New charges on the menu


What would you say if you had to cough up cash for condiments? What about water? Is it simply a sign of the times, or a trend that 's too tough to swallow?

For restaurant owner Jacob Concannon, Taco Tuesdays are busy nights with a full house. Customers are there for the cheap tacos but filling up on freebies like chips and salsa. "I'll have people who come in and they'll drink water, have a taco and six baskets of chips and salsa," Jacob said.

Costs have jumped up this year for food, utilities and electricity, leaving restaurant owners like Jacob juggling with shrinking profit margins and customer expectations. "When we tried to charge people after the third basket, they were offended," Jacob told us. "Where do you draw the line?"

Experts tell us a growing number of U.S. restaurants are now drawing the line at water, bread, condiments and other commonly complimentary items. An informal survey found some fast-food restaurants are charging extra for ketchup and even cups for water. Casual and fine-dining establishments are increasingly charging to split plates and, if you can believe it, ice.

No this isn't a plot against customers, according to restaurant-industry expert Darren Tristano. "This isn't a way to gouge the consumer and make more money. It's typically a way to a keep thin profit margin and to keep your doors open."

Consumer-spending expert, Harry Balzer, said people are eating out less. "It's been a very difficult time in the restaurant industry. Yet those restaurants have to make a living."

Indeed, but is that water charge a deal-buster for customers? The anwer may depend on how upfront restaurants are. "Consumers typically feel disrespected if they are not communicated with certain fees that they are going to be paying. So for example, water is provided for at the table, but they are charged for it later, I think they are going to feel like they were nickel and dimed," Tristano told us.

John Kossner is a customer who shared his feelings about the charges. He said, "I don't mind paying a fair price but I don't want to feel as though I'm being taken advantage of."

Jacob said they won't be charging for water, chips and salsa at his restaurant but he does have this piece of advice, "As a consumer going to a restaurant, if you're going to ask for something you should automatically attach a dollar sign to it."

Dining out has dropped 11% in the last decade and restaurants that want to keep their doors open will be thinking of more ways to make a profit.