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The Ethics of Pricing

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.