Lawyer sues Romano’s Macaroni Grill for $2 ‘inflation charge’

HONOLULU (Hawaii News Now) — A respected consumer attorney in Hawaii has filed a lawsuit against famed restaurant chain Romano’s Macaroni Grill over its attempt to fight inflation.

Macaroni Grill has been charging a $2 “inflation fee” since the spring. The chain says it was to avoid price hikes, but the lawsuit says it’s unfair and misleading.

When the chain added the fees, some customers were crazy enough to call attorneys, like Brandee Faria, a veteran consumer attorney in Honolulu.

“People don’t notice it and they just get away with paying for it,” Faria said. “It’s really very misleading and unfair, both 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 charges were not disclosed in the restaurant, by servers or on the menu. It only appeared as a menu item on receipts.

The lawsuit said the restaurant’s website included an explanation that because higher costs can be temporary, a temporary fee was better for customers.

However, clarity of disclosures isn’t the only standard to avoid being deemed an “unfair and deceptive” business practice, according to Hawaii Consumer Protection Office Director Stephen Levins.

“If a company wants to do this, they have to be upfront [and] transparent,” Levins said. “And the so-called real fees they charge must correlate with some semblance of reality.”

Levins explained that an additional tax should actually be the specific cost it is meant to cover. For example, a charge intended to cover temporary increases in energy costs, referred to as an “energy charge”, should in fact be based on the actual increase and not simply “out of the hat”.

Hawaii News Now couldn’t reach the restaurant’s parent company, but after complaints from around the country, they may have stopped charging the fee. A look at the online ordering site showed no sign of it, and a purchase of spaghetti and meatballs at the Macaroni Grill at the Ala Moana center had no extra charge.

Meanwhile, inflation and wage pressure are causing other restaurants in Hawaii to add fees — some called cooking or catering fees.

The Hawaii Restaurant Association said that along with inflation, members are adjusting to recent minimum wage increases, which has actually widened the pay gap between tip servers and kitchen workers.

“You know, they can’t lose money and stay in business,” former HRA chairman Tom Jones said. “So that’s a way for restaurateurs to do that by adding a kitchen service charge.”

But Levins and Faria said restaurants need to be very careful with these fees so they don’t violate consumer protection laws.

“These inflation fees and these kitchen fees and kitchen service fees, they’re all inappropriate,” Faria said. “And there’s no law that says they’re inappropriate, but they fit the classic pattern of unfair and deceptive business practice.”

Faria said she probably wouldn’t sue a restaurant that makes the fees very clear up front.

Levins said customers who still feel cheated can file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Bureau. They would look at how the fees were presented to the consumer when they were given.

Jones agreed that customers should always be informed of the charges in advance.

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

Because the Macaroni Grill lawsuit is a class action, anyone who paid the costs could join as a plaintiff, but Faria agrees that joining won’t bring consumers much compensation, other than preventing other restaurants from doing so. TO DO.

“If we can get them to change or change their menus and change their disclosure practices, that saves Hawaiians a lot of money over time,” Faria said.

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