Aug 9, 2023 - Food and Drink

How D.C. restaurants should disclose service fees

Service fees are clarified at DC restaurants by the attorney general

Service fees, clarified. Photo: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

D.C.'s attorney general on Wednesday released explicit guidelines on how restaurants should disclose lawful service fees to customers.

Why it matters: Diners continue to be baffled by how service charges work and how they're used, and the AG's office is concerned that some restaurants aren't being transparent about their fees.

The big picture: Service charges are increasingly common in D.C. restaurants in the wake of Initiative 82, and there's little standardization when it comes to the amount or language around them. There's even a D.C. Reddit channel devoted to reporting them.

Catch up fast: In March, AG Brian Schwalb's office began cracking down on murky restaurant charges like "wellness fees." Letters were sent to thousands of D.C. restaurants warning that service charges must be "prominently, clearly, and accurately disclosed" before diners place orders.

  • Restaurants are required to include the reason for the fee and the amount.
  • Businesses that break the law can be fined up to $5,000 for first-time offenders and $10,000 for repeat offenses.

What's happening: A spokesperson for the AG's office says the new guidelines are designed to help.

  • "We want to make sure the law is super clear so we don't have to enforce fines."

The latest: Check out these examples of checks the AG is showing the public. Which one is compliant?

Images courtesy of the D.C. Attorney General's Office

Answer: None!

Zoom in: Examples 1 and 2 are wrong because the explanation is lumped in with unrelated information. Restaurants are also dinged if the fee is buried in the fine print.

Here's a compliant menu:

Image courtesy of the D.C. Attorney General's Office

Details: It's compliant because the placement is prominent and written in a similar menu font size. It's also set clearly apart, unlike the examples above.

What they're saying: Some restaurateurs have come out in favor of the new guidelines, especially since it clarifies things for tourists as well as for locals.

  • "With these new guidelines, restaurant operators can get back to focusing on what we love doing, welcoming and serving our guests," says Cork owner Diane Gross.

What we're watching: A new restaurant relief bill put before the D.C. Council in June includes a requirement that service charges go to employee wages.

  • The service charges can currently be lawfully used for any restaurant expense (as long as they follow the AG guidelines), whereas tips must go to employees.

Who you gonna call: The AG's office has received on their hotline this year hundreds of complaints and questions related to service fees. The public can text "COMPLAINT" to 202-738-5212 and follow the prompts, or call 202-442-9828.


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