Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at the Sun Sentinel.
After an enjoyable meal at a South Florida restaurant, the bill is placed before you and the indigestion begins.
It’s surprisingly lengthy. A $2 charge for ultra-filtered tap water? $1.25 for extra tomato on your bagel? A to-go fee? A fee to use a credit card? A charge for bringing in a birthday cake?
Not to mention confusing sales taxes, which vary by county and even city, and tips included in the bill for your party of four, in case you can’t be trusted to remember your server.
These tariffs have been startling newcomers as well as South Florida dining scene veterans as the price of food continues to rise, making eating out more expensive than ever. Many say they are perturbed by the abundance of upcharges they are noticing, even as they acknowledge COVID-19 has complicated restaurants’ staffing problems and access to food staples.
Sales taxes that vary by county and even city.
Restaurant taxes in Florida begin at 6% and don’t end there, at least not in South Florida. Counties, cities and special taxing districts can add to this base rate. That’s why you’ll see tax rates on restaurant bills that vary depending on your restaurant’s location.
In Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, the minimum rate is 7%, but at Miami-Dade hotel restaurants, it’s 8%. This is allowed by state law.
Miami Beach adds another 2% to the 7% countywide rate as a “resort tax” on food and drinks sold in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Another 1% could be coming soon to Miami Beach bills, as city commissioners voted this month to ask the state Legislature to allow the county’s homeless and domestic violence tax to expand to the beach’s restaurants. That would mean a 10% tax at Miami Beach restaurants that serve alcohol and earn $400,000 in sales each year.
You may also see unexpected charges at some Broward establishments. At Margaritaville Resort in Hollywood, restaurants levy a “public user fee” of 2% for the hotel’s use of public land. And your checks will show an “impact fee” at Village at Gulfstream Park restaurants in Hallandale Beach. Gulfstream’s website describes this .5% charge as “used to pay the debt service on the bonds that were issued to pay for the publicly owned infrastructure at The Village at Gulfstream Park.”
Gratuities (tips) included in the bill.
Many restaurants add a tip of at least 18% for large parties, usually defined as at least six people. Sometimes it’s noted on the menu, but sometimes it only shows up on the bill.
Christina Lawson of Boynton Beach was surprised when a Sunny Isles Beach restaurant charged her party of four an 18% “service charge” during a June visit.
“I worked in restaurants for many years but had never seen this before,” Lawson said. “We weren’t sure whether to tip on top of that or not.” They decided to leave a $10 gratuity in addition.
Some restaurateurs say such service charges show the establishment does not trust its patrons.
“Some are worried their servers won’t get tipped properly,” said George Anagnostou, owner of Copperfish Kitchen in Boca Raton. “I refrain from all that. That is a shock to the guest. If it’s a large party, over 10 people, we’ll say, ‘We can calculate the tip for you, or not.’ “
‘Non-cash fees’ (to use a credit card).
Credit card companies charge restaurants as much as 4% when customers use their cards. That can be a significant hit for some small businesses, which have to decide whether to absorb the cost or list it on the check.
Bagel Twins in Delray Beach recently started charging an extra fee for credit cards, calling it a “technology fee” in a notice on the counter. To take the sting out, the sign states: “As an incentive for customers, this fee will be waived if you pay by cash.”
Restaurants that delineate this charge take the risk of agitating their customers. Others simply increase the cost of their menu items to compensate.
David Wizenberg, an owner of Corvina Seafood Grill in Boca Raton, said credit card companies charge him from 1.5% to 4%, but he doesn’t separate this amount on the restaurant check.
“It’s one of the costs of doing business,” he said.
There’s no question that restaurants’ to-go business has increased during the pandemic. Take-out food may seem cheaper for restaurants to produce, but it costs them money for staff to take the orders, put the orders together and bring them out to cars or deliver them, not to mention the many layers of boxes, utensils, napkins and condiments in each order.
Cait St. Pierre of Coconut Creek has been going to Flanigan’s in Fort Lauderdale, which serves seafood, salads, burgers and pasta, for 20 years but only recently noticed its 10% to-go fee.
Flanigan’s spokeswoman Jennifer Pierce said the chain, which has 22 restaurants in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, has charged this fee since 1985. “The fee is listed on our menu, online menu, clearly noted on our online ordering website, and has not changed for 36 years,” Pierce said.
Still, St. Pierre said the fee irritated her.
“I thought all that would be included in the price of the food,” she said. “I haven’t done pick-up from them since then.”
Tom House of A Better House restaurant consulting in Fort Lauderdale said to-go orders pose numerous additional costs to restaurants that have to be passed on to consumers, especially since take-out orders have surged during the pandemic, he said.
“Customers ordering food to go have increased astronomically, therefore the amount of these supplies typically purchased by restaurants has increased proportionately,” he said. “The best way to show this is by adding a percent charge to each check and when the guests call to place their orders, receptionists should inform all guests of this charge at that time so they are not surprised when they arrive to pick up their food or it is delivered to them.”
Many customers expect free delivery because some restaurants advertise it. But there are numerous costs involved when an employee gets in a car with take-out items, said Michael Tomasso, an owner of Tomasso’s Pizza in Boca Raton.
He said he has to pay workers’ compensation and liability insurance for each delivery person. In addition, Tomasso’s pays drivers 55 cents a mile to cover gas, insurance and maintenance on their cars.
“We decided early on to charge extra for delivery and have the fees paid for by delivery customers rather than customers who dine in or carry out,” he said.
Tomasso had to up his delivery fee from $3 to $4 this past July. He said his liability insurance costs have more than doubled over the past year, from $10,000 to $24,000.
“And, the policy has a $10,000 deductible, too. Which means, I am on the hook for the first $10,000 of a claim,” Tomasso said.
Here are some other surprise fees that have been posted in the Sun Sentinel’s Let’s Eat South Florida food discussion group on Facebook.
COVID fees. You won’t see these much any more; they were more of a thing in 2020 as the pandemic began and the costs of food, sanitation and supplies started skyrocketing.
Sharing fees. Restaurants lose money when customers split dishes, thus sharing charges are not that unusual. At Olympia Flame Diner in Deerfield Beach, the sharing charge is $2.50, although owner Patty Miranda says she has refrained from adding other charges to the end of bills.
“We don’t charge any processing fees, just sales tax,” she said. “Other costs, like labor and food, are built into the prices.”
The Eat Beat – Restaurants, Bars and Recipes Newsletter
Dining out, cooking in and all the South Florida restaurant news and information you need.
Corkage fees. Typically about $25 to bring your own wine.
Fees to bring your own birthday cake, for an extra slice of tomato or for a glass of water. A lively conversation among bagel lovers ensued pre-pandemic after a customer questioned Long Island Bagel & Deli’s $1.25 fee for an extra slice of tomato. The West Boca restaurant lowered the fee to 75 cents after more than 500 comments, many critical of the “obscene” charge.
Owner Yale David said Wednesday certain items are placed in a sandwich automatically, such as turkey with lettuce, tomato and onion. But with a bagel and cream cheese, there are charges for additions, especially since pandemic costs have continued to mount.
“Most people understand these things cost money,” David said. “Prior to the pandemic, they were more resistant.”
These nickel-and-dime charges can make restaurant checks torturous to decipher. Make sure to give them a careful look-over, expect added fees and get comfortable asking your server detailed questions about each line item.