Corkage Fees Uncorked
by Mark R. Vogel

            There are two diners in my town in proximity to each other.  Sometimes I’ll have breakfast at one and sometimes the other; my choice determined more by whimsy than by reason.  One morning I brought my own coffee, housed in a Dunkin Donuts cup I had at home.  I entered the one eatery, parked myself at the counter and asked the waitress for a bacon & egg sandwich.  She immediately spied my contraband coffee and sternly informed me that:  “we sell coffee too.”  She then suggested I empty my coffee into one of their cups.  At that point I suggested we just make my sandwich to go. 

            I found this scenario quite vexing.  If I entered their diner with no coffee and ordered a bacon and egg sandwich, they would make the same amount of money as ordering the sandwich with my home-brought coffee.  But now they’ve cut off their nose to spite their face.  Ironically, their sensitivity to my consumption of a competitor’s product in their establishment drove me straight to the competition.  I now exclusively patronize the other diner, whose owner is indifferent to my interloping coffee. 

            While pondering this event I couldn’t help but think of the similarities to corkage fees.  A corkage fee is a charge you pay for bringing your own wine into a restaurant that already serves wine.  Corkage fees run from $10 to almost $100, depending on the preeminence of the establishment.  The fee is assessed per bottle.  Thus, it’ll cost you a Ben Franklin to bring two bottles of your own wine into a restaurant with a $50 corkage fee.  In some states it’s even illegal to BYOB (bring your own bottle), to an eatery with a liquor license.  Obviously the restaurateurs of those states have pulled a few strings.  

            The justification for a corkage fee is to offset the cost you incur from bringing your own wine, but I’m not buying it.  C’mon.  How much can it cost to wash a couple of wine glasses?  Even at a corkage fee of $10 per bottle they’re making a huge profit.  Let’s face it; the point of a corkage fee is to MAKE MONEY.  There’s nothing ignominious in that endeavor but please don’t insult our intelligence with the “cost-offsetting” argument.  If that were the case, then restaurants should charge for water.  A glass of water costs even more than an empty glass for wine.  In addition to the dishwashing and occasional breakage costs, the glass of water includes the cost of the water itself and the electricity to make the cubes. 

            I’m not necessarily against corkage fees and I am by no means promoting their abandonment.  But some irksome inequalities exist.  For example, if you walked into JC Penney with a shirt in a Macy’s bag, looking for a pair of pants to match it, would JC Penney be miffed?  Would they chastise you and remind you that they sell shirts too?  Doubtful.  If you purchased potatoes at one supermarket while brandishing a steak from another supermarket, would they charge you extra for your spuds?  No way.  How come the laundry mat doesn’t charge you extra for their washers when you bring your own detergent?  They sell detergent in their vending machines but there’s no penalty assessed for providing your own.  My gas station, which also sells fuel injector cleaner, doesn’t impose a fee when I dispense my own fuel injector cleaner just prior to their gas. The bowling alley doesn’t levy a surcharge when I bring my own shoes as opposed to renting or buying theirs.  The firing range doesn’t cost me a single penny more when I bring my own bullets.  Admission to the fishing pier is the same whether I bring my own bait or buy theirs.  OK, OK, the horse was dead a couple examples ago. 

            The point is, is that restaurants have been able to forge a zeitgeist whereby it is frowned upon and therefore surcharged to consume an outside product in their establishment that they already sell.  As an isolated example, while discussing this topic with a friend he retorted: “People who bring wine to a restaurant that sells wine are idiots and cheapskates and should pay a corkage fee.’  Yet in countless other businesses, this practice doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, let alone a fee.  That quirky, seemingly capricious differentiation is what rattles my brain more than the corkage fee itself.

            Maybe it’s because of the precariousness of the restaurant business that bring-your-own behavior has risen to the level of a faux pas.  A high percentage of restaurants do eventually fail.  Moreover, alcohol sales are often the lifeblood of a restaurant.  There is no disputing that many restaurants could not stay afloat without their liquor license.  This is why you will easily pay two to three times the price for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.  Sometimes patrons BYOB due to a unique bottle that the restaurant doesn’t stock.  But sometimes, like the restaurant, the patron is also trying to keep costs down.  You can argue that frugal customers can patronize a liquorless establishment with their own wine.  You can counter, as I have, by questioning why restaurants get the privilege of surcharging BYOBers and other businesses don’t.  I suspect that somewhere between the two lies the answer; right smack in the middle of the grey zone.  By the way, there’s a fee for parking in the grey zone. 


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