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Service charges, administrative charges, surcharges, house fees—whatever you call those charges assessed for food and beverage service in restaurants and in hotels—the rules about how they need to be disclosed to guests and how they must be allocated are propagating. More and more cities, municipalities and other local legal bodies are taking on service charges in detailed laws, and we expect more to come.

Interest in this issue at all levels of lawmaking seems to be increasing as living wage/minimum wage raise efforts become more and more popular throughout the country. Many such efforts result in laws that also affect how service charges may be collected, distributed and how they must be disclosed to consumers. In other words, the locus for relevant law in this area has shifted significantly from the state to the county or city level.

Regular readers of this blog will know that we have been following the development and implementation of the FDA’s new menu-labeling regulations with some interest. After multiple rounds of drafts and public comment periods, the agency now has issued its final guidance for compliance with the new rules. According to the FDA’s press release, the guidance is intended to respond to the most frequently-asked questions from business potentially subject to the new rules, and “differs from the draft guidance by providing additional examples and new or revised questions and answers on topics such as covered establishments, alcoholic beverages, catered events, mobile vendors, grab-and-go items, and record keeping requirements.”

Nevertheless, the final guidance does not appear to substantively change the prior drafts insofar as the hospitality industry is concerned. Perhaps most noteworthy to hotel owners and operators is that the FDA has maintained the position, described in the earlier draft guidance, that a hotel’s complimentary breakfast would not be considered food offered for sale and thus would not be subject to the menu-labeling requirements.

As before, that guidance comes with the caveat that it merely reflects the “current thinking” of the FDA and does not establish binding rights or duties. Thus, while the guidance may be called “final,” the agency’s “current thinking” could always shift as the regulations – which are set to take effect in May 2017 – begin to be enforced.  Which might lead one to wonder, what’s in a label, anyway? Only time will tell.

Tip money with coffeeIn the latest of a series of twists and turns regarding the legality of certain tip pools in Western states, on February 23, 2016, a divided three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals validated regulations by the Department of Labor (“DOL”) that significantly limit employers’ ability to have tip pools that include more than “customarily and regularly tipped” employees. This development means that employers operating in states or territories in the Ninth Circuit (covering Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, California, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands) cannot include in their tip pools “back of the house” employees (such as cooks or dishwashers) or other employees who are not customarily tipped. We examine the impact of and history behind this decision below.

TipsIn a recent blog post, we highlighted the trend amongst hoteliers and restaurateurs toward adopting service charge models to meet the rise in state and local minimum wage requirements. Although “no-tip” and “service charge” policies are receiving their fair share of attention in the news, employers with improperly designed tip pools are garnering their own headlines—and lawsuits. For example, Red Robin recently agreed to a $1.3 million settlement in response to class action claims against the company that it impermissibly included back of house kitchen staff in the servers’ tip pool. If your company requires employees to pool their tips, or is considering doing so, it will want to avoid some common and costly pitfalls that have beleaguered others. For starters: 

Knife_fork 2015 on chalkboardSince their official unveiling in December 2014, the FDA’s final menu-labeling rules have given rise to a multitude of questions from hospitality businesses who wonder how to comply or whether they must comply at all. The FDA, in turn, appears to be trying its level best to provide enough time and guidance to ease these businesses’ transition to the new rules. First, the FDA extended the deadline for compliance by a full year from December 1, 2015 to December 1, 2016, citing the agency’s extensive dialogue with chain restaurants, grocery stores, and other members of the hospitality industry. 

Cork ScrewEmily Harris Gant is an alcoholic beverage attorney, and an Owner in GSB’s national Hospitality, Travel, and Tourism Group. You can reach Emily at egant@gsblaw.com or 206.816.1454.

A distributor is knocking on your hotel restaurant’s door, offering key chains from a hot new distillery for your customers. A brewery just dropped off coasters for use in the restaurant’s bar. And a winery offered cork screws for your sommeliers.

As a responsible retail licensee, you know that most states tightly govern the relationships among liquor retailers, manufacturers, and distributors.

But where’s the line? What kind of “swag” and other valuable items can your hotel restaurant accept for free without running afoul of the law? To find out, read on.

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Greg Duff, Editor
Greg Duff founded and chairs GSB’s national Hospitality, Travel & Tourism group. His practice largely focuses on operations-oriented matters faced by hospitality industry members, including sales and marketing, distribution and e-commerce, procurement and technology. Greg also serves as counsel and legal advisor to many of the hospitality industry’s associations and trade groups, including AH&LA, HFTP and HSMAI.

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