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Tucson restaurants weigh surcharges, price hikes to stay afloat during pandemic
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Tucson restaurants weigh surcharges, price hikes to stay afloat during pandemic

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series

COVID-19 fees on restaurant bills aren’t a thing yet in Tucson, but they might become one as sit-down dining establishments search for ways to survive the pandemic, some industry insiders say.

Faced with surging food costs and plunging revenues since dining rooms were closed to protect public health, many proprietors are debating surcharges or higher menu prices to stay afloat.

Reports from around the country show that many restaurants are adding COVID-19 surcharges on customers’ dining receipts.

“There’s a lot of talk about surcharges and raising prices,” said Travis Peters, co-owner of The Parish, a popular Southern food spot on North Oracle Road.

“What it all comes down to is, what will the public accept?,” said Peters, who plans to reopen his dining room in early June with social-distancing measures.

He said he’s debating whether to raise some prices, but hates to do it at a time many Tucsonans “are struggling financially.”

“We’re talking about a cash-strapped society,” Peters lamented, pointing to historic levels of joblessness.

Finding a balance between a restaurant’s need to stay solvent and the public’s declining ability to pay “feels like an impossible thing,” he added.

“It’s a very volatile balance to strike,” agreed Steve Chucri, president of the Phoenix-based Arizona Restaurant Association, a statewide trade group with hundreds of local members.

Surcharges are a hot topic in Tucson, said Mathew Cable, a board member for two industry organizations, the Tucson Originals and the Gastronomic Union of Tucson.

“I’ve had a lot of discussions with Tucson restaurateurs about a COVID surcharge,” said Cable, who owns several Fresco Pizza locations and co-owns Dante’s Fire, a gastropub and cocktail bar on East Grant Road.

“At first, I think it was universally opposed,” he said of the surcharge. “But then reality set in.”

The reality, he said, is many restaurants can’t survive without more revenue to offset higher food prices and the added costs to comply with health measures.

“Even the restaurateurs who are against it are looking at a situation where they might have to impose something like that,” Cable said. “The question is, what will the market bear when people are already hurting for money?”

One idea under discussion is to charge diners an additional fee for sit-down service, while keeping prices lower for take-out customers, Cable said.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office has issued a public reminder to businesses and consumers about the legalities of adding a surcharge to restaurant bills. It’s only legal if the surcharge is disclosed in advance, the agency said.

“If a business attempts to deceive or sneak additional fees past consumers, we need (consumers) to file complaints with our office and we will take action when necessary,” said Attorney General Mark Brnovich in a news release.

Joe Spina, co-owner of several Mama’s Famous Pizza & Heroes restaurants in Tucson, said the local chain is losing money since reopening its dining rooms at reduced capacity due to public health restrictions.

At the same time, he said, his costs have increased by as much as 40% for meats, cheeses, olive oil and some other staples.

Spina said he’s reviewing his options and is leaning toward raising menu prices rather than adding on COVID surcharges.

“I can’t justify charging everyone who comes in the door an extra dollar for hand sanitizer and an extra dollar for a mask,” he said.

Chucri, of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said he’s not in favor of surcharges because Arizonans tend to deeply dislike such fees unlike, say, Californians, who tend to be more accepting.

Instead of surcharges, Arizona restaurants that need more revenue should just raise prices quietly so as not to alienate their clientele, Chucri said. “Don’t say it,” he advised. “Just do it.”

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @StarHigherEd

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