Feb 7, 2024 - Food and Drink

The Boathouse restaurant group is ending service fees

Illustration of a fork and knife folded in a napkin made of a hundred dollar bill.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Boathouse restaurant group is ending its 20% automatic service fees on all guest checks effective immediately.

Why it matters: Customers overwhelmingly hate restaurant fees, even as they've proliferated in the post-pandemic dining landscape.

  • A Pew survey out last fall found 72% of respondents oppose the fees, including 50% who strongly oppose them.
  • Karri's inbox indicates the number might be closer to 90% strongly opposed.

What's happening: The Boathouse group, whose seven local restaurants also include Casa del Barco and Island Shrimp Company, cited the Pew study and guest feedback in its decision to end the practice.

  • "We've gotten consistent feedback from guests and staff that they miss the direct connection that individual tips allow," owner Kevin Healy said in a statement.
  • To celebrate ending the fees, The Boathouse group is offering 20% off its entire menu at all its restaurants on Feb. 20. (Reservations are recommended.)

State of play: The Boathouse group was among the first in Richmond to begin instituting a flat 20% pre-tax service charge on all checks as a way to offset raising hourly wages for staff amid the industry uncertainty during the pandemic.

Be smart: Unlike automatic gratuity — a fee restaurants have long added for large parties and distributed directly to servers — service charges usually go to the restaurant owner to distribute however they like.

Worth noting: Service charges didn't start with the pandemic. Restaurant owners across the country have been experimenting with them for more than a decade as a way to eliminate America's perennial problematic and persistent dining practice: tipping.

  • Eliminating tipping, and creating a more equitable pay scale for kitchen and front of the house staff, is why Richmond's largest restaurant group, Lindsey Food Group, implemented a 20% service charge at its restaurants.

Yes, but: The Pew survey suggests service fees have only created more confusion around tipping, in addition to irritating the dining public.

  • Consumers have cited confusion over what they cover (varies), who gets the money (up to the owner) and — crucially for them — whether they're actually supposed to tip on top of the fee (you don't "have" to, but...).
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