Misunderstandings Could Arise Easily from Wordings on Menu Clarify Terms to Prevent Disputes

18 April 2017
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Misunderstandings Could Arise Easily from Wordings on Menu Clarify Terms to Prevent Disputes

Hong Kong is world-renowned as a "food paradise", with over 10,000 licensed restaurants in this tiny locale.  When dining out, consumers look, not only for gourmet cuisine, but also for high quality service.  Complaints lodged with the Consumer Council reveal, however, that consumers often have misunderstood the choice of wordings by some restaurants on promotional offers.  The Council advises restaurants to state their promotions carefully and educate their frontline staff to explain the details to consumers clearly in order to minimise misunderstandings and avoid the risk of violating the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.

Case one: Does "all you can eat" really mean all you can eat?

The complainant's family went to Chinese restaurant A, which was promoting an "all you can eat" offer that evening.  The menu consisted of lobster in chicken consommé ($198), steamed spotted garoupa ($118) and roast squab ($38), all were offered at discounted prices.  Staff stated that customers could order one of the menu items at the discounted price.  The complainant intended to choose lobster in chicken consommé and made a couple of enquiries with the restaurant supervisor and staff as to what "all you can eat" actually meant.  The complainant said staff members had mentioned "all you can eat" at $198 so the complainant ordered a total of 5 sets of lobster in chicken consommé.

The complainant later found that the bill listed 5 servings of lobster in chicken consommé at $198 each.  The customer immediately spoke to the supervisor, who stated the menu made clear the "promotional price at $198 each."  The supervisor went on to state that it was the complainant who had misunderstood the meaning as "all you can eat without limit".  The complainant paid the bill then complained to the Council.  The complainant said common understanding of "all you can eat" means they can eat as much as they want for a fixed price, and alleged that Chinese restaurant A had misled customers using finesse and requested a refund on the price of 4 sets of lobster in chicken consommé.

The Council tried to conciliate with the Chinese restaurant A, which insisted that the complainant had ordered the "lobster in chicken consommé at $198 each, unlimited offer", and declined to refund.

The case reveals that descriptions on the menu were inconsistent with common understanding of consumers.  Terms under the so-called "all you can eat" offer were not clear and precise.

Case two: "Minimum for 2 persons" is not a set for 2

The complainant and a friend patronised restaurant B, which had an a la carte menu, as well as a set menu stipulating "minimum for 2 persons" for $988.  The complainant considered the price reasonable and ordered from the set menu.  The complainant, when presented with the bill, found it listed two charges at $988 each for the set meal, together with other charges, bringing the total to $2,500.  The complainant spoke to the manager, contending that they had ordered a set for 2.  The manager, however, stated that the "minimum for 2 persons" stated on the menu did not mean the set meal was a meal for two diners.  The complainant had no choice but to pay the bill before reporting to the Council, dissatisfied with the fact that the restaurant menu had listed "minimum for 2 persons" in small lettering beneath the price, without making clear that the price was $988 per person.  The complainant requested a refund of $988.

Restaurant B maintained it had no intent to deceive its customers, and as a gesture of good will, agreed to deduct $988 plus the 10% service charge from the bill, when the complainant visits the restaurant the next time.

Case three: Responsibility of staff carelessness shifted to consumers

The complainant and his family went to hotpot restaurant C, ordering 9 food items including a plate of regular sliced beef ($216).  In settling the bill, the complainant found the bill listed premium sliced beef, priced at $342, instead of the regular sliced beef that was ordered.  The complainant requested the restaurant to make amends but got declined, for the reason that the more expensive premium sliced beef had been served and consumed, and that the system was not possible to change the bill.  The staff member finally offered 10% discount from the full bill or adjusting the charge to mid-class beef ($285).  The complainant considered this unreasonable and complained to the Council.

The complainant said sliced beef was categorised according to three grades – "regular, middle-class, premium" – on the ordering form.  The order form revealed that they had ordered a plate of regular beef.  It was the mistake of the restaurant staff who delivered the premium beef and that the diners ate it without the ability to differentiate the two.  The complainant alleged that the incident resulted from the carelessness of the staff member, whose responsibility should not be at the expense of customers.  The complainant requested a refund of the price difference, together with the 10% service charge.

The manager of restaurant C explained that the plate for regular beef was about 23 cm in diameter, whereas the plate for premium beef was about 33.5 cm in diameter, representing a significant difference.   The manager declined to refund the price difference.  The Council reminded the restaurant that consumers would have no conception of how traders managed their food portions and would trust the service provided by staff to present the right order.  Consumers are wholly reliant on the services provided by the staff and generally would not question the food portions delivered.  The Council urged the restaurant to consider accepting the case as carelessness caused by the staff member, but to no avail.  The restaurant would agree only to offer free beverages and a 10% discount for the complainant's next patronage.  The complainant stated that she might consider pursuing the claim by other means.

The Council is of the view that restaurants should make clear and direct statements as well as listing out all charges and offers, in addition to the following advice:

  • Should the food be priced according to the size of serving, staff should verify the portion size with consumers when serving, to reduce the risk of incorrect delivery;
  • Display clearly important information such as food prices, charges for tea and condiments, service fees and terms of discounted offers prominently inside the premises or on the menu.  If the meal offered as a set is to be charged per person, or subject to different prices at different times, the restaurant should provide a clear statement and remind their customers proactively;
  • Evaluate whether descriptions used in promotions could easily cause misunderstanding, and explain thoroughly the details of promotional or discounted offers to staff, ensuring that staff members can relay those details to consumers clearly and accurately.

As regards consumers, they should read carefully statements by the restaurant concerning charges, before being seated or placing order.  Consumers also should ask if there are additional or compulsory charges before deciding to order.  Consumers should bear in mind the following tips as well:

  • When the food is served, ascertain whether it is the correct order and serving size, report to the restaurant at once, should there be any question;
  • Avoid any presumptions but read information on food prices and other charges items carefully.  When in doubt, clarify with the restaurant staff before ordering.

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