A consumer advocate is suing a popular restaurant chain for “fraudulent” inflation charges

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – A well-respected consumer advocate has filed a lawsuit against a popular chain over its way of dealing with inflation.

It’s not a lot of money, not nearly enough to cover 6-7% inflation, but Romano’s Macaroni Grill has been charging a $2.00 “inflation fee” since spring.

While the chain said it was to avoid price gouging, the lawsuit says it’s unfair and deceptive — there could be claims for other restaurant charges, too.

Macaroni Grill faces many of the same pressures that all restaurants face – higher labor, energy and food costs.

But when the chain added a $2.00 “Temporary Inflation Charge,” some customers were mad enough to call lawyers, like veteran Honolulu consumer attorney Brandy Faria.

“People don’t notice it and they just get away with paying for it,” Faria said. “It’s really very deceptive and unfair because it’s unnecessary.”

Faria says the best way to account for higher costs is to raise menu prices to cover them.

His class-action lawsuit says the charge was not disclosed to the restaurant, the servers or the menu, and was only shown as a menu item on receipts.

The lawsuit says the restaurant’s website includes comments that say the higher costs may be temporary, that the temporary fees are better for customers.

Clarity of disclosures is not the only standard to avoid “unfair and deceptive” business practices, according to Hawaii State Office Director Steven Levins.

“If a business is going to do this, they need to be upfront and transparent,” Levins said. “And the so-called actual amount that they’re charging has to match some kind of reality.”

Levins explained that the surcharge should actually match the specific costs it is intended to cover.

For example, a charge to cover a temporary increase in electricity costs, called an “electricity charge”, should actually be based on the actual increase, not just “out of the hat”.

Hawaii News Now was unable to reach the restaurant’s parent company. But after complaints from across the country, they may have stopped charging. A look at the online ordering site shows no sign of a charge, and the spaghetti and meatloaf purchase at the Macaroni Grill in Ala Moana Center had no extra charge.

Inflation and wage pressures, meanwhile, are prompting other restaurants in Hawaii to add fees — some called dining or dining fees.

The Hawaii Restaurant Association said that along with inflation, members are meeting minimum wage increases that have actually widened the wage gap between paid servers and kitchen workers.

“You know, they can’t lose money and stay in business,” said former HRA chairman Tom Jones. “So this is one way restaurants can do that by adding a dining service fee.”

But Levins and Faria said restaurants should be very careful not to violate consumer protection laws.

“This inflation fee and this dining fee and dining service fee. They are all wrong,” Faria said. “And there’s no law that says they’re inappropriate, but they fit the classic, unfair, deceptive trade practice model.”

Faria said he probably won’t sue a restaurant that makes its fees clear in advance.

Levins said customers who still feel cheated can file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Protection. They looked at how the fee was presented to the consumer.

Jones agreed that customers should always be notified in advance of any charge.

“The Restaurant Association recommends that restaurants clearly communicate to their customers, which means, you know, putting up signs in the lobby, making sure it’s clear on the menu and in big enough print for people to see. “

The Macaroni Grill lawsuit is a class action, which means anyone who paid can join as a plaintiff, but Faria agrees that participating won’t get consumers much compensation, other than a suspension. other restaurants.

“If we can change them or change our menu and change our disclosure practices, then that will save people in the state of Hawaii a lot of money over time,” Faria said.

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