A group of Los Angeles consumers is taking a stand against so-called service fees that have increasingly made their way onto cafe and restaurant bills across the country.
In recent years, tipping culture and the confusion surrounding it has become a hot-button issue. The pandemic temporarily changed consumer tipping habits, and “tablet tipping” has become the subject of ire and thrown previous rules of etiquette into a tailspin (should you tip on a bottle of water or groceries when the little screen flips around?).
This is to say nothing of service charges, typically ranging from 3% to 20%, that are tacked onto restaurant customers’ bills with various disclaimers, some more opaque than others, such as “healthcare surcharge,” “competitive industry compensation” and “wellness fee.”
A Google spreadsheet circulating in Reddit’s Los Angeles group has gained traction in the last few weeks. It documents restaurants and bars across the city that charge service fees — most of which are in addition to what customers should tip servers.
The document is populated by user submissions and includes each restaurant’s name, the percentage of the service charge and whether the charge counts as a tip for the servers. It listed nearly 240 establishments across L.A. County by the time of this story’s publication.
DiDi, a Vietnamese joint in West Hollywood, is listed as charging a 4% “entertainment fee,” according to a receipt from Aug. 10 posted on Reddit. The fee is to “ensure competitive compensation, in addition to medical benefits for all full time team members,” the receipt said.
“That’s a first,” wrote the user who posted the receipt.
Le Petit Paris, a French brasserie downtown, says that its 4% surcharge is added to all checks “to help cover increased costs and minimum wage increases for our dedicated staff.”
Ototo, a sake bar in Echo Park, charges dine-in guests an “18% fair wage and operational fee” that is not a gratuity for staff. The fee “goes towards all operational expenses including livable wages and health benefits for all of our staff,” Ototo’s website says, adding that it encourages customers to pay an additional “optional tip.”
Sometimes the service fees are voluntary, but even in those cases, a customer must ask to have it removed.
Redditors in the comments complained that it’s not just the surprise charges that are frustrating but also the lack of transparency about where the fees are going. Many customers who consciously support service workers still say the practice can feel deceptive.
Some patrons — and even employees of the establishments themselves — have questions about the legitimacy of certain service fees. Are they fattening the pockets of business owners instead of going directly to employees? Why aren’t the increased costs of doing business baked into the cost of menu items?
Some Los Angeles service workers have lashed out against their employers for using such fees as an excuse to stiff workers.
Employees of Jon & Vinny’s in Brentwood filed a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on June 20 alleging that their employer violated California’s gratuity law.
The lawsuit against Joint Venture Restaurant Group, which owns Jon & Vinny’s, claims that confusion surrounding the 18% service fee attached to customer checks denied servers tips. (The popular Italian American restaurant also has locations in Beverly Hills, Fairfax and Hyde Park.)
The fee “reasonably appears to be a gratuity for the service staff,” the lawsuit says, because the service fee was 18%, comparable to what a customer may tip. Many patrons assumed this fee was a built-in tip going to their server, which was not the case, workers said.
California’s gratuity law requires that nonmanagerial service staff receive their tips in full, and employers may not keep any portion of those tips.
The restaurant group has denied those claims, saying through a spokesperson that the service charge model democratizes earnings for employees at every level and that customers are told that the fee is not the same as a tip.
The restaurant changed the language on customers’ checks about two weeks after the lawsuit was filed. As of July, the bottom of each receipt said, “The service charge is not a tip or gratuity, and is an added fee controlled by the restaurant that helps facilitate a higher living base wage for all of our employees. Please scan the QR Code at the top of the receipt for additional information, or speak with a manager.”