Feb. 20, 2013 at 11:53 AM ET
Waffle House draws plenty of customers craving grilled sausage biscuits, cheese grits and mounds of hash browns, but hungry patrons at one of the company’s Atlanta locations must now open their wallets a bit wider.
Welcome to the first and only Waffle House in the country to implement a 20 percent security surcharge.
The restaurant chain – which operates more than 1,600 restaurants in 25 states – opened its Underground Atlanta location in 2008. In mid-December, it began asking customers to pay the surcharge, which is tacked onto every bill, said Waffle House spokesman Pat Warner.
The fee helps pay for the services of an off-duty Atlanta police officer who is at the restaurant seven days a week to help with crowd control and ensure the safety of customers and employees, Warner said.
“We’re the only 24-hour establishment open down there so we want to make sure that the people inside the restaurant feel safe coming in and eating,” Warner told NBC News.
The restaurant is located near Underground Atlanta – a retail and entertainment complex that city officials hoped would revitalize downtown but hasn’t exactly lived up to those expectations. TripAdvisor describes Underground Atlanta as “a dimly-lit, subterranean version of a failing suburban mall.”
There have been concerns about panhandling, loitering and crime in the area, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
Until recently, Waffle House referred to the fee as a “property management surcharge,” but that caused some confusion, Warner said, so the company decided to officially call it a security surcharge in signs posted at the restaurant.
The decision puzzled restaurant industry experts who said they’ve never seen an eatery openly implement such a fee. Most establishments factor the cost of security into their menu prices to avoid alarming their patrons, they said.
“You don’t want to broadcast that there is in fact a need for security because that is going to make some customers less likely to go there,” said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food service strategies at WD Partners.
Warner countered that because Waffle House has such a big presence in Atlanta, it didn’t want to raise prices at just this one location without explaining why. The company wanted to be upfront and believed drawing attention to the surcharge avoided the perception that it was trying to hide something, he added.
But most people understand that menu prices vary by location, said Ron Paul, president and CEO of Technomic, a food industry research firm.
“Normally, when you go to a different city or a different part of a city, restaurants just have different prices and consumers know they’re not going to pay the same in Times Square as they do in Wichita for a chain meal,” Paul said.
“As a business practice, (the fee) doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
It’s not likely that any other restaurants will copy the surcharge, both Lombardi and Paul predicted.
Waffle House is keeping its options open about whether to tack on the extra fee at any of its other locations, Warner said. The company wants to continue to maintain a restaurant at Underground Atlanta, and keeping it safe is paramount, he added.
“Nobody opens a restaurant with the idea they’re going to lose money,” Paul said. “They must believe it’s going to be a successful location.”