A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against a popular Twin Cities restaurant group that alleged it conceals a 3% "employee wellness" surcharge from diners before the bill arrives to avoid scaring off customers.
Christopher Ashbach, 41, of Arden Hills, sued the Minneapolis-based Blue Plate Restaurant Co. in December after dining at the Freehouse in Minneapolis and getting his bill with the wellness surcharge included.
Ashbach, a commercial airline pilot and self-described foodie, alleged that Blue Plate was failing to warn customers of this charge on its menus. The suit said the lack of disclosure was done "with the knowledge that if it did so, it would lose business."
However, Hennepin County District Judge Laurie Miller dismissed the case last week, pointing out that Ashbach failed to prove that he did not have access to the standard menu with the surcharge noted while ordering off a "specials" insert that lacked a reference to the added fee.
"The court found that The Freehouse sufficiently disclosed the charges on its menu and on the plaintiff's bill" from when he dined there in November, said Ali Buckneberg, a spokeswoman for Blue Plate's legal representative, Winthrop & Weinstine.
"These fees are incredibly important to restaurants and bars, many of which are small businesses that form the fabric of our communities," Buckneberg said in a statement to the Star Tribune.
She added that "with recent laws like mandatory sick time and minimum wage increases, restaurants have to have a way to recover the increased costs, especially because restaurants already operate on thin margins. COVID has exacerbated this. COVID has made us all realize how much we appreciate our favorite restaurants."
Jon Farnsworth, Ashbach's attorney, declined to comment about the dismissal other than to say the two sides "settled to our client's satisfaction."
Blue Plate adopted the surcharge in June 2019. It operates numerous dining spots around the metro area. In Minneapolis, it runs Mercury, Shindig Event Space, the Freehouse, the Lowry and Longfellow Grill. In St. Paul, its properties include Groveland Tap and Highland Grill. In Edina, it runs the Edina Grill. And in Maple Grove, Three Squares Restaurant.
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.