Restaurant Fees Facing FTC Scrutiny
by David Klemt
The focus on rising costs and hidden or “junk” fees over the past few years is bringing the Federal Trade Commission’s attention to the restaurant space.
Really, it was only a matter of time. Consumers are quite clearly fed up with being hit with unexpected fees. Whether purchasing concert tickets or popping into a QSR for a quick bite, they’re over the perceived nickel and diming.
That’s to say nothing of the other businesses that consumers feel are going too far with fees.
However, much of the public conversation about junk fees revolves around restaurants, and in some instances bars, as well. A common refrain on social media and online communities is, to paraphrase, “Just tell tell us what it costs on the menu!”
Of course, there are consumers who don’t want businesses to raise their prices at all. There’s no reasoning with these people, and they see all increases and fees—even those that aren’t hidden or bogus—as ripoffs.
But there are those who understand the challenges operators are facing. Understandably, these people just want transparency. And they want to have a clear idea of what it will cost to dine and drink somewhere before they plan their visit or are handed their check.
These consumers now have allies in state and federal governments.
FTC Focuses In
Some people may be surprised to learn that the FTC’s focus on junk fees isn’t entirely new. In fact, the agency has been digging into this topic for nearly a year.
Last November, the FTC asked for the public for their opinions on deceptive and unfair practices. Specifically, practices that relate to junk fees. Per the FTC, American consumers are paying tens of billions of dollars in junk fees annually.
According to the agency, they received 12,000 comments.
Now, with the support of the White House, one would assume, the FTC is asking for public input again. This time, the agency is seeking comments about a rule their proposing to address junk fees.
Last week, both the White House and FTC proposed rules that will make it mandatory for businesses to disclose all fees up front. Additionally, the White House wants to curtail “excessive” bank fees for basic services.
Put simply, the FTC’s proposal will ban hidden fees, require transparency regarding all fees, and allow the agency to impose penalties.
And now, after zeroing in on airlines, landlords, utilities, entertainment, and banking, the FTC is looking at hospitality.
Restaurants Under Scrutiny
As they did in November of last year, the FTC is once again asking for the public to comment on fees. This time, however, restaurants have been included by the agency.
To be sure, this focus isn’t exactly new. Washington, DC, for example has addressed junk fees in the restaurant space. As with other jurisdictions that have tackled this topic, restaurants must be conspicuous and make guests aware of all fees before their checks arrive. Additionally, operators must be clear about their intended use for fees.
In Washington, DC, a violation of these rules can lead to a $5,000 fine for a first-time offense. That penalty can rise to $10,000 for additional violations.
California has also passed Senate Bill 478, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. This law, which also targets hidden fees, takes effect on July 1, 2024.
Most likely, the FTC is seeking comment to make adjustments to their proposed junk fee rule in order to include restaurants. From what I’ve seen, restaurant delivery fees in particular are drawing the ire of consumers and attention of state and federal agencies.
“All too often, Americans are plagued with unexpected and unnecessary fees they can’t escape. These junk fees now cost Americans tens of billions of dollars per year—money that corporations are extracting from working families just because they can,” says Lina M. Khan, FTC Chair.
Consumers will have 60 days to submit their comments to the FTC.
Proactive operators who haven’t already done so should make their in-person dining and delivery fees obvious.
Best practices for fee transparency include highlighting them on menus; announcing them via table tents or talkers; including fees on websites; and including a notice or disclaimer on reservation pages.
However, operators should avoid viewing being transparent about fees through a lens of compliance. Rather, being clear and upfront with guests is just good business. In fact, it’s in keeping with the spirit of hospitality and service.
If the final experience a guest has with a restaurant is being unpleasantly surprised by their check due to junk fees, how should be expected to respond? Their perception of the venue or brand will plummet, and they won’t return. How long can a restaurant sustain that guest reaction before the damage is irreparable and an operator has to close their doors?
Operators are being asked to thread a needle every day. Costs are rising and there are only so many solutions available to most operators that can keep their doors open, keep guests and staff happy, and pull the business toward long-term success.
To be clear, fees are generally fine—if consumers feel they know what to expect ahead of their visit. Nobody wants to be surprised, and that shouldn’t be difficult to understand.
So, operators need to be transparent about fees. They need to consider dynamic pricing for menus. That requires an absolute understanding of costs, guest tolerances for pricing, and the market.
The payoff, however, is happier guests who are far more likely to return for in-person dining and to place delivery or takeout orders. Savvy operators will put the work in now to get ahead of the junk fee fallout.