Gotcha: Why I won’t go back to Olive Garden …

For a measly 2 bucks, they lost me as a customer.


In class, we cover Customer Lifetime Value – the math that captures a basic truth: businesses are better off getting repeat business from loyal customers than by gouging them on a single transaction.

Apparently, Olive Garden – which used to be one of my favorite chain restaurants — missed that class.

Yep, for a measly 2 bucks ($1.99 to be precise) they lost me as a customer.


Here’s what soured our “relationship” ….



The short story

Olive Garden (and many other restaurants) have put tablet computers on their tables.

At Olive Garden they’re called Ziosks … the name of the tablets’ manufacturer.

The tablets allow diners to search menus, place orders, play games and pay bills.

And, they increase a restaurant’s productivity by speeding order processing (think: turning tables over more quickly) … and eliminating servers’ busy work (like taking orders). English translation: fewer employees required.

So, far so good.

What’s the rub?

When we got our bill, there was a $1.99 charge tacked on: a “table game fee”.

Say, what?

The server said “there’s a charge for playing games on the tablet”.

“We didn’t play any games!”

“Sorry, the machine says you did.”



A few details

A member of our party got curious and leafed through the tablet’s tabs: menu, order, games, etc.

She didn’t play any games. She just hit the tab to see what was up.

Most important, she didn’t authorize that any charges be added to our bill.

In fact, she wasn’t prompted to authorize the charge.

Too bad.

Hit the tab, pay the price.


A profit scheme

As Navin (Steve Martin) said in The Jerk: “Oh, it’s a profit scheme.”

A quick Google search revealed that I wasn’t the first person to get upset — there have even been class action law suits and local ordinances passed … (for sources, start here)

You, see, it’s all by design … applying some classic (albeit sleazy) marketing principles.


An “attractive nuisance”

In law, there’s something called the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine.

Paraphrasing, a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children.

Make no mistake about it … the Ziosk tablet is targeted at 2 groups: teens (& twenty-somethings) who must electronically fidget at all times … and kids. Source

An attractive nuisance, for sure.


Separation of user & payer

This one is simple.

A kid doesn’t pay the family’s dining check.

So, they’re what marketers call “price insensitive” … to them, it’s a free good.

Parents – who do pay the bill – are certain to be more price sensitive than their kids.

They may think that the gaming fee is worth the price … or not.

But, they don’t get a choice, because …


Authorization by Default

At Olive Garden, when you land on a premium splash screen, it looks pretty innocuous … just a menu of enticing games.

There’s no message that says “ha-ha, we got you … pay up”.

There’s no message saying “You’re entering a premium area. You’ll be charged a table games fee if you continue. Do you want to continue?”

As a parent said online: “I assumed that any sort of fee-generating activity would be child-resistant, requiring an adult action, like swiping a credit card.”

Most folks agree.


But, Ziosk & Olive Garden understand that inserting an authorization step would cut the “take-up rate” … since many (most?) of the “transactions” are inadvertent … not intentional.

So, no authorization required … it’s in the small print, sucker.


Zone of Indifference

The specific “table gaming fee” – which is $1.99 — is no accident.

First, it’s big enough to make a big difference to Olive Garden’s and Ziosk’s profitability.

It’s one of  “Homa’s Law” that a little number ($1.99) times a big number (Olive Garden customers) is still a pretty darn big number.

Second, it’s small enough that most diner’s probably don’t even notice it on the bill.

For those who do notice it, they may conclude that the unexpected charge was worth the price or may figure that it’s too piddly of an amount to complain.

For those who do notice, who take offense, and decide to complain …


First complainant defense

Based on online accounts, most restaurant managers who are confronted by unhappy customers plead a “George Costanza Defense”.

They tell the complainant that they’re the first to raise the issue, that all other customers are thrilled by the tablets.

In other words: “Are you crazy … or just cheap?”

Then, they can stonewall the charge as company policy … or fork over 2 bucks and say “I’m sorry, here’s your money and a coupon for a free app … please come back” … or defiantly hand over the money with a “get out of here” look in there eyes.

Our store manager choose the latter course of action …


Cost-benefit trade-off

Here’s the part I don’t get.

I figure that we go to Olive Garden — err, make that used to go – 4 times a year at maybe $35 a pop.

Call it $150 a year … or at least $2,000 for the rest of my insurance-table lifetime.

Why would a company put $2,000 at risk for a measly 2 bucks?

In fact, let’s expand the net …

I was so psychologically scarred by incident that I Googled it, wrote this post and have already told the story a dozen times.

Just the latter get’s us up to $25,000 in revenue at risk … balanced against a $2 gain.

I guess that Olive Garden has concluded that it’s a good bet.

My view: It’s not the 2 bucks, it’s the principle … and the obvious question that’s raised: how else are they screwing us?

“Arrive Derchi, Olive Garden.”



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9 Responses to “Gotcha: Why I won’t go back to Olive Garden …”

  1. Rob Marshall Says:

    I keep telling friends and family that I cannot wait for tablets to replace people at restaurants. So, your story is a good heads-up about the potential downside. For what it’s worth, my issue lately has been with trying to order verbally at Einstein (for my two year-old). When I order a cinnamon raison bagel, I am served a cinnamon sugar bagel half the time. My dream scenario is that using a tablet in the future would enable me to bypass the bonehead taking my order. The employees at Einstein are no Einsteins…

  2. Alexis Says:

    We found out by accident while fiddling with the tablet. I asked the waitress about it because I saw a hint that we would be charged. She said she would take it off the bill. I was outraged! I had no idea it was so easy to be charged. There was no warning at all.

  3. All the Olive Garden you can eat … for life! | The Homa Files Says:

    […] Gotcha: Why I won’t go back to Olive Garden … […]

  4. Sandra Garrett Says:

    This happened to my husband & me last night. We were sitting across from each other at the very end of several tables pushed together for our grand-daughter & grandson’s birthday party. The ziosk was attached to table top about 2 seats over from each of us. The back of it faced my husband. Neither of us ever touched it. We didn’t even know why it was there. There were several individual checks all down the table. I guess it was across the board that each check was charged the $1.99 fee, plus the overall percentage tip each person chose to pay was also added to that $1.99 fee. A total of $2.35 was the charge for us with our 18% tip. This morning I checked our bill before entering in our checking account ledger. I googled the table game fee and found out what it was. I called Olive Garden and told them I would need a refund for $2.35 which the manager is going to refund. He assured me that this was not done on purpose. My husband & I find this hard to believe since our waitress could see very clearly that neither of us were within reaching distance of the ziosk. Manager said he would refund $5.00 to our card to make up for the inconvenience. The damage is down though. Any business that takes up a practice like this, is not OK in our book. We will never set foot in another Olive Garden ever again for any reason. Plus we’re putting the word out.

  5. Velouria Says:

    “I was so psychologically scarred by incident that I Googled it, wrote this post and have already told the story a dozen times.”

    It’s a shitty practice that needs to change, but it’s not scarring anyone.

  6. Ziosker Says:

    Ok, boomer: It actually does warn you that it’s about to charge 1.99 to continue to games. So, I guess you’re just dumb?

    Also, there is a “ziosk games” specific void key for managers to remove the charge for any guest that disagrees for any reason.

    No one is trying to scam you. It may show up “out of nowhere” because ziosks get moved by guests (usually kids) from their original tables, but will still report any charges to the ticket tied to the original tables. Or sometimes the table numbers get accidentally duplicated by the person trusted to set them up in the mornings.

    God, I think I’m scarred just from reading your post cause here I am wasting my time writing you a comment on this almost 3 year old post.

  7. Nechama Says:

    Our party of 3 adults ate at Olive Garden tonight. The first time we touched the Ziosk was to pull up the bill so we could pay it. None of us pressed the tab for games, yet the $1.99 table game fee showed up on our bill. The server graciously removed the fee from our bill, but we had to wait a while to get her attention so she could attend to this. When asked about this, the server said that the table game fee sometimes randomly pops up in a bill. It did seem like it could be a potential scam wherein management intentionally increases the price of some meals by $1.99, assuming many customers won’t notice the bogus charge or won’t wait around to get it removed. Since we couldn’t pay our bill right away on the Ziosk without paying the bogus fee, we almost were late to our movie. It was a very busy night at Olive Garden, and this practice (assuming it’s a practice and not a glitch) also is disrespectful of the wait staff that already is running around trying to provide good service. Our server didn’t need an extra task.

  8. Sean Rogers Says:

    As a former manager of Olive Garden your article is complete BS… one the ziosk does NOT safe labor… as a matter of fact the only reason why ziosk are on the table is for quicker cash out times for guests. As people use more and more credit cards and less cash it creates lines at the server terminals… imagine a server ringing in a order for 20 people and someone waiting to cash out your table for 5 minutes. You would think the server is just goofing off in the back.

    Second the guest at your table was definitely informed there would be a charge for playing games… it prompts you not just 1 time but 2 times… can’t help it that people you are with can’t read… or follow instructions.

  9. Andrew Says:

    Same thing happened to us and they are now at Texas Roadhouse. My kid clicked “Cancel” and it charged us $1.99. Told TRH they can keep the $1.99 because we will never go back again. I get that it helps the server, but to have a fee there when we tried to exit was insulting. Also, the owner said they cancel this several times a day. So people are getting scammed.

    If I enter a place and they have these we will leave. This is like going to Chuck E Cheese and letting kids play games and then putting it on the bill at the end. Parental consent should be required and to just refund the complainers is lazy. Hope the $1.99 was worth losing my family’s business forever!

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