Melbourne restaurant's 'cheeky' surcharge amid soaring food prices

Aussies have been battling soaring food prices across the country with the current cost of lettuce outraging shoppers.

But shortages of the leafy vegetable have hit a new low in one major city after a restaurant diner was hit with what appears to be a 'lettuce' surcharge.

A Melbourne Chinese restaurant seems to have charged extra for the leafy green after someone ordered a serving of san choi bao, of which lettuce is a main ingredient.

Man at vegetable shop putting lettuce in a bag
Australia is experiencing a shortage of lettuce resulting in sky-high prices. Source: Getty

The Chinese meal consists of seasoned stir-fried mince that's served and eaten with a lettuce cup, which the unnamed restaurant charged an extra $1 for.

Melbourne radio hosts Ross Stevenson and Russel Howcroft from 3AW Breakfast posted a photo of a restaurant receipt on Twitter, calling out the unusual extra cost and dozens more agreed the surcharge was wrong.

"This is cheeky," they wrote. "Surely the lettuce is a constituent element of san choi bao, not an optional extra!"

Another agreed the extra charge for lettuce was "ridiculous," while someone else pointed out that "$18 for san choi bao is bad enough!"

"Just thieves at this point," another Twitter user wrote, but others weren't so sympathetic.

"If they are willing to spend that much for all the other items they have no right to complain," one said of the hefty restaurant bill, which totalled $386.50.

"You are forking out $386.50 on some food & drinks and you're complaining about $1.00?!" another agreed.

Some even pointed out the high cost of other menu items, including calamari for $29.

"Forget the lettuce: $45 for half a duck?" another wrote.

Restaurant surcharges perfectly legal, say experts

Despite the backlash, restaurants are able to set their own prices, including charging extra for menu items, according to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), although they can't comment on specific circumstances.

However, added costs must be communicated with the customer ahead of consuming the item, not just on the bill, Dr Sara Thaichon from Griffith Business School told Yahoo News Australia.

"Adding a surcharge is legal as long as customers know about it before making any transaction," she said.

"In the scenario that a customer is fully informed of the surcharge and decides to proceed with the transaction, they must pay the surcharge.

"However, if they are not informed of the surcharge, the surcharge can be considered as a hidden cost."

But this particular scenario poses some issues of its own, according to Dr Thaichon, because there is a level of "customer expectation".

"Since lettuce is part of the dish, most customers will expect it to be included in the price that they pay for the dish (this would be different if the customer had ordered an extra serve of lettuce)," she told Yahoo.

Empty shelves in Woolworths
Many supermarkets are experiencing shortages of lettuce and various salad bags. Source: Supplied/ Yahoo News Australia

"Although the customers might be aware of the shortage of lettuce, they are likely to anticipate a smaller portion of lettuce in the dish or some kind of substitution, [like] a number of businesses, such as KFC, [have done]."

Although the added cost is only a "small amount of money relative to the total bill," without proper communication, customers are "more likely to be unhappy and even feel deceived", Dr Thaichon explained.

'Unethical' pricing tactics to continue

Dr Jun Yao from Macquarie Business School agrees and said consumers may not feel that bad if restaurants are transparent, for example, if they had explained to consumers that the surcharge is due to lettuce shortages.

While it's not known if this was the case in this instance, Dr Yao said the situation is "tricky".

"The surcharge is not completely illegal but is out of the blue," he told Yahoo News Australia.

Dr Yao said consumers are likely to see "more and more pricing tactics used by businesses" including added surcharges or smaller sizes, and although legal, it is "unethical", he said.

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