Don’t See Inflation on the Restaurant Menu? Look Carefully to Find it on the Bill

Times are tough. Inflation is at a 40-year high. Restaurants continue to face budget-busting challenges from the pandemic and labor crisis. But that’s not all. As I write this sentence, food prices have increased by 18%, which may have risen even higher when you read it.

Here’s the Weird Thing

Sure, restaurant menu prices have increased some, but none of that adds up to 18% across the board as restaurants attempt to cover the cost of the food. You may look at the menu for your favorite restaurant and see a few price hikes, but nothing that seems unreasonably out of line.

What’s Up?

Are restauranteurs morphing into benevolent philanthropists?  Uh, that would be a negative, although according to OpenTable data, as a group, restaurateurs got into the business because they want to take care of people. They want their hospitality to be accessible no matter the economic climate.

That being said, the answer, my friends, is blowing through the bill—that check the server nonchalantly places next to your water glass at the end of the meal. While nothing that follows has become standardized, it helps paint a picture of what you can expect to see at restaurants near you.

Forget free refills

Enjoy them while you can because it may soon be something for our kids’ I-remember-when collection to tell their kids. Soft drinks and coffee are not a massive expense for a restaurant, but not free iether. Finding enough staff actually to perform beverage refills is making the practice on its way to becoming a relic. Instead, thirsty customers in some establishments need to request and then pay for each refill—a way the restaurant is covering increased costs.

Share the pain

Even though pasta, for example, costs the restaurant about the same as it did months ago you may see big jumps for pasta dishes. Example: Beef steak has gone through the roof, so a restauranteur may tack on some of that increase to the steak menu price to keep customers happy with only a tiny increase, offsetting the balance of the real cost by adding it to the price of say, Fettuccini Alfredo.

Charging for everything

We’re hearing about restaurants starting to charge for add-ons and extras such as condiments, coffee cream, ranch dip, and other add-ons. Don’t be surprised to see a slew of $.50 or $1.00 charges for items that have been previously complimentary.

Care to share?

More restaurants are adding a share fee or split charge, which should be disclosed on the menu, but don’t count on it. If you prefer to share a meal, entree, etc., you can ask for an extra plate but get ready to be charged $5 or more for the privilege.

 

 

Reservation deposit

It’s happened a couple of times for me: I make reservations at OpenTable.com, then discover the restaurant requires a credit card with clear instructions that if we don’t show up, there will be a significant fee to cover. It rubs me the wrong way but may indeed indicate what’s coming. I can see how this practice affects a restaurant negatively. Still, I am not a fan of reservation deposits because they come with conditions, i.e., if you cancel within 72 hours, you lose your deposit.

Gratuities no longer optional

This one really gets my goat. And again, with apologies to service persons everywhere, a gratuity is not a given. It is a reward for service rendered beyond what is expected. A gratuity should be optional, a customer’s decision. Get ready to kiss that concept goodbye as more and more restaurants are automatically adding 18% gratuity to the bill, with a nudge to “please add more if you like.”

In the face of this kind of thing, I console myself that the whole activity of eating out is still optional. It’s my choice, and if I choose to dine out, I’d better plan that it comes at a much higher cost than ever before in the history of civilization.

New fees

I first saw this on a restaurant bill in 2020: Covid Recovery Fee: 8%. What? Really? Another was somewhat gentler: Showing Love to Our Staff Fee: 7%. Another place calls it their Back-of-the-House Appreciation Fee: 6%. Or how about this one: Obamacare (ACA): $.20. See how a restaurant can pass inflation to the customer in small bits here and here, hoping to make it unnoticeable?

Get ready

Between April 2021 and April 2022, the total number of restaurants in the United States adding service fees to guest checks increased by 36.4%, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Slash the High Cost of Dining Out

This is easy—cook at home. Instead of seeing restaurant meals as routine, save dining out for special occasions, fully aware that what you see on the menu is only part of what will show up on the bill.

 

Graphic Courtesy of: OpenTable.com

 

 


 

 

 

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  1. Cedric says:

    Glad someone’s noticed inflation! Just because the rate of inflation is slowing, doesn’t mean food — and everything else — isn’t already expensive! Thanks for the blog. We started using an air fryer during CoVid, and haven’t looked back. Seems like we’re going to need it instead of eating out!

    Reply
  2. Vickie Duran says:

    I realize some costs have gone up, but some is also just plain ole gouging. This year when we make our annual trek back to see my aged Mother, we are going to skip the motel. It feels good to fight back when you can.

    Reply
  3. Cally Ross says:

    Have you compared fast food prices recently? I always get the same thing at Taco Bell and recently paid $8.95 (even with the “Sr discount”). what used to be a cheap lunch, around $5, is now as much as some sit-down restaurants. Yep, packing my lunch and not eating out except for special occasions, and, even then i’m checking the bill!

    Reply
  4. Cathy down on the farm... says:

    Just cannot bear to eat out! Thankfully, I am a decent cook and when I have my family over it is a pleasure to cook and clean up knowing I am not paying over the top prices in restaurants. When we travel, I take a cooler and an instant pot. I use the cooler for premade food in hotel rooms that I can refrigerate and microwave, and an instant pot for any Air BNB we may stay at. No purchasing snacks on the road, either …we take our own. The receipt you showed, Mary, just blew my mind!!! :0 Every thing has just gotten outrageous!

    Reply
  5. Julie Klotz says:

    Great article! I have been noticing more and more restaurants, and even some retail stores, that are adding up to 3% if you use a credit card to pay the bill. I was at a Pet Supply store and when I checked out, they asked if I was paying by card or cash. When I asked why, they said there was a fee if I used a credit card.

    Reply
  6. Red says:

    I long ago quit buying non alcoholic beverages at $3, I now order water. And yes, getting refills can still be tough.

    Some years back I belonged to a group that regularly met at a restaurant. Since we stayed a bit longer we always were over 20% in gratuities. Then the restaurant started putting the 15% on the bill. We had it removed several times and one server knew to not put it on at all. We finally gave up when we found it taking longer and longer to get the charge removed and decided to settle for the amount they were requesting instead. A few figured it out. Eventually we just quit going. Was it disrespectful? Probably, on both sides. But all of us had worked in food service of some time in our younger years which is why there was a nice tip for treating us like adults!!!

    Reply
  7. Anita says:

    We recently paid an extra fee at a restaurant for paying by credit card. If only I’d have had enough cash with me to avoid that charge…

    Reply
  8. SuzieQutes says:

    Yes, I know!!! My favorite Asian restaurant that by the way is quite excellent, made all of their menu items Vegetarian and then charges “extra for the meat” with of course more for seafood and beef after they also increased all of the prices for those Vegetarian meals by $5.00+…can you imagine Broccoli Beef without Beef?! Then they added a “Surcharge” of 3% for allowing me the privilege of using my credit card to pay the bill, I was shocked!!!

    Reply
  9. Becky says:

    My husband and I have eaten out once a week with a group of friends for over 30 years. Mostly we eat at 2 types of restaurants: locally-owned diners, the kind with meat-and-vegetable plates, and national chains like Olive Garden, Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s. We have noticed that prices have gone up much more at the national chains than at the diners.

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