Restaurant charges predominantly Black clientele a flat 18% fee!
The journalist in me knew I shouldn't have let this slide last year. However, being well-versed in the art of challenging injustice, however minor or major, wherever I encounter it, I thought the issue had been sufficiently resolved.
We're all wrong on occasion.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Before I get to the heart of the matter, it's first important to understand a little bit of LA geography. Those fans of old school HipHop OGs like NWA, WC, Freestyle Fellowship or more contemporary acts such as Nipsey Hussle or Kendrick Lamar are probably well aware of The Crenshaw District — an area of South Central LA that is home to one of the few remaining parts of the city where African-Americans still seem to constitute a majority.
Black mom-n-pop operations of every type — restaurants, clothing stores, barber and beauty shops, funeral homes and newspapers, line Crenshaw Boulevard, the district's main drag. It's in the Crenshaw District that you will find the 'hood locales from some of your favorite gangsta rap classics a stone's throw from the cultural arts area known as Leimert Park, where on any given Sunday you can find yourself smack dab in the center of an African drum circle, surrounded by vendors selling colorful, African-inspired apparel, home-brewed scented oils, handcrafted art, and various foods, snacks and drinks.
The Crenshaw District brushes up against the affluent eastern edges of Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights, aka the Black Beverly Hills, or, as Reservoir Dogs' Nice Guy Eddie calls it, the Black Palos Verdes.
Nevertheless, if there is a Black center to the LA universe, the Crenshaw District is it.
Back in the late '90s, former basketball star turned businessman Magic Johnson partnered with several of America's top retail companies to bring some of the same well-established brands that dot suburban landscapes nationwide to the inner city.
The effort resulted in Starbucks, TGI Fridays, WalMart, Sony movie theaters, 24-Hour Fitness, Home Depot and others setting up shop in the greater South Central/Crenshaw District area. Surprise surprise, these businesses were just as viable in the Crenshaw District as they were in Covina, causing mainstream retailers to realize there were actually Black people in the South Central area with actual hard-earned money to spend.
It was this economic revival and influx of retail chains that paved the way for the 2011 arrival of the Crenshaw District Buffalo Wild Wings location, part of a chain of relatively family-oriented sports bar restaurants.
The arrival of Buffalo Wild Wings in the Crenshaw District (or Baldwin Hills, as the company officially refers to the restaurant) was heralded in the Black press as, "just part of a wave of new ventures moving through the Crenshaw District that will transform South LA into a thriving Mecca of advancement and entertainment."
There was even a balloon and banner-clad opening day ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Black politicians and franchisees, including part owner and former Los Angeles Laker, Trevor Ariza.
If you've never been to a Buffalo Wild Wings, imagine TGI Fridays or Applebees with about 70 big screen TVs broadcasting NFL, NBA, MMA, or whatever sporting event happens to be on at the time. Beer and liquor flow freely alongside burgers and baskets of chicken wings and fingers flavored with dozens of various sauces and spices.
SPORTS BAR VETERANS
During the fall and winter, on any given Sunday, at any given Buffalo Wild Wings, you can find the supersized bar area packed with the most fervent football fans living and dying with every punt, pass and kick.
As a longtime fan of the hapless Minnesota Vikings, the only way I can watch them blow yet another late-game lead is to watch the game at a sports bar.
So, for the past 17 years or so, a friend (let's just call him Frank) and I have found various spots all around LA to watch football games. From the Hollywood wing joint/Philadelphia Eagles bar where Frank, a way over-the-top Dallas Cowboys fan (as if there are any other type), almost started a bar-clearing brawl, to the now (thankfully) closed dive in the Palms area where a drunken, belligerent Raiders fan (as if there are any other type) proclaimed loudly to a rival fan in a frightening post-victory rant, "PAY ME MY MOTHERFUCKING MONEY!"
We were present at a downtown sports bar when a confrontation between San Diego Chargers and Raiders fans resulted in one Raiders fan (again, surprise) declaring, "OK fool, I'll see you in the parking lot holmes." — typically code for, "let's go out to the parking lot and fight." But in LA, coming from a Mexican dude in a Raiders jersey with a shaved and tatted head, it could very well mean a shooting or shanking will soon ensue.
We've watched football games in a dimly lit sports bar basement in Santa Monica, at a Beverly Hills-adjacent sports bar above a taco joint, in a converted pool room in Manhattan Beach, at a beachside weed spot, at a sports bar where downtown hipsters bought rounds of drinks after coming out on the plus side of exotic quarter-by-quarter prop bets, and virtually every other LA spot that has shelled out the few grand for Dish Network's NFL package.
The point is, Frank and I are no novices when it comes to the sports bar game.
BIRTH OF THE BLACK TAX
Last September Frank and I met up at the Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings and did our usual thing — me with my hopeful indifference to the Vikings' latest display of ineptitude and Frank with his fully unwarranted optimism as the Cowboys began their usual mid-Fall slide.
I'd ordered my usual, a large basket of boneless wings (half hot BBQ, half hot dry rub), basket of fries, water and a Coke. Frank went with the medium basket of traditional wings (one-third lemon pepper, one-third Asian zing, and one-third jerk), basket of fries, Coke and various mixed drinks.
We sat watching, eyes transfixed to the multitude of screens for the next two and a half hours.
After we'd finished the obligatory "what could have been" discussion in the wake of our teams' defeats, it was time to settle up the bill.
We always get separate checks, as Frank usually arrives first and has put away two vodka and whatevers before I arrive.
This wasn't our first trip to Buffalo Wild Wings, so I knew that my bill would come to right around $32. But this time the bill was higher — slightly higher, but definitely perceptibly higher. Before I dropped the debit card, I decided to review the bill, assuming the waitress mistakenly put one of Frank's drinks on my tab.
But that wasn't the case. It turns out, Buffalo Wild Wings added an 18% gratuity to the bill totally on their own.
Of course, in most restaurants this is standard procedure for larger groups. But to tax a party of one, well two, billed separately an automatic 18% was basically an unprecedented encounter in my three decades of restaurant-going experience.
At the time, perhaps suffering from pre-Itis post-wing dizziness, I paid the 18% plus a little more. I typically end up tipping approximately 25% for good service because frankly, it's easier to calculate on the fly.
I thought it was odd, but perhaps Buffalo Wild Wings had been adding the gratuity in all along and I hadn't noticed.
That night I remembered that about two weeks earlier I took a friend out to dinner at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Torrance, an LA suburb where the clientele is predominantly white and Latino. We ordered an appetizer, two main courses, and she had a margarita, or something from the adult side of the menu, as we gazed at a massive screen replaying a UFC bout. At the end of the meal, no gratuity was added to the check, I was almost certain.
A few minutes of digging around the loose papers on my dresser uncovered the receipt and confirmed that no automatic gratuity had been added to the Torrance check.
So it appeared the Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings was imposing a Black Tax on its predominantly Black patrons.
My initial reaction to the discovery was to find the feedback section on Buffalo Wild Wings corporate website. Once there, I submitted my complaint/question asking why an 18% gratuity was automatically added to my bill at the Crenshaw location but not at the Torrance location — suggesting it wasn't a company-wide policy. While I had my suspicions, just to cover all bases, I threw in, "I hope that this policy isn't racial in nature, targeting the predominantly African-American patrons of your Crenshaw location."
A day or so later I received the following generic corporate reply: "Thank you for your feedback. Our guest relations team will review your comments and respond in a timely manner. Buffalo Wild Wings"
No other reply or response ever arrived in my inbox.
INTO MY OWN HANDS
With no response from Buffalo Wild Wings, I decided to conduct my own investigation.
Over the course of the next two weeks I would go to surrounding Buffalo Wild Wings locations not in predominantly Black areas, order the exact same items, and see if the automatic gratuity was slapped on the bill.
October 20, 2013 - Del Amo Buffalo Wild Wings — Sunday afternoon, NFL games on, large basket of boneless wings (half hot BBQ, half hot dry rub), basket of fries, water and a Coke. No gratuity added.
October 27, 2013 - Hollywood Buffalo Wild Wings — Sunday afternoon, NFL games on, large basket of boneless wings (half hot BBQ, half hot dry rub), basket of fries, water and a Coke. No gratuity added.
So with it being clear that the 18% automatic gratuity was a Crenshaw-specific fee, I decided to go back to the Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings the following Sunday, place the same order and, with Del Amo and Hollywood receipts in hand, demand an explanation from the manager, in what Frank described as a Joey Greco/Cheaters-style confrontation.
Back at the Crenshaw restaurant the next Sunday, after getting my fill of football and finishing off the large basket of boneless wings (half hot BBQ, half hot dry rub), basket of fries, water and a Coke, I asked the waitress for the bill.
I had just finished pulling the Del Amo and Hollywood receipts out of my pocket and was adjusting the settings on my phone to record the manager's responses to my questions when the waitress returned with the bill ... and no gratuity had been added.
Hmmm, go figure ... victory!?
Essentially I was satisfied the complaint e-mail seemingly resulted in, or at least contributed to, the abolishment of the Black Tax, but the confrontational journalist in me was a little disappointed that I didn't get to ambush the manager and get an explanation for why the fee was originally applied and then revoked.
With mission apparently accomplished, I shredded my previous receipts and went on to enjoy the rest of the NFL season ... as much as that is possible as a fan of the Vikings.
RESURRECTION OF THE BLACK TAX
While we can't claim to be the biggest soccer fans, when the United States faced off against Portugal on a Sunday afternoon this past June, Frank and I decided to meet up at the Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings to take in some futbol.
I ordered a large basket of boneless wings (half hot sauce, half hot dry rub), basket of fries, and a water, while proceeding to watch the US national team allow a final Portuguese goal in extra time that resulted in a 2-2 tie.
US World Cup soccer hopes weren't the only things to be crushed that afternoon. Also dashed were my hopes that I'd seen the last of the Buffalo Wild Wings Black Tax.
When the waitress brought my bill, there it was, an 18% gratuity amounting to ($4.19) automatically applied.
As I began complaining, Frank pointed to a small sign on the table beside ours that read: "During any Premier Event or Game, Buffalo Wild Wings Baldwin Hills requires a table minimum of $15 per person." In even smaller print, the sign read, "An 18% Automatic Gratuity will be applied to all checks during Premier Events or Games."
Because I didn't have time to stick around and argue the merits, or lack thereof of the Black Tax, or get into a semantic debate regarding what constitutes a "Premier Event or Game." I left the following note on the merchant copy of the bill: " I would have left at least 25% tip — Our server was great. But I find it offensive that this BWW feels necessary to add a gratuity to a party of 2. It's Hollywood or Del Amo next time!"
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?
So one of the questions I've encountered as I've complained about the Black Tax is, "What difference does it make if you were planning to leave more than an 18% tip anyway?"
1. Absence of choice - The whole idea of a tip is to reward your server in proportion to the quality of their service — great service = high tip. Poor service = lower tip. By adding an automatic 18% gratuity, Buffalo Wild Wings is essentially telling me, "Your service was above average because we said so, now pay up!" — Thus removing my discretion as the customer to evaluate the service I received and tip accordingly.
And what if, knowing exactly what my meal would cost, and factoring in a tip less than 18%, I brought a specific amount of cash. Well the Black Tax would create a situation in which I am short a few bucks to pay the bill and now embarrassed.
2. Do you object when restaurants add a gratuity to the bills of large parties of five or more? No, I do not. With a large party, the server has to perform additional work for the larger group. When one person orders one entree and a drink, an automatic gratuity is totally unwarranted. No additional work is being done. Multiple trips to the table aren't necessary to bring out all of the dishes. Drink refill orders aren't being processed in greater number. It's just one person with one drink!
WHAT THE BLACK TAX IS REALLY ABOUT
It's no coincidence that the only Buffalo Wild Wings in the area to have an automatic gratuity is the one that is patronized predominantly by African-Americans and located in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
Add to this the longstanding restaurant-industry perception that Black customers tip far worse than their non-Black counterparts and the impetus for the Buffalo Wild Wings Black Tax starts to come into focus.
In 2006 the center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University released the results of a study examining racial differences in tipping, Race Differences in Restaurant Tipping.
The research produced the following conclusions:
- Blacks leave smaller average restaurant tips than do Whites
- Black-White differences in tipping persist after controlling for socio-economic status
- Blacks tip less than Whites even when provided comparable levels of service
- Blacks tip less than Whites even when the server is Black
- Blacks are much less likely than Whites to know that it is customary/expected to tip 15 to 20-percent of the bill size in U.S. restaurants
And to be fair, Frank and I once watched a guy come into the Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings and take a prime seat right in the middle of the sports bar at a table for four, on a Sunday afternoon, where he sat for the next two hours, not ordering anything from the menu while shuffling through his stack of miscellaneous fantasy football notes and drinking who knows what from a plastic cup he brought into the restaurant.
During a commercial break Mr. Plastic Cup went to answer nature's call. While in the bathroom, an intrepid busboy came by and cleared some napkins and the aforementioned plastic cup from Mr. Plastic Cup's table. Upon his return, not seeing his cup, Mr. Plastic Cup proceeded berate the waitress and busboy, leading to the arrival of the manager and a significantly larger, musclebound, suit-clad security guard/bouncer.
The ensuing discussion went something like this:
Mr. Plastic Cup: "Somebody threw away my cup!"
Manager: "Sir, you will need to make a purchase or we will have to ask you to leave."
Mr. Plastic Cup: "Well give me a menu then!"
Mr. Plastic Cup then spent the rest of the 4th quarter pretending to peruse the menu without ordering before the waitress, who looked none too pleased that she'd missed out on hours worth of tips from the table that could have hosted paying customers, returned with the bouncer, who after another brief argument, removed Mr. Plastic Cup from the restaurant.
Now I don't think I'm going out on a limb by stating Mr. Plastic Cup is probably the exception and not the norm, but it stands to reason that the impetus behind the Black Tax is that the waitstaff is not being tipped according to prevailing industry standards and is ultimately ending up underpaid.
However, if the only solution the brain trust at Buffalo Wild Wings can come up is an automatic 18% tax on all customers, regardless of the service they receive, it's time for a change.
Once is an accident, twice is a trend. Since this is the same location that once had 8.5x11 photocopies Scotch taped to tables and the front door stating anyone who sat at a table was required to spend at least $20, I'm going to say the filching of money out of customers' wallets through the implementation of lowbrow, offensive tactics is a trend at Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings.
For us paying customers, the suggestion that we are unable to decide what tip is commensurate with the service we receive is offensive. The fact that this policy is in play only at the predominantly African-American patronized Buffalo Wild Wings is patently outrageous!
And I don't want to hear this "premier game" crap either. You run a sports bar with 50-plus TVs of various sizes all tuned in to sports channels. In short, there is always a game on. These aren't exclusive pay-per-view events. The first time Frank and I encountered the Black Tax there was nothing "premier" about the games — which were early NFL season run-of-the-mill contests.
In fact, the World Cup game that featured the reappearance of the Black Tax was even less "premier" than the NFL games because the World Cup matches were broadcast on ESPN, and this particular game was shown on local ABC affiliate stations. In other words, any American with a television could watch the game for free.
In contrast, I watched the World Cup championship game at a TGI Fridays, formerly co-owned by Magic Johnson, just east of the Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings, and no Black Tax was in effect.
For Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings (a sports bar) to levy a Black Tax on its customers who come in to eat and watch a game on basic cable is like Hooters charging its customers an extra 18% when scantily clad women in short shorts are present.
At the Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings, our service wasn't any better during the World Cup game, and the place was no more crowded than it would be during an NFL Sunday or a Lakers game (back when the Lakers were good).
So just because some of your male patrons miss the urinal when relieving themselves of your beverages, would you install a trough urinal? Probably not, because making your customers feel like farm animals probably isn't the vibe you're looking for.
By the same token, just because, many of your patrons tip improperly, now we are all treated like ignorant, math-deficient dimwits? Or does the amount tipped actually represent a commentary on the quality of service from the Buffalo Wild Wings waitstaff?
For the sake of discussion, we'll presume it's the former.
And therefore, since the folks at Buffalo Wild Wings couldn't come up with any other solution than the Black Tax, I'll help them out.
If there is a problem with customers failing to tip according to prevailing norms, then approach the matter with some tact and intelligence, as opposed to the offensive, underhanded path with extremely racist undertones that you've chosen.
For example, your receipts could look something like this:
Notice there are tip suggestions and the corresponding dollar amounts have been calculated to help the math challenged.
Also, because the tip percentages are associated with a specific service-related statement, you will automatically be generating feedback on your customers' perceptions of the service they received.
It's a very simple idea. I will even let you use my receipt template free of charge.
THE WINGS ARE IN YOUR BASKET
If you choose to ignore this problem and continue assessing the Black Tax, things will only get worse, I promise. Just think what your current and potential, affluent African-American customers will think about having a race-based Black Tax levied on them in their own neighborhood ... in this " thriving Mecca of advancement and entertainment."
Do the right thing right now Crenshaw Buffalo Wild Wings.
Abolish the Black Tax and I'll see you during this football season.
Remember, that's a large basket of boneless wings (half hot BBQ, half hot dry rub), basket of fries, water and a Coke.