The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community


Key West fees | Gouging the customer or coping with inflation?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


James Bond was on to something when he ordered his martinis shaken. You might want to consider nixing on-the-rocks cocktails and going with shaken the next time you hitch up on a Key West bar stool, because at least one hyper-local restaurant is adding a two-buck fee for ice. The fee apparently doesn’t apply yet to shaken mixed drinks.

Used to be your restaurant check had spaces for the food and beverage total, a tip line and a tax line. Now, assuming you read your bill, you’ll find such innovative line items as credit card service fee, a Covid-19 fee, a group fee and a mandatory service fee of, say, 20 percent. It’s like those bargain fare airlines that charged an on-board bathroom fee.

It’s perfectly legal to tack on fees and digital software makes it ever so easy for the bar owner or the restaurateur to line-item extra fees — including the aforementioned ice.

I hate those sneaky fees. Just tell me the price of the drink or the food, add the taxes and let me figure the tip. Don’t pull a digital bait-and-switch by marketing a $15 hamburger, then nickel-and-dime me with a la carte charges for lettuce, mustard, ice, your bank service charge fees and a minimum wage surcharge for your staff and then give me a bill for $35.

Charge me for what that burger ingredients cost you and cover your costs of doing business, add a reasonable profit margin (say 5-10 percent; national average is 3-5) and let me figure the tip. It’s likely to come out the same in the long run and the server gets a bigger tip — but with considerably less stress on me and your staff who have to explain those fees to an irritable customer. I won’t leave grumbling to myself and anyone who’ll listen about your price-gouging.


Are those fees price-gouging or just cost-coping?

Truth is, I understand you’re probably not price-gouging. Some bars and restaurants will push the limits of what the market will bear, but most are trying to cope with escalating demand, challenging supply chains and ungodly increases in everything from eggs and electricity to rent and shipping and delivery charges.

When you’re at the end of the road, it’s tough to make ends meet, much less turn a legally legitimate profit.

Food is expensive in Key West. We pay more for food (in grocery stores and in restaurants) even in normal times, which we haven’t seen since before Covid-19. Take, for instance, a dozen large eggs. Average cost nationally: $4.21. Cost today for Eggland’s Best at Publix: $5.97. Same brand at Winn-Dixie: $5.79. You can double down on that if you want organic. In 2019, a dozen eggs cost $1.40.

But did the local menu price of the three-egg omelette you ordered increase four or five times? I think not. The restaurant owner knows a menu price increase like that would scare the bejesus out of customers. Instead they tack on fees and hope no one actually reads the bill.

There’s at least three reasons our food costs are 10-15 percent higher than the national average.

Let’s start with if it’s on your plate or in your glass, it got trucked here. Well, maybe not the fish and the Key West pinks, but supply and demand have jacked those prices, too.

Then add in the “if the market will bear it” syndrome where people on vacation tend not to look at the price until their credit card bill comes and by then they’re at home and their sunburn has peeled away.

One and two are always in play when one lives on a tropical island at the end of the road. The third one — inflation over the past three years — makes it harder to do business or make ends meet at home. Labor costs are up because workers are hard to come by and they justifiably ought to make a living wage. Rent and utilities have soared. Remember that 2022-2023 electricity surcharge from Keys Energy? Businesses got it, too.

It costs you $1.18 in 2023 for every dollar you spent in 2019. That’s an 18 percent increase. (The actual number is 17.67; I like the round number better.)

It’s not surprising restaurants and bars are adding fees to cover costs. I’d encourage them to ditch the exponential fee explosion in favor of a menu price increase. And, for heaven’s sake, get rid of that ridiculous extra charge for ice. We’re not Europe, people.


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