Don't be duped by restaurant rip-off tricks


Tallying the cost of your meal is no longer as simple as adding up the items on the menu that you ordered – you could be paying for extras such as cakage (the fee a restaurant charges if you bring your own cake), corkage (the fee a restaurant charges if you bring your own wine) and even for tap water.

For budget conscious diners, these additional costs can come as a shock when the bill arrives.

Unfortunately, with food prices and staff costs escalating, some restaurants are charging for things that used to be “on the house”, or are finding new and ingenious ways to make more money.

Here are a few examples:


Some restaurants have cottoned on to the fact that diners save costs by sharing a meal, and have put a stop to it.

Wendy Alberts, CEO of the Restaurant Association of SA, says: “Where there is sharing, restaurants will charge a plating fee, or they will charge you 70% per dish of the original price.”

She points out that this may aggravate consumers because a lot of people like sharing.

“It is a culture of eating out – people will order a variety of different dishes and then share.”


Some waiters and restaurant staff frown upon diners ordering tap water. They’ll ask if you want still or sparkling water and hope that you’ll be too embarrassed to insist on tap water. If you insist on it, some restaurants will charge for that.

“Some charge for the tap water, or even the plating of the water – some call it a glass charge,” says Alberts.

“Other establishments put bottled water on the table when they set it, hoping that you’ll be enticed to drink it, but then you pay for it. Some even leave wine on the table [for the same reason].”

Not all restaurant owners agree with this method of charging.

James Diack, chef of Coobs, a bistro in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, believes this is cheeky, but points out that customers can also take advantage.

“If people order tap water, it is not the end of the world. You don’t want to start a war with your customer over a glass of water. But if they ask for 10 lemon slices, honey and mint in it, then you’d have to apply some reason to it,” he says.


When you get your restaurant bill at the end of the night, it’s important to check it thoroughly, not only for mistakes, but to prevent double tipping, which can occur when a restaurant adds an optional service charge to the bill, but then adds a line for the tip at the bottom.

Alberts says the industry experienced this issue two years ago, “but a lot of the restaurants stopped doing it”.


If you have leftover food, you typically ask for a doggy bag so that you can take the food home and not waste it or your money.

However, Alberts warns that restaurants are starting to charge for the packaging used for the doggy bag.

“Some charge for takeaways – I think it’s about R20 for a takeaway container,” she says.

Meanwhile, others have put a stop to customers taking home their food on all-you-can-eat specials.


To cut costs, some restaurant patrons bring their own wine or cake when celebrating an occasion because the restaurant’s dessert or liquor is too expensive. Corkage fees are common and could set you back about R30 per bottle. However, cakage fees are becoming more widespread.

“I’ve heard of complaints about cakage. But someone has to serve the cake and wash those plates. It can lead to losses,” says Diack.


Restaurants make most of their profits from their drinks. Some online reports suggest that restaurants put the biggest mark-up on the second-cheapest bottle of wine because most people don’t want to come across as stingy, so they avoid the cheapest option and go for the second cheapest. Diack says that, he doesn’t adopt this tactic; he applies a standard mark-up.

He acknowledges that people get upset about the cost of liquor, but adds: “We spend a lot of money on our liquor licence and it costs money to hold stock, and glassware isn’t free.”


It has to be said that not all restaurants find ingenious ways to charge for the extras – some restaurant owners are realistic about prices.

“We don’t want people to choke on their bill. I’d rather have people come more often, like two to three times a month,” says Diack.

However, he points out that customers should also have more understanding when it comes to costs and rising prices.

“There is a perception that restaurants are getting unfairly expensive, but some people don’t consider how it [the food] gets to the plate or how we obtain that glass of wine. Drought and increasing food prices have had an affect.

“In the same breath, gas has gone up and so have salaries.”

Ultimately, being landed with a higher-than-expected bill at the end of the night can be a shock. The best way to prevent this from happening is know what to look out for. Phone ahead to find out if there are any extra charges if you want to bring your own cake or wine, and check if there is an extra charge depending on how many people there will be at your table because some restaurants add an automatic service charge for parties of 10 or more.

When you are seated, don’t be afraid to ask the waiter about sharing meals, and find out if vegetables and other side dishes are part of the meal or if they are charged for separately. If you don’t want to embarrass your guests with your questions, phone ahead.

If you don’t agree with the service charge because your waiter hasn’t served you well, don’t be embarrassed to ask him or her to remove it.

“If you’ve had substandard service and fought your way through a meal, I don’t believe in a mandatory tip. And I think that is one of the biggest misconceptions in the industry,” says Diack.

Finally, don’t be bullied by waiters into buying specific dishes or drinks. And if you are confronted by the “still or sparkling water” question, simply ask for tap water if that’s what you want – just remember to ask if you pay for that too.

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