The menu at the new Zoe Ma Ma, which opened last month right by Union Station, features some of the most comforting home-style Chinese food in Denver, with warming bowls of housemade noodles buried in braised beef and savory sauce, Chinese chicken-and-rice soup, and dumplings, bao buns and meatballs made fresh each day. But when the new location opened, there was also something a little unsettling on the menu: a 20 percent service charge labeled as a “sustainability initiative.”
That’s why customers coming in for a cheap bite may have found the bill a little less cheap than they’d expected unless they were paying attention: The service charge is automatic unless guests notice the fine print that allows them to opt out. According to the menu, the service charge covers recycling, renewables, organics, cage-free eggs and chicken — and any tip you might have ordinarily left at the counter-service operation.
Since we reported this program in last week's edition of Westword, Zoe Ma Ma has lowered the service charge to 15 percent.
When asked about the original 20 percent charge, office manager Atlas Clementz said the fee was new — something Zoe Ma Ma was testing out at its Denver branch. (The original in Boulder, which has been open since 2010, does not have the automatic charge.) “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” he said. “People really appreciate it.”
Clementz estimated that only about 5 percent of the restaurant's customers had chosen to opt out of the fee. “It also provides full-time Denver employees the opportunity to earn a living wage,” he added.
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Although the sustainability-initiative charge doesn’t exactly stand out on the print menu, prominent cards at the cash registers give customers a heads-up before they place their orders, alerting them to the fee and the opt-out possibility. In addition to lowering the amount of the charge, Zoe Ma Ma has now made the cards more prominent so that customers are more likely to read the information before ordering.
So whether customers would prefer to see the costs of doing business downtown rolled into the price of the food or broken out for them (with just a touch of guilt trip thrown in for good measure), Zoe Ma Ma is at least being up front about the transaction. How loudly you choose to announce your payment preference is up to you.