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Wine bar customer writes expletive on $300 check to protest $6 service charge

The fee at Apéro wine bar pays for staff health insurance

Apéro is a champagne and caviar bar in Washington (Corbin Goldstein/Apéro)

Every new year I resolve to turn over a new leaf — usually a grape leaf, as in “drink more riesling.” More pinot noir, too. Visit more local wineries, try wines from grapes I’ve never tasted before. It’s a fun little exercise, and like most New Year’s resolutions (including exercise), there’s no accountability beyond Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

After two years of the pandemic, some of us may resolve to drink less. Alcohol consumption spiked in the early days of covid-19, according to several studies. Perhaps we’ll drink less but better, spending a little more per bottle on high-end wines. Others may not be in an economic position to do that and will need to find better quality wines at affordable prices.

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So in looking for something that we can all agree on — maybe — as a universal New Year’s wine resolution, I settled on “Let’s just be nicer.”

A few days before Christmas, Elli Benchimol, a leading D.C. wine maven for many years and owner of Apéro, a champagne-and-caviar-themed wine bar she opened in May in Georgetown, posted a frustrated rant on social media. A customer had objected to his bill: about $300 for some caviar, two entrees and a few glasses of wine for him and his date. It also included 20 percent for service and an additional 2 percent “health and wellness” surcharge to cover health insurance for Apéro’s staff.

The customer confronted sommelier Corbin Goldstein. She explained the surcharge covered health insurance premiums for the staff, something most restaurants do not offer their employees. When he objected (muttering about “socialism,” said Benchimol), Goldstein removed the 2 percent charge — about $6 — from his bill. She also offered to remove the 20 percent service charge, but he let that remain. Then in signing the check, he wrote a big zero with a slash through it on the tip line and added an expletive phrase that begins with “F” and ends with “You.” Benchimol, in her social media post, vented about how her staff had been treated by this Scrooge-like customer.

She got a lot of feedback, some supportive but much negative. Many people asked why she would highlight a charge to cover health insurance for her employees rather than simply raise her prices and not tell customers what they were paying for. It’s a cost of business, right?

“That would be so disingenuous,” Benchimol told me. “It’s not something we’re required to do, but the industry should provide health benefits. I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and I was never offered health benefits. I want to offer a living wage with benefits to all my employees. And I want customers to know what I’m doing. If they object, I’ll take that 2 percent off the bill.”

Many restaurants imposed a covid charge to cover the costs of pandemic-related safety measures, but they don’t really tell you what that money covers, Benchimol said. She wants customers to know she’s trying to take care of her employees.

Since opening, Apéro has explained the service and health charges on its website, on its menus and on Resy, an online reservation site, Benchimol said. Servers are trained to circle the charges on the tab and explain them — with eye contact — when presenting the bill to customers. Benchimol said a few malcontents have cussed her out about the charges and been asked not to return. Most people, however, have been supportive.

Benchimol was not at Apéro the night Mr. Grinch objected so vociferously to the $6 health and wellness surcharge on his bill. She was home recovering from covid. For the week between Christmas and New Year’s, she had five of 14 employees out because of covid — most because their children tested positive. When I contacted Goldstein on Tuesday, she spoke to me for about 30 minutes while standing in line at the Stadium-Armory coronavirus testing center. She was unable to work because her 10-year-old daughter tested positive at school. A negative test could allow her to return to Apéro.

The pandemic has affected more than restaurants. At Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, Va., one recent unseasonably warm fall day, business was brisk. Owner Brian Roeder noticed tips were significantly below average, suggesting that customers were unhappy with the service of his overworked crew. He paid each staffer on duty that day an extra $15 for “being undertipped even when they were working so much harder.”

“Some people just do not recognize the extra effort of servers to compensate for a challenging situation not of their making,” Roeder said.

The service industry has been decimated by covid. “The customer is always right” no longer holds. We’re guests in an establishment. Yes, we pay for service and expect a level of quality, but servers are not servants. That should be the hashtag of 2022: #ServersAreNotServants. They deserve respect. Our New Year’s resolution should be to treat them like the professionals they are.

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