D.C. Attorney General releases new guidance on restaurant fees

The D.C. Attorney General is telling restaurants and diners how to handle those fees we seem to be seeing more and more of, in new guidance released this week.

The AG’s office says they’ve seen heard consumer complaints and believe more restaurants may consider adding fees to help meet their obligations under the district’s tipped wage rule, Initiative 82.

FOX 5 spoke with customers who have mixed feelings about the fees, but are unanimous in the need for transparency.

The D.C. Attorney General’s office tells FOX 5 they feel the consumer protection laws in the district require any business, restaurants included, to properly disclose these fees and where they go.

This consumer alert, they say lays out the rules of the road.

"Certainly, more fees have been popping up. Um, just taking it as a given these days and just trying to be gracious to the servers and not so gracious to my wallet," Ryan Stevens told FOX 5.

Terry Isler says he thinks fees are going to be the new norm, but how restaurants distribute them will be a factor in where he decides to go.

"This is new. Soemthing that we’re going to have to get used to, and if people want to keep enjoying these restaurants, we’re going to have to find some way to keep them open," Isler says.

The AG’s office sent a letter to every restaurant in the district about fees.

READ MORE: 'Overwhelming majority' of DC restaurants did not disclose tipped wages: report

The fees are legal, but the AG’s office says it’s illegal to leave out some information about the fees.  

The alert says the fees have to be clearly visible, disclosed before the meal, and spell out exactly what the fee is and what it going towards.

The example the AG’s office gave, if there was a generic "restaurant recovery fee" without explaining who exactly it benefits, a consumer may be entitled to file a complaint.

Andrew Markert is the owner of Fight Club and Beuchert’s Saloon in Southeast.

He does not charge any fees right now, but says it’s something he’s considering in the future, because of Initiative 82, the referendum DC voters passed by a 3-to-1 margin last fall that changes the structure of how tipped workers are paid.

"Raising costs might be the best option up front, there is a little bit of that sticker shock I feel like sometimes towards guests, so those are all the options we have to explore: What makes sense for us as a business? Within that, the restaurant business is very diverse and very different, and every business model is very different, so it’s hard to just say everyone should do this and everyone should do that," Markert told FOX 5.

Markert says he’s supportive of more transparency.

FOX 5 also spoke with the president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Shawn Townsend tells FOX 5 he’s heard from members frustrated about the Attorney General’s letter. 

Townsend says the organization agrees that more transparency is better.

But Townsend wishes the RAMW was consulted before the letter went out, adding the climate for restaurants is still challenging due to inflation, labor issues and the pandemic.  Townsend said restaurants are also figuring out how to navigate Initiative 82.

READ MORE: Restaurants charging added fees in attempt to rebound from COVID-19 pandemic

"This additional information that was just put out, just makes operators, consumers, workers even more confused about everything. Do we tip? Do we not tip? What percentage do we charge, can we charge? Just makes it a little more confusion. Hopefully with working with Council, Mayor, OAG, hopefully we can all kind of get on the same page and make it as clear as possible for our members," Townsend said.

Townsend said the Restaurant Association will likely have a meeting with the AG’s office soon to answer questions.