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Philly Restaurants, Stop Charging ‘Wellness’ or ‘Employee Benefit’ Fees

The latest trend of burdening diners with sneaky additional costs are an unnecessary turn-off

A image of the front of a restaurant on a busy courner.
Founding Farmers in King of Prussia.
Founding Farmers
Ernest Owens is the Editor of Eater Philly, and the food expert to go to when you’re out of options.

In the current economy — where restaurants have been especially hit with rising costs and inflation — frequently, going out to eat feels like a luxury.

Restaurants that have been able to maintain business in tough times should be commended and supported by all of us (both diners and the government). A city with a strong dining scene represents economic opportunity and hospitality — these restaurants serve as the backbone to our collective sense of community and culture. But there’s a thin line between supporting restaurants and being exploited by them, and we should call out when certain policies appear to be the latter.

Translation: “Wellness” or “Employee Benefit” fees charged by restaurants are a gross exploitation of diners.

Last week, Philadelphia magazine reported that several Philly-area hotspots, including the D.C.-based chain Founding Farmers in King of Prussia and restaurant group FCM Hospitality (which includes Morgan’s Pier, Liberty Point, Lola’s Garden, Dolphin Tavern, and others) were charging automatic “wellness” and/or “employee benefit” fees to diners that were between 3 and 5 percent of their bill. The publication also reported that the justification for such additional charges from the restaurant were for efforts that “supports free mental health resources” or provide free SEPTA passes to every employee, among other staff benefits. The instant public backlash quickly led to FCM Hospitality ending their employee benefit fee altogether and staff at Founding Farmers noting that they will remove their fee upon individual diner request.

Good, because why did anyone think this was okay to begin with?

This growing national trend of restaurants adding what some have considered hidden fees onto diners since the pandemic has reached a boiling point. I understand restaurants charging automatic gratuity of around 18-20 percent to those eating out (because let’s face it, some people either don’t like to tip fairly or equitably). But forcing customers to pay for additional services for employees (that owners should arguably foot the bill for themselves) is excessive.

I’ve heard the reasonable arguments that the restaurant business model should change to eliminate the need for tipping and give workers more livable wages — but such a cultural and economic shift won’t happen overnight. Decades of this current financial structure has been — for better or worse — ingrained in our social consciousness and habit. But restaurants appearing to take advantage of these circumstances doesn’t help the greater cause.

For starters, transparency is crucial. Restaurants shouldn’t be slipping additional fees onto diners without a clear and visible explanation that can accessibly be found throughout their marketing, menus, and location. For example, details about the additional fee charged by Founding Farmers shouldn’t only be visible on their website or per individual request, but treated as an immediate head’s up to customers upon arrival, with the convenience of them knowing they can opt out, Personally, I wouldn’t mind paying a little extra to pitch in for such efforts — but all diners should be given the choice to do so upfront, without automatically being expected to do so.

The core of this issue is rooted in personal agency. The better compromise is either to simply raise the prices of the entrées at the jump, or allow diners the actual option to choose whether or not they want to pay the fee (such as when some retail stores ask customers if they want to round up their bill in order to donate the difference to a charity).

In other words, the days of sneaky fees on restaurant bills should end — full stop. However, our commitment to additionally supporting workers in the process, by choice — shouldn’t.