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‘Service fee’ doesn’t cut the mustard

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Copy of ST_condiments0_CITY_E1

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Most condiments are free, but you need to watch your bill in case theyre not. PICTURE: ROGAN WARD

Pretoria - A lot of things that ought to be built into the cost of an item or a service get carved out and charged as “extras” these days. A hefty “delivery charge” added to the cost of a new car; “admin fees” for just about everything; and a “service fee” imposed by some restaurants – not enforceable without clear disclosure upfront, incidentally.

For now, though, condiments appear to be considered part of the cost of serving prepared food: salt, pepper, sugar, tomato sauce and the like.

But every now and then a reader sends me a bizarre case: a man who was charged extra for a slice of lemon in his fizzy drink, for example.

Usually, the management or franchise owner apologises profusely when I intervene, blaming waiter inexperience or a problem with the programming of a till.

Last week Lewis Rabkin provided yet another example of condiment charging.

“I had breakfast at the Woolworths Cafe in Sea Point, as I do once a week,” he wrote. He had eggs, mushrooms and sausage, which came to R48.

“And as always, I asked for mustard.

“When I got my bill, I saw I’d been charged R5 for the mustard. And when I objected, I was told that this was an instruction from ‘head office’.

“It’s only R5, but I have never been charged for mustard before at any restaurant. I was so irritated that I asked for a doggy bag so that I could take the rest of the mustard with me.

“Are they going to start charging for tomato sauce, salt and pepper, sugar and sweetener?

“If so, surely they should at least state their policy upfront with the order?”

I put it to Woolworths that being charged extra for mustard with breakfast would get up most people’s noses.

Responding, the retailer said it would investigate Rabkin’s “regrettable experience”.

“However, we do not charge for mustard, tomato sauce or Tabasco sauce, and will ensure that this position is re-iterated to our cafés.”

Woolworths added that extra helpings of ingredients such as anchovies and cheese were charged for. And rightly so – few consumers would find that unreasonable.

Rabkin responded: “Interesting that the manager insisted that this was a head office instruction and out of his hands!

“I know this is a minor rip-off in the scheme of things, but sometimes one feels compelled to make a stand.”

Indeed.

Often it’s a case of waiters not being properly trained or empowered to make common sense calls about extra items.

I once took up the case of a woman who took her mother out for tea and eats. The teapot was too big for the number of teabags in it, with the result that the tea was unacceptably weak. So she asked the waiter for an extra teabag. He obliged and she used it to strengthen the brew, but she was charged double for that pot of tea.

Likewise, when I ordered a R55 breakfast at an airport outlet last week, I asked for the two beef sausages in the meal description to be left off the plate – the most expensive component of the meal.

I didn’t ask for a substitute or a reduction in the cost of the meal, but when I asked for a second piece of toast (it had been served with a single slice) I was told that I would be charged extra for it.

I started to protest that under the circumstances, it should be free, but the waiter got flustered, the manager was out, and not willing to seem desperate for a free slice of toast, I just ate up and paid.

But the otherwise good experience was slightly soured for me.

Over a slice of toast.

Yes, some customers can be a bit “grabby” – abusing the free condiments and the like, and restaurants need to programme their systems to avoid pilferage – but this needs to be balanced by the need to provide a service that makes customers feel welcome, and valued.

And not want to scrape their unexpectedly expensive mustard off their plate as a takeaway. - Pretoria News

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