Dining Disputes: A Shared Responsibility

Last year, Mr. Fung Man-kit, a 53-year-old rowing coach took more than 40 students to Shatin Chicken Congee, a dai pai dong for dinner. He asked the staff to upsize all dishes by three times. At the end of the 36-dish meal, he was shocked to be hit with a $10,000 bill.

“I do not understand why the waiters never explained the extra charges clearly. Those were just normal homely dishes,” he said. “How could a dish of Fish Fillets in Creamy Corn Sauce possibly cost $267?” He made a complaint to Consumer Council against the eatery.

Mr. Fung is one of the 700 people who filed complaints about dining disputes in 2015. Consumer Council reported that the complaints were related to disputes over prices on account of unclearly stated charges and the difference in consumers’ and restaurants’ interpretations of prices and serving sizes.

More than 40 complaints are about the mandatory charge for pre-dinner snacks. Most of the time, waiters serve nuts and sauerkraut once the custumers take their seats. Customers are not allowed to refuse them and the cost, usually around $10, is included on the bill. However, not all restaurants would inform consumers about such charge beforehand.

Some restaurants like Paramount Banquet Hall impose a compensation cost of $20 on each dish the customers ordered when they refuse the nuts.

“Even though not everybody eats nuts, we still have to accept them. After all, the whole meal can get even more expensive if we don’t pay the nuts charge,” Ms. Ng, a 23-year-old diner in Paramount Banquet said.

Another case in point is the rounding fee, which is the practice of rounding bills up to the next dollar figure.

Mr. Wong, a 59-year-old man who went to Moon Ting Fong Seafood and Hotpot Restaurant for lunch discovered an added 90 cents on his bill, making it from $52.1 to $53.

Spokesperson of Moon Ting Fong Seafood and Hotpot Restaurant told Mr. Wong that they round the receipt upward because counting change makes things slow and inefficient. Also, it is written on the menu that ‘The cash register program would round decimals’.

“I understand it is a common practice for some places to round off if more than 50 cents is involved. But even if they have to round off the decimal value, it should be $52 instead of $53.” Mr. Wong said. “The rounding reminder is not written clearly enough as well.”

In Hong Kong, there is no existing legislation regulating the fees and billing methods of restaurants. Yet, as stated in the Trade Description Ordinance, restaurants would commit an offence for “misleading omission” if they fail to provide ample information about the charges. It is liable on conviction to a fine of $500,000 and imprisonment for five years.

Ms. Gilly Wong Fung-han, spokesperson of Consumer Council, said that both restaurants and customers have their own responsibilities to bear.

“Although there is no uniform standard of wordings in the industry, restaurants should be self-disciplined and state the charging method in a clear and straightforward manner,” Ms. Wong said. “As for consumers, they should take the initiative to understand the additional charges. Also, it is important to have basic knowledge regarding local restaurant jargons.”

“Consumers may report to the Consumer Council or the Customs and Excises Department if they find restaurants charging them an extra cost without clear indication in advance.” she added.

Upon receipt of complaints, the council would look into them and contact relevant restaurants. They also refer cases to the Customs and Excises Department for further investigation if necessary.

Aside from unclearly stated fees, not all consumers understand the meaning and the price of the serving-size terms.

According to Consumer Council, a “regular” size generally serves about 4 people; a “big-regular” often refers to 1.5 times the portion of a “regular”; a “two-regular” or “medium bowl” is enough for about 8 people; and a “three-regular” or “big bowl” is suitable for 12 people. The increase in price is usually in proportion to the increase in serving size.  For example, if the price of the “regular” dish is $100, the “big-regular” will usually be $150. However, this is not always the case.

Mr. Woo Chu, Thomas, the president of International Food and Beverage Association, said that the serving sizes of dishes vary between restaurants despite such unwritten industry norms. For instance, “regular size” dishes can weigh 0.5 pounds in some restaurants and 0.7 pounds in some others.

“Consumers who do not understand these jargons would only ask for a ‘size upgrade’ without knowing exactly how much would the price and the dish size change,” he said. As a result, staff in the restaurants may help determining the degree of increase in dish size according to the number of diners. Conflicts like Mr. Fung’s case will thus occur easily.”

Mr. Lam Shi-shing, a 55-year-old owner of a dai pai dong in Central also thinks that the best way to avoid being tricked is to order regular size. Diners can order one more regular size if one is not enough.

“When people order Sweet and Sour Pork in “big-regular size”, some chefs would add a lot of onions and diced pineapples but only a few piece of pork to make the dish look larger,” Mr. Lam said, “It is not without reason that diners get so upset and make complaints.”

To avoid the occurrence of dining disputes, Mr. Woo said setting industry standards can be an effective way. But he also admitted that the feasibility is low.

“Different chefs and restaurants have their own practices. It is difficult to standardize the sizes of dishes,” he said. “Having sufficient communication between customers and frontline staffs is the best way to deal with this plight.”

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