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Should restaurants disclose the corkage fee upfront?

What’s the deal with corkage fees? Are restaurants legally entitled to charge a corkage fee, and do they have to disclose it upfront?

Champagne bottle, corkage

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One Durban family got a huge shock when they examined their restaurant bill and saw what they had been charged as a corkage fee for a bottle of special champagne.

It was Sue Dalais’ 60th birthday and she was celebrating with a party of eight at the Cattle Baron restaurant in The Pearls, Umhlanga.

As a special treat, her son bought a R550 bottle of Moët en Chandon champagne. The manageress informed them that they’d have to pay a corkage fee on it.

No problem, they said, and popped the cork. They weren't told what that fee was, and they didn’t ask.

“I purposely didn’t ask, because I always feel that they think ‘Ooh, she’s watching her pennies!’, and I didn’t want to embarrass anyone else by asking that question. But not for one moment did any of us think it would be that exorbitant," Sue said. 

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By “that exorbitant” she means R300, which her son noticed on the bill as the corkage fee after her husband had paid the bill.

Sue said she’d phoned the five-star Beverly Hills hotel in Umhlanga to find out what they would have charged as corkage on that bottle of Moët.

They would have charged R150. The same for a cheap bottle of bubbly.

The Consumer Protection Act is very big on disclosure - so clearly that fee should have been disclosed.

The family challenged the manageress and owner on that.

Cattle Baron owner, Essery Hamilton conceded to Consumerwatch yesterday that their failure to disclose that R300 corkage fee was “an error on our side”.

While the restaurant didn’t charge any corkage fee on wine which patrons bring - as a promotional exercise - they did charge a fee on spirits and sparking wine, Hamilton said.

And it varied according to the restaurant’s price for the booze, he said.

Sue has resolved never to be coy about asking what a corkage fee is, in future, and the restaurant is reconsidering allowing patrons to bring spirits and sparkling wine or champagne to the restaurant to avoid the corkage fee issue altogether.

The issue got me thinking - can these businesses stop paying customers from consuming their own food on the premises?

Movie houses search our handbags to make sure we don’t smuggle in our own drinks and popcorn and theme parks prohibit their customers from taking in even a bottle of water, despite charging a hefty movie ticket or entry price.

ALSO READ: Are customer body searches lawful?

I asked acting Consumer Goods and Services Ombud Maguata Mphahlele for her view on whether this practice is in keeping with the CPA.

She pointed me to Section 13 of the Act which deals with what’s known as the bundling of services - forcing consumers who are paying them for one service, to pay for another, unless it can be shown that it’s convenient for the customer and of some economic benefit to them.

“In your examples the consumer’s right to choose is indeed limited by the requirement that if they buy a cinema ticket then they can only purchase popcorn from the cinema outlet,” she said.

“If the above practices are challenged then the suppliers would have to show that they are not unduly restricting the right of the consumer to choose.

“The CPA prohibits suppliers from supplying goods or services at an unfair, unjust or unreasonable price or on terms that are unfair, unjust or unreasonable.”

If suppliers offer goods or services at unfair prices, she said each case would have to be treated on its merits.

She said the restaurant does not suffer any losses if a consumer brings a bottle into the restaurant as the restaurant’s main business is selling food. 

The fee of R300 was “clearly set at a level which, if disclosed upfront, would discourage the consumer from bringing their own bottle and instead buy from the restaurant at a marked up price," she said.

“There is a general requirement in the CPA for any terms and conditions, including pricing to either be displayed or disclosed in an agreement and in this instance there was no compliance if the restaurant did not disclose the corkage fee at the time of agreeing with the consumer that they could bring their own bottle.”

So, in short, it would appear that businesses can’t limit the right to choose when it comes to extras like popcorn or wine.

But then there’s always that “right of admission reserved” thing - they aren’t forced to do business with us either.

A really complex issue!

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