A Twin Cities man is taking a group of several well-known local restaurants to court over a 3% surcharge to cover the expense of health insurance benefits for some of its employees.
Christopher Ashbach, 40, of Arden Hills, has sued the Minneapolis-based Blue Plate Restaurant Co., alleging that it has concealed the “employee wellness” surcharge from diners before the bill arrives in order to avoid scaring off business.
Blue Plate operates numerous dining spots around the metro area. In Minneapolis: Mercury, Shindig Event Space, the Freehouse, the Lowry and Longfellow Grill. In St. Paul: Groveland Tap and Highland Grill. In Edina: Edina Grill. In Maple Grove: Three Squares Restaurant.
The suit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, alleges that Blue Plate “has reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars in this scheme to defraud consumers by using the deceptive charge.”
Ashbach, a commercial airline pilot and self-described foodie, spells out in his lawsuit that he suspected he was being deceived during a visit last month to the Freehouse, in downtown’s North Loop.
He said he ordered six oysters priced at $14 on the lunch menu. On the bill near the bottom was the wellness surcharge, something he said he’s never noticed in previous visits.
“Blue Plate does not disclose to customers that it would add this charge to the customer’s bill,” the suit reads. “For example, Blue Plate does not disclose this charge on its menus.”
The suit says the lack of disclosure is done “with the knowledge that if it did so, it would lose business.”
Public relations consultant Blois Olson, speaking for the restaurant group, said the mandatory surcharge is disclosed to customers.
“Blue Plate says it has had the surcharge information on the menu since they began charging [the] surcharge in June,” Olson said.
What Olson could not or would not clarify was whether the surcharge has been noted on all menus — lunch, happy hour, dinner — and at all nine locations.
Ashbach’s attorney, Jon Farnsworth, said his client “is adamant that this [surcharge] was never disclosed to him” before the bill came on that Nov. 14 visit to the Freehouse.
“Others have also confirmed to me that charge hasn’t been disclosed to them [before it was time to pay], as far as they can tell,” the attorney said.
In his lawsuit, Ashbach went on to point out that the surcharge noted on the bill is at the bottom near the tax and the grand total. He contends the location implies that it’s collected on behalf of government.
Ashbach wants to have the court certify his filing as a class-action lawsuit, which seeks more than $50,000 in damages for himself and others similarly affected to split if he wins a favorable jury verdict or settlement.
Blue Plate has until Jan. 15 to file a response to the suit in court.
In July 2017, the owner of another collection of well-known restaurants became the first in the Twin Cities area to apply such a dining surcharge.
Kim Bartmann, whose holdings include Barbette, the Red Stag and other dining destinations, said she made the surcharge known to her customers rather than “raising prices here and there” on various menu items.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482