Opinion: CJ Opinion

Are social justice surcharges creating red and blue restaurants?

How would you feel if they went out to dinner and a portion of the charge is hidden from the menu or website? That was my experience with Garland restaurant in downtown Raleigh. A 6% “living wage surcharge” was tacked on to my bill. Not only wasn’t the charge visible on the menu or website, but it was also clear it wasn’t included as a part of the tip. Is this lack of price transparency fair to consumers or even servers?

It is undeniable that new surcharges at restaurants are a rising phenomenon. Many woke-minded establishments are adding “living wage” and “equity” charges to their bills. In researching articles about the new practice, unlike Garland, most restaurants are transparent about the cost. Pizzeria Toro in Durham now adds a 20% living wage surcharge, and patrons are not expected to tip on top of that.

Some California restaurants are adding a 1% carbon offset surcharge or sustainable farming surcharges to bills. Still, maybe it’s not so bad if some of your pocket change can help stave off environmental Armageddon?

No different than many airlines, restaurants don’t want to raise their prices on the menu. A way to lessen sticker shock in a hyper-competitive industry. They are keen on making up expenses through added fees. Yet, it feels duplicitous and not very woke if the restaurant is unwilling to raise menu prices because they refuse to pay a higher or more competitive wage.

In his piece on this issue over at Foundation for Economic Education, Jon Miltimore highlights the belief, backed by research, that many tippers have built-in biases from racism or sexism – suggesting this is something restaurants believe about you too and are trying to alleviate with their social justice surcharges.

Perhaps the bonus is that many patrons will feel morally superior in virtue signaling their support for equity and sustainability or other justice-oriented lingo. Maybe it’s the proverbial taking of the knee, albeit in a restaurant.

Still, while the new surcharges are not fair to patrons if not readily transparent, it might be even worse for servers. One server in the region, who preferred to remain anonymous, doesn’t think it’s such a good idea. “Servers mostly hate the idea because it hands control of their income over to their company and the state,” an employee at a popular establishment proclaimed.

Yet, most servers represent the constituency the left purports to help, like minorities, single moms, lower-income earners, and college students. Yet, in the interview, the service employee believes that springing added ideological costs on unsuspecting consumers will only come at the expense of a server’s tip.

Of course, since we live in a free-market-oriented society, patrons can vote with their feet. If surcharges are readily visible on a menu — often similar to standardized tipping for larger parties —one can freely choose to incur the costs or leave. Essentially, a menu acts as a contract.

Yet, the more significant issue with this new kind of politicized surcharge may exacerbate the further siloing of red and blue America, including the urban and rural divide.

Plenty of corporations are entirely sold out to bending the knee for the woke agenda and weaponizing politics over and against the freedoms of a more pluralistic society.

Simply put, will it further divide us and keep us from interacting or understanding each other?

Still, the biggest problem with woke surcharges and greater uniformity in tipping is that it comes at the expense of servers – and patrons alike.

We are called to be generous people, particularly in the giving of our time, resources, and income. If something becomes mandated – like taxes – we lessen our spirit of generosity when compelled by a state or a business. That’s a lesson more valuable than any bottom line on a balance sheet.

Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor.