These Helpful Tools Are Tracking Every Restaurant Fee Across DC

A Reddit-crowdsourced spreadsheet and Chrome extension are bringing more transparency to menu fees.

Screenshot courtesy TransparentFee DMV.

The confusion and lack of transparency around restaurant fees is leading diners to take matters into their own hands. A spreadsheet crowdsourced via Reddit over the past year is perhaps the most comprehensive list yet of dining establishments charging a fee. Meanwhile, a Chrome web browser extension that one Redditor built off the data will pop up an alert anytime you visit the website of a restaurant with an extra charge.

The spreadsheet (with accompanying Google submission form) was created early last year by Sarah Stella, a federal government employee. She’d already been seeing a bunch of posts on the Washington, DC, subreddit about people being caught off guard by menu surcharges. Then, she and a co-worker visited (now-closed) ramen restaurant Hatoba. Ordering from a QR code menu, she missed the 20-percent service charge and ended up leaving an additional 20 percent. She felt she needed to do something to create more transparency for diners like herself.

“I like having the full information before I go out to eat,” Stella says. “I know some people say, ‘Oh, I won’t go out if a place has a service fee.’ And I don’t feel that way at all. I just want to know in advance,” Stella says.

The spreadsheet tracks fee amounts at each restaurant, where they’re advertised, whether the charge is in lieu of tipping, if there’s an option for additional tip, and whether the fee can be removed upon request, among other information. Reddit took off with it and the submissions rolled in: As of now, there are 227 restaurants on the list.

Zachary Grimshaw, a digital and technology consultant for nonprofits, wanted to take the fee tracker one step further and make the information more accessible and useful. Like Stella, he’d been finding himself overtipping, not realizing when there was a fee. So he built a Chrome extension called TransparentFee DMV with the help of ChatGPT and his software-engineer brother. Once you install it, a small alert will pop up in the corner of the browser anytime you visit the website of a restaurant charging a fee: “Heads up! People have reported this establishment has a service fee in addition to menu prices.” You can then click further to see the fee amount and fee language. The same “Heads up!” also shows up under the restaurant profile in a Google search. Grimshaw says he’d like to eventually expand the functionality of his tool so that people will get fee alerts on popular reservation sites and in Google Maps.

“The primary goal is to simply make the users aware of any additional fees, not necessarily discourage customers from giving an establishment business,” Grimshaw says. “Additionally, I hope it encourages restaurants to become more transparent with fees, specifically around if and how it benefits the staff.”

Stella says she checks in on the spreadsheet from time to time to keep the information tidy and do some light fact-checking, but ultimately she relies on others to submit accurate details. Grimshaw says he also does his best to verify the information on each restaurant’s website—but the fees are not listed on about half of the websites he’s searched. (The Chrome extension has an option to submit inaccurate or missing data.)

Both Redditors have found the fee transparency across the DC dining scene to be a real mixed bag. Asked to rate restaurants on a whole about their fee transparency, Stella says she’d give them a six out of ten. “I think most people are trying to figure it out in good faith,” she says. “And I think that it’s just going to be confusing for a while.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.