Bill Menczer appreciates fine foods. At least once a month, the Woodley Park resident treks north on Wisconsin Avenue to Rodman’s Discount Food and Drug in Friendship Heights, where he stocks up on a range of imported delicacies. Long before Sutton Place and Fresh Fields popped up, Rodman’s was supplying District epicureans with cilantro and imported couscous (as well as appliances and the occasional enema bag) at cut-rate prices.
“When I buy the candy bars, though, that’s when I get nailed,” says Menczer.
About a year ago, Menczer noticed on his Rodman’s receipts that the store was slapping him with a 10 percent “snack tax” on anything from imported Lindt chocolate truffles to the more pedestrian Hershey’s bar. “I hate to admit it, but I do eat quite a few of them,” he notes.
D.C.’s sales-tax code spills quite a bit of ink defining “snack food,” which includes your run-of-the-mill potato chips and pretzels as well as “pork rinds,” “pastries that are baked or fried,” and “fruit or vegetable drinks that contain less than 15% natural fruit or vegetable juice by volume.” In other words, anything with enough sugar, salt, or fat to kill you.
Snacks are not to be confused with “food or drink prepared for immediate consumption,” meaning anything served by a restaurant or carryout, as well as prepared salads or sandwiches sold at the grocery store. All foods in this category carry a 10 percent sales tax.
To explain why Rodman’s applies the 10 percent levy to all its munchies, store management pointed to a laminated copy of a sales tax primer prepared by the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR). In plain language, the paper instructs District businesses to collect a 6 percent tax on snackable items. However, Rodman’s copy has a series of arrows scribbled in the left-hand margin of the document placing snack food sales under the 10 percent tax bracket.
Store managers explain that the snack-tax law was amended a few years ago, as noted in the margins. “Anything that you can just open and eat, we charge a 10 percent snack taxthat’s D.C. law,” says Guy Jones, a Rodman’s manager. That’s also $1.09 for a 3.5-oz. bag of Doritos, versus $1.05 at most other spots.
Rodman’s insists that it upholds the letter, not the more malleable spirit, of snack law. Eggs, for example, are not subject to the Rodman’s munching penalty. “You could buy them and eat them right here raw, but mostly people cook them,” says Jones.
City officials say Rodman’s is out to lunch. The law was amended in July 1993, they explain, to bring the snack tax back down from 10 percent to 5.75 percent, or a rounded 6 percent. “Once we are made aware of a situation, we take action pending an investigation of the matter,” says Clarice Nassif, a spokesperson for OTR. Nassif adds that stores sometimes overcharge sales tax, and the city has a detailed reimbursement procedure. Though OTR failed to comment further on specifics, Menczer reports that officials have informed him that they are considering an audit of the store.
Menczer is also threatening to file a class-action lawsuit against the gourmet grocer. “When you think of the thousands of customers overcharged over the years, this is the only real way to get your money back,” he says. CP