Surcharges and Grace

Why optional?
The muddy waters of “optional”

Karl Strauss, a mid-major brewery out of San Diego, has a new branch pub in DTLA. Interesting beer, if not quite as fresh, or as sublimely complex as at MacLeod.  Good happy hour pricing.   Nice appetizer plates. Terrific service. Also, as Mrs. U and I were to discover, surcharges. Related to labor. Which are optional. Confused?

Lemme back up.  We knew about the surcharges in advance because they were referenced in the Yelp reviews.  Those who referenced them were outraged.   As in: “You should not pay it or even go here. I have never seen this kind of unethical business practice before and you should NOT visit here.  -Bo L.”  As in:  “there is a 2 dollar charge on our tab for some sort of minimum wage increase bs story our server told us about which we highly disagreed with so we took it out of the tip, that’s not cool. -Erik D.”

Over our beer flight, we talked about it with our server who explained it was due to the Los Angeles minimum wage going up Jan. 1. Instead of raising prices on food and beer (and purchasing new menus), and to keep the prices uniform across the other seven pubs in SoCal, they were adding a 3% surcharge. But, she assured us, we could talk to the manager if we wanted it removed.  Hello?

No, we said. If it’s going to wages, we’re happy to pay it.   Who would refuse to pay this?

As the Yelp reviews suggested, she let us know some customers were deducting the surcharge from servers tips.  On her behalf, we left $30 on $24.63.

Later, driving, I thought about it some more.  The surcharge wasn’t going to her. It was going to the kitchen people. Servers feed off tips. The back of the house runs on wages. Since the opening in November Karl Strauss has used four different terms: “GovMandatesSurcharge”, “EmployerSurcharge”, “KARLcharge” and now, simply: “Surcharge”, with the caveat you can opt of paying it altogether.

This raises more questions than it answers. If the 3% add-on exists to satisfy the minimum wage mandate, then it shouldn’t be optional. Raise prices and be done with it. Optional makes it seem like only some of the money is going to Carlos at the fry bin for making the garlic truffle fries just right, the rest is fattening profit margins.  The skinny girl in the black t-shirt behind the bar was implying it was going to her. Naturally, we overtipped (modestly) to compensate for those she implied were punishing her in retaliation.

Who, exactly, is electing to cross this unspoken line of shame and demand the manager to recuse them from the 3%?  As someone who works in Brentwood and drives Uber at night, I think I have a pretty good idea. The mannerless wealthy, that’s who.

Lemme paint a picture here.  There is a certain type of person who returns from a weekend ski trip to Utah, walks pass the cab stand at the airport into a waiting Uber, leaving three enormous suitcases on the sidewalk to be loaded into the back. As you enter the onramp to the 105 they demand to know, in a particularly anguished tone of voice, “why are you going this way?”   Because the 105 to the 110 to the 5 to the 2 is the most direct route, you reply.  By about eight miles. You point helpfully to the Uber app mounted on the dashboard, which displays the correct route on a map,  clearly visible from the back seat.  In response, they passive-aggressively open up their own navigation app, turn up the volume on their phone, and you spend the next half hour taking orders from a disembodied voice with a British accent: “in one quarter mile, merge right….” Orders which duplicate, turn by turn, the exact route you are already taking.

When you arrive in La Canada, a maid scampers out to take the bags as you unload them.  They disappear into their five bedroom house, unburdened. You’ve just saved them about $30. They tip you…..nothing.  And why not? Travis Kalanick told them the tip was already included.   Everybody knows you tip for service, even when not explicitly told to. But when you tell people it’s optional…

That’s the problem with financing wage increases through semi-voluntary surcharges.  A certain type of person will feel entitled to opt out, and it won’t be the guy who delivered pizzas in college. Anyone who worked in service or owned a business serving the public knows better.

Which makes me wonder why Karl Strauss is doing it this way.

2 thoughts on “Surcharges and Grace”

  1. In my younger days I was a waiter for years. I’ve also spent many years as a housekeeper/gardener. I know from personal experience that the best tippers and employers are people who were once working class who then got a little money later in life. The absolute worst are people grew up with lots of money. I don’t think this is a moral issue. It’s just a matter of habit and consciousness.

    I’ll use an analogy. City drivers who also ride bikes on a regular basis (and not just Sunday in the park, but bikes as actual transportation) are far more courteous toward bikers and pedestrians than drivers who never walk anywhere or have never ridden a bike. Drivers who have no personal experience as pedestrians or cyclists frequently have no empathy for anyone who isn’t also in a vehicle – and that’s saying a lot given the way drivers treat each other on the road.

    FYI, when I was a waiter in Jersey back in the early 1990’s we would get bi-monthly pay checks for $0 The minimum wage for wait staff at that time was $2.13 an hour – substantially lower than the regular minimum wage. Only agricultural workers were paid less. The management would guesstimate our tips and make sure that our pay exactly equaled our FICA withholding taxes. So we got pay checks for $0. The only money I ever earned there was tip money and we pooled that money and shared it with the kitchen staff. (There were four ridiculously hard working Mexicans in the back who were all mysteriously named “Jose Campos” on paper. Again – for tax purposes.)

  2. Not going to that brew pub anytime soon, that is disgraceful! But people ripping off the server because of 3%? Unless the bill was large, what are they thinking? Read the reviews, the small print on the menu and leave BEFORE ordering. Don’t take it out on the server. The owner is slimy, making the servers explain this BS while saving money on not reprinting menus by adding an arbitrary, optional tax? Definitely a fan of Ayn Rand.
    The odd thing about Uber is that it is ALWAYS cheaper than taking a taxi. I do wonder if riders just assume that the difference in price was due to the overhead costs for the taxi and that the drivers deserve a big tip because they are, naturally, underpaid by the taxi companies? I think that the narrative pushed by Uber, that the drivers are private contractors, in combination with driver courtesy and that the vehicles are spotless makes the riders somehow feel that the drivers pocket the entire fare.
    “Rich” people are notoriously rude and they have no concept of “work”. I put “rich” into quotes because although some people don’t acknowledge work because they don’t want to admit they ever had to do work, some people really are clueless about work. The former types are somehow embarrassed to admit that they weren’t always wealthy. The latter types see ‘work” is something that happens miraculously, without being seen and needs no compensation or acknowledgment. I am guilty of propagating this mindset with my own children since the “work” I do isn’t visible to them so they had assumed things just got done. Between joining the world of the commuter and college, my daughter has been shocked into reality. My son is still battling the dust-monsters under his bed since I now refuse to clean for him until his respect level for labor increases (and he acknowledges Trump is an evil moron) but it still hasn’t clicked for him.
    I don’t think that while that man is our President that attitudes will improve as he clearly thinks things happen miraculously as he notoriously reluctant to pay the people who he owes. What does that say for the future?

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