37

Not living in Canada, my siblings visited Casa Victoria restaurant (紫爵金宴) in Toronto for lunch. Everything went swimmingly until they saw this on their bill:

SAUCE 芥 6.00

They were never notified of this charge, not written anywhere on the menus or dim sum sheet. They never requested any sauces. So they requested a manager, and a man in a business suit came. They don't speak a word of Chinese, and this dialogue followed:

Manager: This is for table covers, sauces, preparation.
Siblings: Why would we be charged for these? They're standard in any restaurant.
Manager: This is standard policy. It's in many restaurants. Have you never been to Chinese restaurants?
Siblings: Can we have your name please?
Manager: Sorry. I'm not allowed to give names.
Siblings: It's not fair to charge us for something that was never agreed. Will you please waive and remove this charge?
Manager: Sorry. I cannot. This is policy.
Siblings: Sorry. We don't like hidden charges. They're very unfair. Is there anything you can do to help?
Manager: Sorry. No. This is owner's policy.
Siblings: Is there someone else who can help with this?
Manager: I'm the only manager. Anyway, you have to pay it. If you don't, I report you.

Weary and frightened by this threat, my siblings paid the bill, but without the standard tip of 15%.

I base the titled question on ethics, not money, as suing for $6 CAD is obviously senseless.


Further research

Googling "chinese restaurant" invoice "cover charge" yields other restaurants that charge this. Legend Chinese Restaurant in Thornhill, ON:

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Park Chinois Restaurant at 17 Berkeley St, London:

enter image description here

Miss Ene explains how these charges stunned her:

Anyhoo, the point of this entry is not to rave about the food at Chin Lee. Instead, I would like to draw your attention to a little unknown cost. Well, it was pretty unknown to me until today.

Now, we all know that restaurants charge for the wet napkins and peanuts/pickles that the place on your table at the start of each meal. I don’t have a problem paying for it because I am sure it all adds to their operating costs. However, I was pretty appalled that we (4 pax) paid $10 (excluding 7% GST) for “cover charge” and 2 plates of “pickles”. They were steamed peanuts, by the way.

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    Is this the place to air dirty laundry about specific restaurants (that you purposefully linked to)? I think you should remove the identifying comments and just focus on what the issue is. – Azor Ahai Oct 29 '18 at 2:34
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    @AzorAhai I referred to those restaurants as evidence of this covering charge, not to smear them. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Oct 29 '18 at 4:29
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    @Greek-Area51Proposal The link to the restaurant your siblings visited doesn't appear to be evidence for anything other than the restaurant's existence, and I have no idea what searching online for other restaurants which also apply a cover charge is supposed to add to your question (which, after all, boils down to "how do I dispute a restaurant bill in Canada?", your specific reason for wanting to do so not being of great importance) - especially the one from a restaurant which isn't even in the same country. – Chris H Oct 29 '18 at 8:07
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    @Tor-EinarJarnbjo Cover charges are not typical in restaurants in the US or Canada. Bars or clubs, sure, but I'm not surprised that Greek's family was taken aback by this, I would have been as well. – Azor Ahai Oct 29 '18 at 17:07
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not about travel, except insofar as the person was travelling when the incident occurred. – David Richerby Oct 30 '18 at 15:38
2

The key thing missing from your quoted exchange is this:

Customer: Please point out where this charge is listed on the menu, or perhaps a sign somewhere?

Then we're at a branching point:

  1. The overwhelmingly-more-likely scenario is that it's there and your friends overlooked it:

    Manager: Here, sir. (indicating small print easily overlooked)

    In which case, pay the charge, leave, and take the lesson: Read the small print. It's small for a reason. Restaurateurs expect you to overlook it. This is particularly common in tourist areas where repeat trade is less important than one-off trade. And it's not specific to Chinese restaurants (though as noted elsewhere, a cover charge — indicated on the menu — is common in dim sum restaurants, some tapas places, etc.).

  2. It's not there:

    Manager: I'm sorry, sir. It's not specifically listed, but it's standard policy.

    In which case, you have a choice:

    1. Pay it and leave, perhaps collecting evidence (pictures of menu, video of the manager telling you they can't point to the charge, etc.) and sending it to the board of trade or whatever relevant authority it is in the province you're in. You're out $6, but there we are.

    2. Refuse to pay it (which is a lot of hassle for $6, but perhaps it's the principle of the thing):

      Customer: No. Standard policy — indeed, law — in Canada is that you are not charged for things that are not listed on the menu or on signage. If it were on the menu or a sign, I'd pay it. Since it isn't, I will pay only the charges that were shown. I suggest updating your menu to list the charge to avoid future confusion. Here's my payment for what is actually owed.

      If you're paying cash, take a picture of the cash next to the menu and bill, and walk out.

      If you're paying by card and they refuse to take partial payment, start recording a video on your phone:

      Customer: You're insisting that we pay a charge you cannot point to on your menu or any sign in the restaurant. I'm offering to pay what we owe, what was on the menu. You've refused. Will you take that payment now? No? Okay, since you won't accept payment for what we owe now, I will be sending payment for the amount we owe to your restaurant within a week. Here are my details so you can sue me if I don't, or if you want to sue me for the $6. In the meantime, we're leaving.

      At which point, if you're anywhere near as conflict-averse as I am, you'd be off spending more than $6 on a couple of calming glasses of wine in the nearest pub. :-)


    In either case, if they try to physically prevent you walking out over $6 they can't back up with a menu item, I don't know the law in Canada but I suspect they're in for an uphill battle with the police you or they will eventually have to call if they do that. Certainly get video evidence of them physically barring you from leaving, and of you offering to pay the vast majority of the bill and saying why you aren't paying the rest.

66

Next time, pay and report the restaurant to the Ontario's consumer protection board here.

You need to pay and you should pay with a card so that there is paper trail of the payment.

Make certain you take pictures of the menus, bill, and anything that could/should state or not if there is a cover charge or extra charge. Try to take the picture of the menus with your bill next to it, again, to show that it is the proper menu.

If there is a cover charge, it should be plainly written on the menu.

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    Also take pictures of the entrance, any outside menus, etc. If a sign is found, but is obscured by a large plant or similar, take a picture of that as evidence of it being deliberately obscured. – John Oct 29 '18 at 5:21
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    Why do you need to pay? Pay the rest, leave your address and name and tell them to sue you. If they call the police, stay and wait for them, explain the situation and be gone. - Am I missing something? – DonQuiKong Oct 29 '18 at 6:11
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    @DonQuiKong - Because then you have to wait 30-60 minutes for a policeman to arrive who might be sympathetic to the owner and possibly arrest you. – Valorum Oct 29 '18 at 8:44
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    @DonQuiKong - I'm pretty sure that refusing to pay for a meal is a crime, at least in the UK it is – Valorum Oct 29 '18 at 9:47
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    @Valorum It's only a crime if you went with the intention of not paying, otherwise it's a civil matter. – George Oct 29 '18 at 10:32
29

For better or worse, it is quite standard for dim sum/yum cha places worldwide to charge cover charges, often mildly disguised as fees for peanuts, napkins, tea, sauces, which are all brought to your table without asking. I've seen this in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, etc, which are notably all also places where cover charges in restaurants are not the norm.

The rationale is simple enough: eating dim sum requires an extraordinary array of little plates, sauces and utensils, and people tend to make an event of it, sitting around for much longer than (say) your average noodle place. So the cover charge is the restaurant's way of ensuring they make a modicum of profit from everybody at the table, even if they only nibble on one dumpling over two hours.

Yes, the restaurant was at fault for not making the charge clear in advance; but no, you should not feel like you, personally, were targeted in some kind of scam. And if your meal cost more than $40 or so, stiffing them on more than $6 of tips in response is really not cool -- it's the owner's policy, not the waitstaff's.

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    @slebetman You're referring to service charges as a percentage of the bill, which are not the same thing as per-person cover charges. – jpatokal Oct 29 '18 at 4:24
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    It's the job of the waiter te ensure you have a good time. It was the job of the waiter to tell you about the cover charge. Now, because they didn't you had an experience in a restaurant you didn't like. This is a totally valid reason to withhold a tip. The waiter should have told you about the charges. – Pieter B Oct 29 '18 at 10:55
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    @jpatokal no, the job of the waiter is to provide good service. Bringing food is part of that, but there's a lot more to it. Part of that service should have been to avoid confusion about extra charges. – Pieter B Oct 29 '18 at 13:16
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    @jpatokal And the point of the tip is for good overall service. For some people, an unexpected charge along with the "this is how we do things, deal with it" attitude makes it a poor experience. I don't see why the person paying should be compelled to tip. I get that it's not necessarily fair to the waiter; but it also doesn't seem fair for the customer to leave a tip when they legitimately had their experience soured. Also, as Pieter mentions, a good waiter should let you know of additional charges. – JMac Oct 29 '18 at 13:16
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    This is NOT true "worldwide" in any way, shape, or form. I can't believe how inaccurate this answer is. This is absolutely not standard nor should be expected in North America. Absolutely not. I would refuse to pay this charge at ANY restaurant in the US or Canada. It's simply not how our culture works. – only_pro Oct 29 '18 at 18:00
19

I'm Chinese and think this is really a culture difference. Not all Chinese restaurant have this kind of fee. Only Guang Dong (广式茶餐厅) and Hong Kong restaurants have this kind of fee.
As a Chinese, the first time I went to Guangdong, I was surprised about this fee too. There, it's called 茶位费。- something like you go to restaurant and take a seat to drink a pot of tea. You will be asked to pay this little amount, no matter if you drink or not. The first time this happened to me I was surprised: "Why should I pay even I don't drink tea?". Later, I know there is a history here at Guang Dong.

In Guangdong province and HongKong people like to drink tea at a restaurant and have a chat for the whole day. They call this "喝早茶" (drink morning tea?).
Just like Westerners like to go to a bar and drink something and have social talk. Often, they only ask for a pot of tea, because what they eat and drink is not important, talking and friends are. And as a convention, the tea pot should be filled when it's empty. They may even order nothing.

But if everyone goes to a restaurant and orders nothing or only a pot of tea, and occupy the restaurant for a long time, the restaurant will go bankrupt. So, it's just common at Guangdong/Hongkong.

In fact, there is some discussion about this 'table cover fee' or 'tea position fee' in China too. Some people think this is unreasonable. But most Guangdong restaurants will charge for this to make themselves more authentic.

  • 2
    I also think that some kind of reasonable explanation of the fee can be given. The issue here is more that the existence and amount of the fee was not made clear in the menu or posted somewhere in the restaurant or indicated by the staff. Usually in any kind of business transaction the buyer has to agree to buy something and has to know the price of it before the transaction can happen, not afterwards. It's just about how to do proper business. The fee itself is okay as long as customers know about it. – Trilarion Oct 30 '18 at 12:29
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    Yes, @Trilarion you are absolutely right about this. Restaurant should do better, because not every customer is aware of this convention. And the manager's bad explanation only make things worse. Not a smart manager. – Blackhill de Eagle Oct 30 '18 at 14:04
11

Pay the bill, then double-check the menu and the entrance for signs informing you about the "sauce fee". If you don't find anything, inform the restaurant in writing that you disagree with the charge, joining a copy of the bill and the evidence you would collect while double-checking, like photos of the menu and the entrance. Give the restaurant enough time to deal with your complaint (1 month would be considered enough almost universally), and ask them clearly to reimburse the charge you disagree with.

Chances are that the restaurant will decide to issue a refund. Or perhaps they will reply and provide convincing evidence justifying the charge. If not, you have solid paperwork to file a complaint with customer protection authorities.

This is as far as you can go without going over the budget of $6 which you're trying to get back.

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    I'm sure in many cases it is not the refund but the principle of the thing. – Weckar E. Oct 29 '18 at 14:55
7

Why not simple decline to pay (that part of the bill)? Whom would they report you to?

If they call the police, you can make your argument there, and you would potentially win. And whom else would they report you to?

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    And what if it turns out they missed a sign on the front door or at the bottom of the menu? At this point they can't check that, and if the restaurant is correct, the police are there to issue them potential criminal charges. – user71659 Oct 28 '18 at 18:12
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    @JonathanReez Incorrect. It can be petty theft up to a felony, because can be considered obtaining goods by false pretenses. In fact, there is a specific Canadian law that makes it criminal fraud. – user71659 Oct 28 '18 at 18:21
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    @JonathanReez You're playing unlicensed lawyer here. The cops show up, the restaurant points out the sign, the cops get annoyed you're wasting their time and cite you for refusal to pay. Then you get dragged in front of a judge who thinks you're a cheapskate (summary offence), and now you have a criminal conviction on your record. I'm sure any competent lawyer will tell you to pay the few bucks, not go back, and write the district attorney if you really cared. – user71659 Oct 28 '18 at 18:31
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    @user71659 Proving fraud is very hard to do because it normally requires proving intent to defraud. If the original poster is telling the truth, that they were charged for goods or services they never ordered, then they would in fact have had no intent to defraud. If you read the page you linked, there are various circumstances where Canadian law removes the need to prove fraud, but none of them apply here. Police don't arrest people for "wasting their time" as that would only waste more of their time and judges don't convict people for being cheap. There are no district attorneys in Canada.. – Ross Ridge Oct 29 '18 at 3:59
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    @user71659 Surely the correct solution is to ask "Where is a clearly posted sign notifying potential customers of the charge? I do not see it on the menu, nor did I see it on the door as I walked in. On that basis I refuse to pay the charge." – John Oct 29 '18 at 5:13
2

Here in New Zealand, I've not seen cover charges like this in a restaurant - including at Chinese Yum Cha restaurants and similar. Also note that, like Australia, we don't do tipping here either (businesses pay waitstaff properly).

If I saw something like this, as an unannounced final charge, I would question it; and if I received an unsatisfactory answer, then it would be a negative review online, giving full details. Restaurants (and accommodation) here take their online reviews very seriously (as we're a tourist country) and too many people complaining can end a business.

  • New Zealand has very strong consumer protection and advertising laws, so a cover charge that wasn't very obvious would be dealt with as soon as the first complaint came in. On the other hand, I'd take issue with "businesses pay waitstaff properly" - although that's broadly true, it's also often not true specifically in Chinese restaurants :( – Logan Pickup Nov 1 '18 at 5:11
  • True, there are always some businesses that try to shaft their staff; fortunately they're relatively rare. I was more comparing to countries like the US where waitstaff have to survive on tips alone. – Steve Shipway Nov 4 '18 at 23:13
  • Not relatively rare in Chinese restaurants, specifically (based on job ads posted in Chinese-only websites, friends who have worked in them, and actual job offers - not a single one hitting minimum wage). This isn't usually a concern of the customers, though, so it's not really relevant to the original question. – Logan Pickup Nov 5 '18 at 1:06
  • Since I can't read Chinese, I'll defer to you on that one! – Steve Shipway Nov 5 '18 at 3:12

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