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Minnesota man sues Blue Plate restaurant group over employee wellness surcharge

Blue Plate's Minneapolis restaurants include the Lowry in Uptown (pictured) and downtown's Freehouse and Mercury Dining Room and Rail, among others.

Blue Plate's Minneapolis restaurants include the Lowry in Uptown (pictured) and downtown's Freehouse and Mercury Dining Room and Rail, among others. Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

It was probably just a matter of time. 

As we reported in a recent feature on the financial pressures of running a restaurant, more and more Twin Cities establishments have been introducing health and wellness surcharges. Typically a 3 percent fee added to the bill to cover the cost of employee insurance, they're now found at places owned by the Bartmann Group (Tiny Diner, Barbette), Jester Concepts (Parlour/Borough, P.S. Steak) Parasole Restaurants (Manny’s, Chino Latino), and many others.

“The costs keep going up, and it was impossible to keep pace,” Bartmann told us, adding that her premiums have surged 25 to 30 percent each year for the last several years. “We thought it was important to be transparent about it.”

The other restaurateurs we spoke to for that story mostly said that—with some exceptions—diners have been fine forking over a few more bucks to help pay for insurance. When they aren't, restaurants like those run by Craft and Crew Hospitality (the Howe Daily Kitchen & Bar, Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room) tell diners, "Hey, no problem, we'll take it off."

But as charges of this nature became increasingly common, an inevitability emerged: Someone, someday, is going to get mad enough about it to do more than just complain to their server. And it's Blue Plate Restaurant Company, which owns Mercury in downtown Minneapolis along with several other area eateries, that has the unfortunate distinction of being the first to get sued over it.

Twin Cities Business Magazine reported this weekend that Minnesota resident Christopher Ashbach has filed a class action suit against the group, alleging that the fees constitute “fraud, misrepresentation, and deceptive practices.” He's seeking more than $50,000 to “recoup the fee that’s been paid by consumers,” according to TCB, along with an injunction against the fee.

Does the guy have a case? 

TCB Mag talked to a handful of lawyers to see what they thought, and the short answer is... well, maybe! If restaurants haven't been up front in disclosing the surcharge—as in, printing it on the menu vs. surprising guests with it when they're handed the bill—that could be seen as deceptive. Ashbach's complaint alleges that he "unknowingly paid more to Blue Plate and has been damaged.”

But like the restaurants we mentioned above, Blue Plate prints information about the additional charge on its menus. Unlike the restaurants mentioned above, Blue Plate won't waive it for customers who push back. So... deceptive? I dunno! That's for the court people to figure out!

You can read Twin Cities Business's report in full here. And you can read our very good cover story in which Kim Bartmann, David Benowitz at Craft and Crew, and a bunch of local restaurant folks talk about these fees (and more!) here.