Updated June 9, 2020 - 1:30 pm
The mahi-mahi taco platter at El Segundo Sol in Fashion Show mall is $19.95. A Coke to wash it down (refills included) is $3.75 more. When the check arrives, it reflects the food and drink charges of $23.70, along with $2.06 in tax and a 95-cent “surcharge,” bringing the total to $26.71.
While the server doesn’t mention the fee when he drops the bill at the table, a notation at the bottom of the check makes it clear.
“To help offset restrictions on our business resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, a 4% surcharge has been added to all guest checks,” it explains. “If you would like this removed, please let us know.”
Savvy Las Vegas locals and visitors know to check their bills for surprises, beyond the oft-decried resort fees and parking charges. Some nightclubs have been known to tack on unexplained “venue” or “service” fees, while certain restaurants on the Strip add similarly nebulous “CNF” or “concession” fees.
The popular off-Strip restaurant Lotus of Siam adds an optional 3 percent fee to offset the cost of providing health care for its workers. So perhaps it’s not surprising that some are asking customers to help cover the additional costs of reopening in the age of COVID-19.
A statement from R.J. Melman, president of El Segundo Sol’s Chicago-based parent company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, calls the optional surcharge “a necessary step during a time when unanticipated costs have jeopardized the survival of our business.”
It explains: “Our industry has been dramatically impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures. In addition to the extreme restrictions that have been placed on our dining rooms, we are also facing additional costs of doing business — added expenses for carryout and delivery, providing PPE to employees, executing enhanced sanitation practices, and absorbing the greatest increase in food pricing since 1974.”
In addition to El Segundo Sol, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has implemented the new policy at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab in the Forum Shops and Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas. The company’s fourth local eatery, the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, remains temporarily closed.
The policy is noted on each restaurant’s website, menus and printed checks and explains how to have the fee waived.
Despite news reports of similar policies in other cities, the practice doesn’t appear to be widespread in Las Vegas.
Representatives of MGM Resorts International, Wynn and Encore, and The Venetian and Palazzo say that none of their restaurants have added coronavirus-related fees.
A Venetian/Palazzo spokeswoman added that she was “also not aware of any such practices at any third-party ‘partner’ restaurants” at the properties. Caesars Entertainment, which owns Paris Las Vegas, where Mon Ami Gabi is located, says that none of its company-owned restaurants have such fees.
“Usually when something happens like this, we start getting emails from people all over the place,” says Anthony Curtis, founder of the locally based Huntington Press and publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, which monitors and reports on resort fees and parking charges. “So far, I’ve only heard about it being at Joe’s. So it probably isn’t (widespread), or I think I’d have heard something.”
Joe Essa, the immediate past chairman of the National Restaurant Association and president and CEO of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, doesn’t expect the practice to become widespread.
“I do not think that it will become a trend,” Essa says.
He’s quick to add, however, that the practice speaks to a wider problem.
“The trend that I’m seeing and a lot of my colleagues are seeing is that this crisis is so serious to all of us that we would even have to think of doing something like this,” he said. “Because restaurateurs in general don’t like surcharges. So it should tell us all how serious this is and how much everyone’s economic situation has been impacted.”
What may be most surprising about this fee is the support it’s found. Scott Roeben, founder of the Vital Vegas website, is a frequent critic of add-on fees charged by some local businesses. He originally reported on the COVID-19 fee at Joe’s last week in a post that was uncharacteristically understanding, noting that he was OK with paying the fee at a restaurant he loves.
“We want the place to thrive, and we don’t mind helping Joe’s through a rough patch,” he wrote.
“Typically, I’d go into rant mode,” Roeben explained to the Review-Journal. “Because part of my stock and trade is helping people avoid these annoying fees. But as I thought about it more, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do support these places. And I tip more now to support the servers.’ So, this is like a tip for the restaurant itself.”
He says what while some readers are upset by the policy, he reminds them that things are tough for businesses operating at reduced capacity and that this approach may be better than other options.
“The alternative is to raise prices,” Roeben said. “But you know how that is. Once you go up, they don’t often go back. So I’d rather have this tacked on temporarily.”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian and Palazzo.