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The Ethics of Pricing

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There is an Indian restaurant in Columbia that made food so delicious that my mouth is watering right now as I think about it, and it has been years since I have visited the restaurant. I had an unsettling experience with my bill the last time I was there. The charge on the bill was $2-3 more for each dish than was listed on the menu. When I questioned the server (or was she the owner?) she flipped right to the front of the menu where a disclaimer was written - the gist was along the lines that a surcharge may be added to the prices. I felt very uncomfortable with this practice, and have not been back since. If I hadn't enjoyed the food so much, I might have simply crossed the restaurant off my list and not thought about it again. But, often times when I visit Columbia, I think of the dosai's there, and they were so, so delicious.

What is your opinion on this type of pricing practice? Is this no big deal? Am I being naive?

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  1. "may be added"? did it specify under what circumstances? bad shoes? annoying giggle?

    bad, bad business practice. it gives one pause to ask "what the heck is going through some people's heads?" just charge the extra 2 or 3 up front and maintain good will.

    but I've been known to hold my nose if the food is good. so to speak.

    if you loved the food that much, drop them a letter explaining why you haven't been back and how crappy a system that is.

    why does this remind me of current airline practices?

    2 Replies
    1. re: hill food

      >>the gist was along the lines that a surcharge may be added to the prices.

      Wow, I guess anything goes in Greedville.

      I too would like to know what was the basis for the surcharges on your meal.

      I can see it now: ask for a substitution: $3.00; complain once: $3.00; complain again: $5.00. They can do that all day. The sky's the limit.

      Amazing.

      mukalu, do they have repeat customers?

      1. re: dolores

        Delores - they do seem to have repeat customers. I think very loyal ones, judging by some of the reviews on citysearch and on Chowhound itself. Maybe these are people who weren't surcharged for bad shoes or maybe they didn't notice the difference on their bills. I know the first few times I went I didn't really look at the check.

    2. it has been *years*? does the resto still do this? do they have a website? unless you are informed why there will be a surcharge (conditions), it is a really shabby practice. i don't care if the dosais were gold plated, i wouldn't go back if they still have a "moving target" price for their menu items. just raise the price up front....

      1 Reply
      1. re: alkapal

        I looked them up through maps.google and the citysearch.com website had a few other reviewers who commented on the same or similar practices - the latest one in Mar 08.

        I appreciate the opinions of everyone who has posted. I was really caught off guard and it helps to know there was good reason.

      2. Weird. I have seen foreigner surcharges when I've traveled, but in those cases I would have been given an English menu that already included the surcharge. I have never heard of random surcharges of undisclosed amount before. It seems deceptive and a bit unfair. What's to stop the restaurant from adding $10 per dish or $20 based on the fact that a patron is carrying a nice purse or drives a nice car?

        12 Replies
        1. re: queencru

          queencru, why the 'foreigner' surcharge? Just for walking through the door?

          What baloney.

          1. re: dolores

            logic goes that (and I've seen this in Asia), by virtue of being able to make a discretionary $1000 airplane ticket, you've got more money to spare. And you certainly do, relative to the locals.

            The world has different cultures, with different expectations for how rich and poor people are supposed to interact, behave, and be treated.

            1. re: xanadude

              Not Asia, but told to me as true. Many decades ago at Izzy's Deli in downtown Cincinnati, prices weren't posted. One day Izzy serves a customer a corned beef sandwich and a bowl of matzoh ball soup and charges him $.75. The next guy also has the same order, Izzy says "that'll be $1.50." When the customer complains that he's being charged more than the previous customer, Izzy looks him in the eye and says "You're a lawyer. Now you want your lunch or not?"

              Whether it was an attempt to level the economic playing field or simple lawyer bashing, Izzy's customers have been telling the story ever since.

              1. re: alanbarnes

                I've been to a number of countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where there are different payment charges depending on whether you're carrying a local or foreign passport. The differences can be small to large, to "we'll only take your greenbacks, no local currency needed here, thankyouverymuch." The more totalitarian the regime, it seems, the more this is enforced.

                Some places are lax about it than others. Your family member says, "oh, c'mon, she's one of us" and the gatekeeper says "OK." Or not. If you have to show a passport, fugghedaboutit. You are paying the foreigner rate.

                Other times, people charge you depending on where they think you're from. I remember overhearing a converstion in Croatia between two vendors selling wares on the street: "If it's an American, I ask for $10, if it's a German, $7; and if it's a Brit...." We were chuckling over their sliding fee scale. Cab drivers, hair braiders, shoe shiners.....they all do it. You either are OK with it because it's usually a pittance and no skin off your nose, or say (in their language) "I've been here long enough to know what local rates are, so I'll give you a fair local price or go the next cab/vendor." Some take it, some leave it.

                When someone has really hyperinflated the price to an obnoxious level, I let them know it. Depending on my mood, I'll either politely tell them their price is way out of line with the norm, or tell them to go pound sand using appropriate local terms. ;> Sometimes I gotta put them on notice that not all foreigners are idiots.

                Though I've noticed pretty, young, blonde American girls get away with murderously low prices in some places....they're just such a novelty, and the vendors (usually men) want to chat them up. :) So I guess it all evens out in the end.

                1. re: venera

                  In Colombia and throughout much of Latin America, people pay different rates for utilities (energy, water, sewage, garbage disposal) based on the level or strata of the neighborhood. I pay 10x or more what people in the poorest neighborhoods pay. It's a good system--practical socialism.

                  1. re: venera

                    "Though I've noticed pretty, young, blonde American girls get away with murderously low prices in some places."

                    That tears it. Before I travel abroad again, I'm getting a sex change and dye job..

                    1. re: KevinB

                      We DEMAND before and after pictures! '-)

                  2. re: alanbarnes

                    That happened to me at Izzy's Deli also. When I went in there with my friend's father (a well known attorney), we had lunch for three well under $10. When I went alone, the same lunch was close to $6 for myself alone.

                    1. re: jlawrence01

                      When a friend and I vacationed in Tobago years ago we found a great fresh fruit market. We quickly noticed we were being charged 2x more than the locals. I didn't see a thing wrong with it. Even being charged more the prices were still dirt cheap.

                  3. re: xanadude

                    Very true. In Thailand, I was definitely charged much higher rates than the people who live there -- generally double for street food and perhaps more for other things. I wish I knew how to speak Thai as most vendors thought I was Thai and were surprised when I opened my mouth. I don't read Thai, but know that some of the signs for attractions actually post two sets of prices -- one for locals and another for the farangs.

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      interesting the ferengi are charged double! ;-) check the etymology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferengi_...

                      1. re: alkapal

                        OMG! I can't believe somebody took the time and energy to write all that about the Ferengi in Wikipedia. So funny! Makes Chowhounders seem semi-normal in comparison. ; )

              2. Wow! What is the point of even putting prices on the menu if they could end up being whatever the owner feels like in the end? I've never seen this...terrible business practice! I can see why you are hesitant to go back. Maybe they've changed their policy since then...you should look into it.

                1. It is a big deal and you're not being naive. Putting one price on a menu and charging another based on a fine print disclaimer is fundamentally dishonest.

                  Let's start by getting the obvious out of the way: "surcharges" are complete nonsense unless the customer is making substitutions or the otherwise customizing an order. A given dish should be a given price. If that's too much trouble, don't put prices on the menu (eg the "market price" daily seafood special that fluctuates based on wholesale cost).

                  But if a restaurant is going to impose a surcharge, it has the obligation to notify the customers of that fact and of the amount to be charged before filling their orders. If not, the customers are well within their rights to refuse to pay the surcharge.

                  If it were me, and if a server gave me anything other than an abject apology and a corrected bill when the incorrect amounts were pointed out, the solution would be simple. First, make a note of the menu price, the item price, and the "disclaimer" language. Next, pay the check with a credit card. No tip. Finally, call the credit card company and contest the charge. This will create a time-consuming hassle for the restaurant owners--which is exactly what they deserve for their shenanigans.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    I'm afraid my reaction would have been more severe than yours. I simply would refuse to pay the surcharge. I would not be looking for surcharges as I have never been in a restaurant that practiced such deception. I would pay the posted price, or I would not pay the bill at all.

                    1. re: jmckee

                      By disputing the bill with the credit card company, you avoid confrontation in the restaurant (and even potential involvement of law enforcement if you refuse to pay the bill at all) while still effectively refusing to pay the surcharge. Plus, responding to a credit card dispute is more time-consuming than merely adjusting a bill, and leaves a paper trail of the dishonest conduct. (As an aside, I wouldn't sign the credit card slip--just take the customer copy and leave the unsigned slip on the table.)

                      There's another benefit, too: potential leverage to stop the unethical practices. If the restaurant's banker handles, say, credit card processing and a line of credit, the owner might consider it important to make a good impression on the person who holds the working capital purse strings. And explaining dishonest business practices is unlikely to make such an impression. Admittedly sites like Yelp and Chowhound can bring some pressure from unhappy customers to bear. But if the restaurant's banker isn't happy with the way it's doing business, those practices are much more likely to change.

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        Hmm. I do indeed see your point, and I understand my way isn't everybody's way. I would certainly complain to the BBB, at least. But go to the source is my usual customer service stance. The customer isn't always right, but when s/he is, the point of sale person needs to be the first person approached. I'd certainly follow it up the food chain if my approach didn't effect a satisfactory outcome.

                  2. Couple of points:

                    1 - if this is Columbia as in the country versus Columbia, Md. jfood would have paid the bill as presented, left the appropriate tip and moved on. Anyone travelling overseas that makes a fuss over anything other than a lifethreatening event is forgetting that they are a visitor with a passport that can be taken away. Swallow the food and your pride and move on. Whether it developed or emerging markets, NEVER make a scene as a forwign visitor. Jfood is interested in hearing Sam F.'s take on this as well as he resides in Columbia.
                    2 - Now let's assume it's in Columbia, Md. Jfood would have asked for the manager for an explanation and then decided. If the menus are such that the only way to change the price is through a little sticky thing (yuck), then that might be the reason. then the discussion goes to why jfood was not informed of the price when the dish was ordered. If this is where the story gets wiggly, then it would appear that the server did not do a good job, and we all know where the surcharge winds up...as a contra-tip.

                    But unless the Columbia Md example is dealing with the hyper-inflation of 1930's Germany, then this wet finger in the air surcharge is either explained up-front or waived. If in the US, jfood would either contra-tip or contact Amex and possible have some fun in small claims court.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: jfood

                      I assumed Columbia (US) rather than Colombia (country). But you're quite right--everyone (Colombians and non-Colombians alike) here is pretty reluctant to stir up a fuss about anything. People here are gracious and thoughtful interpersonally; but can seem to be idiotically insensitive to others in public. But then, everyone is patiently not bothered by each other in public. Few have the sense of entitlement that many Americans seem to have.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        thanks sam,

                        jfood shoud have stayed awake in geography class so he knew the "o" versus "u" thingy.

                        travelling to other countries has allowed jfood to see the various outlooks on life. He does not think that "idiotically insensitive" is true, just that there is less macro-focus on the situation, more of a enjoy the moment, not to worry the clock knows to keep ticking. Eating in small local restaurants in various countries has been one of the true benefits of travel, seeing the way the owners and the patrons enjoy being amongst people in a relaxed atmosphere instead of a competition.

                        In the US the response to a bad meal is post it so everyone knows not to go and hopefully the place shuts down. Overseas its usually oh well let's try again next week. It's just much more relaxed, laid back and a pleasant way to go through life versus having a digital watch with accuracy to the fifth decimal place.

                        Oh well, a three day weekend here for family, friends and food (and some cards with friends after dinner). doesn't get better than that.

                        good weekend SF.

                    2. Couple of points:

                      1 - if this is Columbia as in the country versus Columbia, Md. jfood would have paid the bill as presented, left the appropriate tip and moved on. Anyone travelling overseas that makes a fuss over anything other than a lifethreatening event is forgetting that they are a visitor with a passport that can be taken away. Swallow the food and your pride and move on. Whether it is in developed or emerging markets, NEVER make a scene as a foreign visitor. Jfood is interested in hearing Sam F.'s take on this as well as he resides in Columbia.
                      2 - Now let's assume it's in Columbia, Md. Jfood would have asked for the manager for an explanation and then decided. If the menus are such that the only way to change the price is through a little sticky thing (yuck), then that might be the reason. then the discussion goes to why jfood was not informed of the price when the dish was ordered. If this is where the story gets wiggly, then it would appear that the server did not do a good job, and we all know where the surcharge winds up...as a contra-tip.

                      But unless the Columbia Md example is dealing with the hyper-inflation of 1930's Germany, then this wet finger in the air surcharge is either explained up-front or waived. If in the US, jfood would either contra-tip or just pay and move on.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: jfood

                        fyi, the restaurant is in Columbia, MD. Being unknowledgeable of the ins and outs of what to post where, I had originally posted to the Baltimore/DC board and assumed everyone would know the location.

                        I find it interesting that the Asian mindset has been discussed in relation to this topic. Being an Asian female (although born and raised in the States), I was very reluctant to confront, complain, or challenge the practice in any way - especially once the disclaimer was pointed out to me. And, along the lines of what Veggo said, I am very uncomfortable with accusing others of a possible ethical issue, in spite of the veracity of the claim.

                        1. re: mukalu

                          `Sheesh! I missed this post before I responded, thinking you were talking about ColOmbia...! Sorry about that. Normally I would edit that post, but I'm having the same problem so many others are having... It's floating around in cyberspace and hasn't landed anywhere on these boards yet. It could take hours! So....

                          I would still consider a chat with the owner about having limited cash with me sometimes and see if yo can get an agreement that the prices listed on the menu are what YOU pay, regardless of what others may be charged.

                          Good luck.

                          1. re: mukalu

                            Which restaurant was it?

                            1. re: jes

                              It was Mango Grove
                              http://www.themangogrove.com/

                              Judging by other reviewers comments, mine was not an isolated incident
                              http://baltimore.citysearch.com/revie...

                              http://www.yelp.com/biz/the-mango-gro...

                              Axalady - that was a timely article, thanks for posting.

                        2. I think if you start to look around, you will notice disclaimers like that in many places - restaurant menus, supermarket or department store fliers, take out menues.

                          1. As a general rule:

                            "Customer walks into a restaurant and orders food from the menu" is equivalent with
                            "Customer and Restaurant have entered into a Contract. Restaurant will provide selected food items, Customer will pay indicated amounts."

                            As with any contract, you can add any number of unenforceable clauses, but they are null. E.g., any clause that states "Price can be changed AFTER contract is initiated" is unenforceable.

                            Me personally, I'd probably indicate all of the above to the waiter/owner, if I'm in the mood. Then, I'd probably pay ( if surcharges are minimal ), and certainly never return.

                            1. I have seen "prices subject to change" on many web based menu's. With today's raw material prices I am not surprised that restaurants would up their prices also.

                              But, they should tell patrons ahead of time what the prices are.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: PeterL

                                In volatile times, ambiguous pricing formulae are not refuge for scoundrels of any feather, including restauranteurs. The timeless, stationary terms
                                "bargained for exchange", "consideration", and "quid pro quo" still have a legal foundation that protects both parties to a contract, written or oral. But dining out should not substitute legal wrangling for an appetizer.
                                I seem to do best with "tell me what you got, and tell me what it costs". Crude phrases can communicate well.

                                1. re: PeterL

                                  The "prices subject to change" on web based menus is due the fact that many restaurants go through a third party for web hosting/maintenance. When the "in house" menu prices change, the web update may take quite some time.

                                  1. re: hannaone

                                    Maybe I need a business card that states "my ability to pay is subject to change". The Webmaster who updates my cards is a little slow, but I am unemployed now, and I can only pay you $5 for that delicious osso bucco I just ate.
                                    I don't buy the "prices subject to change" self-serving scam. Get a pair of scissors and a pad of post-its and a ball point pen and tell me what the f**king meal costs today, so I can decide if I want it or not. Hannaone, you know I adore you, I simply loathe needless misunderstandings and poor communication.

                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      In some cases it may be a scam, but in others the restaurant may not even be responsible for posting their menu on the web. My former restaurants menu was copied from my web site and posted in various places, so to protect myself I added the disclaimer.
                                      Web Browsers and search engines also cache pages and the potential customer may be viewing something long out of date. So that phrase on web menus and paper take out menus (had a customer come in with a three year old take out menu) often makes sense.
                                      Note that I am not agreeing with the situation in the OP, simply commenting strictly on the web based menu (and old take out menus).

                                  2. re: PeterL

                                    "prices subject to change" on a webpage menu is one thing(!!)-- inflation happens, & it's called having coffee with your accountant, looking at all the new fuel surcharges on your wholesale stuff, and figuring out you can't sell x for z price anymore, and running off a new/temporary menu with adjusted prices. inflation and price changes *do* happen.

                                    *but* you won't catch any restaurateurs defending the scenario above though. that kind of crappy unethical cheating-the-customer-type B.S. makes all of us look bad, and it should get shut the f&^k down. are these dastardly shysters upcharging every customer, or just the ones whom they feel they can bully/get away with!? pay or don't pay your tab, but be sure to inform the local chamber of commerce and better business etc, and go patronize the 99% of independent restaurants that are up front with their customers. an unbelievable situation, as described by the op. horrible!!!

                                  3. Sorry, the above link doesn't work - here it is again -

                                    http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/...

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: Axalady

                                      That's an interesting article A and thanks for the link.

                                      The only confusion jfood has is where is the "register" in a restaurant, is it when the order is entered or when the bill is received or when you actually pay.

                                      And the husband handled this as badly as the server. The idea that he would ruin the anniversary night on a $350 tab for $7 bucks would have mortified mrs jfood. What was he thinking? And then he was humiliated? huh? he should have politely excused himself and spoken to the manager off line and away from his wife and then decided whether to order or not. Making a scene at the table is not productive and places everyone on the defensive.

                                      The resto should have honored the $28 and if the customer and the server would have handled differently this loss could have been changed to a win.

                                      1. re: jfood

                                        Agree that the diner should have spoken to the manager privately, but also agree that the restaurant should have honored the $28 price without a fuss. That, in fact, is what the diner had on his menu insert, according to the article. If the restaurant failed to remove all the inserts showing the lower price, that's their problem, and for good customer service, the price should have been immediately honored. Earlier "hiccups in service" for a restaurant that is supposed to be a 4-star dining experience and then this issue. Poor customer service after customers have just spent $350.

                                        1. re: jfood

                                          Professionals running the restaurant. No dining "professionals" eating at the restaurant. After spending that much money on a meal I can imagine how it felt for the patron to have them try and charge him the "extra" $7 for his, already pricey, drink. That the husband had first the waiter and then the manager over to his table to discuss the situation seems perfectly normal. This explains a lot of what ends up costing restaurants perfectly reasonable, easy going and free spending customers, who will never go back to eat at their place of business again. Penny wise and very pound foolish.

                                      2. As an avid saltwater angler, they've been doing this on charter boats for the last few years (adding a surcharge to the trip price, specifically for fuel).

                                        It could be that with the price of fuel and food stuffs increasing dramatically (flour, oil, sugar, produce) that they don't want to have to keep reprinting their menu to keep up with the need to raise their prices to compensate?

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: meadandale

                                          My Mom visited a smaller local restaurant last week. She commented on the "copied" menus. The waiter told her the prices are changing so frequently they are finding it hard to keep up with the changes and it costs too much to have menus printed all the time.

                                          1. re: Axalady

                                            There's a lot to be said for the old fashioned bistro blackboard menu. Makes inflation a lot easier to deal with while keeping the print prices next to nothing.

                                        2. If it was due to rising food prices or something similar, I think they should have been upfront about it and said when handing out the menus, before ordering, something along the line of "Due to the recent rise in prices, the items will be $2 more than is listed on the menu." To wait until AFTER you've eaten when you have no recourse (can't choose whether you accept the altered price or not) seems unethical to me.

                                          1. let's do an experiment: some hounds in the area of the resto, mango grove -- who ALSO happen to be indian -- should go and see if they are charged extra. for control, send non-indians at same time. also group of indian men, and a group of indian women. let's get it goin'!

                                            from the mango grove's website about their ayurvedic philosophy: "Ayurvedic teachings exhort people to follow a pure life-style, one that gives clarity and peace of mind." ironic, to say the least.

                                            i wonder about how their online ordering prices square with the menu upcharge -- esp. since i didn't see a disclaimer (in a cursory viewing),

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: alkapal

                                              "from the mango grove's website about their ayurvedic philosophy: "Ayurvedic teachings exhort people to follow a pure life-style, one that gives clarity and peace of mind." ironic, to say the least.".....alkapal

                                              It is amazing the things that people rationalize in the name of good. I'm sure they have a doozie! '-)

                                              But I do like your double blind study. Hope you get it going!