharges that I have seen was a restaurant that applied a surcharge on Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday is not a statutory holiday, only Good Friday and Easter Monday are.

The hospitality industry has regularly cited extremely "tight margins" for its widespread use of surcharges on public holidays.

Newsflash: many businesses operate within "tight margins", including those many other shops that were also open on Monday and also paid their staff time-and-a-half in order to do so.

When you chose to trade on a statutory holiday surely the cost:benefit ratio is the first factor you weigh up when deciding whether it's worth it? Nobody is making them open on a public holiday; they can choose to remain closed, and have a well-earned 
day off.

I'm as guilty as anyone for allowing this practice to continue. I did not express my displeasure, nor even question the surcharge rate of 15% on what was clearly a 
very busy and financially rewarding day for this particular eatery. I'll even wager the café I ate at actually made more in surcharge fees than it had to pay out in extra wages. But how would you ever know? And as long as we consumers don't make more of a fuss, nothing is likely to change.

My advice: If you're planning to eat out on a public holiday, make a deliberate choice to give your business to the restaurant or café that chooses not to apply a surcharge.

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