Delia Houseal wanted to treat her three kids to dinner on a Saturday night. The advisory neighborhood commissioner for 7E06 and her family decided to go to Sala Thai at 4020 Minnesota Ave. NE on Saturday, Aug. 31.
Crab rangoon, mussels, rice, and an order of pad Thai later, the final bill came out to $53.20 with an extra $5.32 in D.C. sales tax. But when Houseal checked the receipt, she was surprised to find an unexpected charge: a $9.58 “dine-in” tax. Houseal instantly asked a server about it.
“I’d never heard of a dine-in tax,” she tells City Paper. But the server relayed that it was something they charge all guests who come in and sit down to eat. Houseal pressed him for more information, asking if there were other restaurants in the area that do something similar, but she says she didn’t get any further information.
Houseal also pointed out that the bill said her table was a party of five, but there were only four people. She says she didn’t receive a straight answer and inquired with the diners at the table next to her, a party of three, and found they were also charged a “dine-in tax.”
While Houseal says her server eventually agreed to take fee off her bill, she left the restaurant put off by the experience and took to Facebook:
“Why are Ward 7 residents forced to pay a dine-in tax at one of the few dine-in restaurants in Ward 7? This has to change! I don’t pay a dine-in tax downtown!” She wrote in the Greater Ward Seven Facebook group, along with a photo of her receipt.
“People were kind of shocked,” she tells City Paper, adding that some commenters thought it was a way for the restaurant to ensure employees receive tips. “There’s a belief that African American people don’t tip.”
Some commenters likened the tip to a tax on people of color. “No such thing as a dine-in tax,” one wrote. “This is code for ‘dark faces don’t tip’ so we’re gonna tax them.” Houseal says it completely defeated the purpose of eating out.
As a Ward 7 resident and ANC commissioner, Houseal is well-aware of the limited sit-down restaurants in her neighborhood. Sala Thai is one of the few full-service sit-down restaurants in a community where delivery was also, until recently, out of reach. Last year, most delivery apps didn’t even deliver to Ward 7 and 8 until Ward 7 resident Latoya Watsonpetitioned them.
Still, Houseal says she and her family decided to eat out that night because of delivery fees. “The reason why we went because we were going to order in through Uber Eats, but it was kind of expensive,” she said. “It was more than I wanted to pay for the food at that time.”
That’s why seeing a dine-in tax felt unjustified and prompted her to speak up. She tells City Paper she plans to reach out to Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray about it, as well as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
When reached by phone, Sala Thai owner Oy Changsila says the “dine-in” tax was meant to serve as gratuity. He points out that the menu notes that parties of five or more will be charged an 18 percent gratuity, which is how much was added to Houseal’s bill. However, he didn’t explain why Houseal’s party of four had been charged the dine-in tax.
Changsila says gratuity is about ensuring his employees are tipped fairly. “If you tip less than 10 percent, that’s an insult,” he says.
The restaurant will be doing away with the policy, according to Changsila, who says the restaurant is in the process of changing the point of sale system to add mandatory gratuity to larger parties, but not call it a “dine-in” tax.
When this reporter visited Sala Thai on Friday night and asked manager Off Pavem about the charge, he pointed to the menu. “We are going to do an 18 percent gratuity applied to a party of five or more,” he told City Paper. He also said Changsila is working on changing the system so it says “gratuity” not “dine-in tax” on checks.
As City Paperpreviously reported, semantics are important because diners want to know where their money is going. “Gratuity” suggests a direct tip to the individual or team that took care of the customer, while “service charge” is more commonly used at businesses that have swapped out tips for a payment method that shares the service charge between dining room and kitchen employees. The service charge belongs to the business operator, who determines how to distribute it.
Houseal wasn’t the only person to bring the charge to Changsila’s attention. Last week, Tyrell Holcomb, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 7F01, saw Houseal’s Facebook post and reached out. Sala Thai is in his neighborhood.
He sent the post to Changsila and asked him to change the policy. He says he felt as though Changsila’s commitment to Ward 7 didn’t match what had happened when Houseal dined there. “That’s why I chose to reach out to him directly,” he says.
There’s been a push to see more full service restaurants in Ward 7, which is why Holcomb supports the businesses that have already blazed a trail there. He isn’t alone. At least one other commenter on Houseal’s Facebook post wrote that Sala Thai is owned by a person of color and serves as one of the few sit-down options in Ward 7.
With this in mind, Holcomb says he explained to Changsila how a practice like a “dine-in tax” might make people in the community feel targeted because there’s an implication that people won’t tip. He believes Changsila was receptive to the message.
“I see it both ways,” Holcomb says. Changsila and other business owners like him want to make money. At the same time, Ward 7 residents want to feel as though they’re being treated respectfully. “But, the biggest thing I said to him was, ‘Fix it!’” Holcomb says. “That’s fair to expect, that if something is wrong, that it gets fixed.”