Corkage fee: The Detailed Guide for Small Business Owners

red wine on restaurant table with customer eating in the background, corkage fee for bringing your own bottle

Corkage fees are a unique aspect of the restaurant and hospitality industry that, while often overlooked, can play a significant role in a business's revenue and customer service strategy. This comprehensive guide is designed to help small business owners navigate the complexities of corkage fees, from understanding the basics to implementing effective strategies and dealing with legal considerations. With the right approach, corkage fees can enhance your service offerings, improve customer satisfaction, and contribute positively to your business's financial health.

What is a corkage fee?

A corkage fee is a charge applied by a restaurant when a customer opts to bring their own bottle of wine instead of purchasing one from the establishment. This fee typically covers services like storage, chilling, and wine service. For small business owners, particularly in the hospitality sector, understanding corkage fees is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, it provides an additional revenue stream. Secondly, it offers customers more options, potentially increasing their satisfaction and loyalty. Lastly, it's an opportunity to demonstrate the business's flexibility and customer-centric approach.

Why do restaurants charge a corkage fee?

Restaurants charge a corkage fee to cover the costs associated with serving wine that is not purchased from the restaurant's wine list. These costs can include:

  • Labor: The time it takes to uncork the wine, pour it, and clean up after each bottle.

  • Glassware: The cost of providing glasses for each bottle of wine.

  • Loss of profit: If a customer brings their own wine, the restaurant is forgoing the profit they would have made by selling that bottle.

  • Overhead: The overall costs of running the restaurant, such as rent, utilities, and insurance.

How much is a corkage fee?

The average corkage fee ranges between $10 and $40 per bottle, but it can vary depending on the restaurant's location, cuisine, and overall pricing. Some restaurants charge a flat fee, while others charge a percentage of the bottle's cost. Some restaurants also offer discounts for corkage fees on certain nights of the week or for special occasions.

Which type of restaurants charge corkage fees ?

Corkage fees are most commonly charged at fine dining establishments or restaurants that have a focus on wine. This includes fine dining restaurants, upscale gastropubs, and wine bars. Some casual restaurants may also allow BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle), but they will typically charge a corkage fee to offset the loss of profit.

How much should you charge for a corkage fee?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The amount you should charge for a corkage fee will depend on your individual restaurant's circumstances. However, there are a few factors you should consider:

  • Your restaurant's overall pricing: If you have a high-priced menu, you can charge a higher corkage fee.

  • The type of wine you typically sell: If you sell more expensive wines, you can charge a higher corkage fee.

  • Your overhead costs: If your overhead costs are high, you will need to charge a higher corkage fee.

Corkage fee laws

The charges imposed by many restaurants for customers bringing their own alcohol, are subject to varying regulations and restrictions across different jurisdictions. Understanding these laws is crucial for both restaurants and customers to ensure compliance and avoid potential disputes.

Legality of BYOB and Corkage Fees

Not all states permit BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) policies. In some jurisdictions, restaurants are prohibited from allowing customers to bring their own alcoholic beverages. This is particularly common in states with strict alcohol laws or where liquor licenses are tightly regulated.

In states where BYOB practices are legal, restaurants may or may not be allowed to charge corkage fees. Some states have specific laws governing corkage fees, while others leave the matter to local ordinances or restaurant discretion. It is essential to check the local regulations to ensure compliance with any applicable corkage fee laws.

Fee Limits and Prohibitions

In states where corkage fees are permitted, some may impose limits on the amount that can be charged. For instance, California's Alcoholic Beverage Control Act (ABC) sets a maximum corkage fee of $10 per bottle. Other states may have different limits or no specific regulations on corkage fees.

Some states may also prohibit restaurants from charging corkage fees for certain types of alcoholic beverages, such as beer or sparkling wine. These restrictions may be based on the perceived competitive impact on local liquor stores or to protect the state's revenue from alcohol sales.

Exemptions and Exceptions

In some cases, restaurants may be exempt from corkage fee regulations. For example, restaurants that predominantly serve food or that have a limited menu of alcoholic beverages may be allowed to waive corkage fees or charge reduced rates.

Additionally, some states may allow restaurants to offer special promotions or discounts on corkage fees during specific times or for special events. These exceptions are typically limited to certain occasions and may be subject to specific regulations.

Restaurant Responsibility

Restaurants have a responsibility to be aware of and comply with all applicable corkage fee laws in their jurisdiction. Failure to comply with these laws can result in fines or other penalties. Restaurants should regularly review and update their knowledge of corkage fee regulations to ensure they are operating legally.

Customer Perception and Corkage Fees

Man paying by credit card at a restaurant

While some diners welcome the flexibility to enjoy their favorite beverages, others may perceive corkage fees as an added cost that reduces the value proposition of dining out. Navigating customer perception and expectations regarding corkage fees requires a delicate balance between maintaining profitability and fostering a positive dining experience.

Transparency and Communication

The key to managing customer perception with corkage fees lies in transparency and clear communication. Restaurants should prominently display their corkage fee policy on their menus, websites, and reservation pages. This upfront disclosure allows customers to make informed decisions about their dining choices, ensuring that there are no surprises at the end of the meal.

Educating the Staff

Restaurant staff plays a crucial role in shaping customer perception of corkage fees. Front-of-house staff should be knowledgeable about the corkage policy and able to explain it clearly to customers. They should also be able to provide recommendations for wines that complement the restaurant's menu and are suitable for sharing.

Promotional Offers

Restaurants can attract customers who appreciate BYOB options by offering occasional promotions that waive or reduce corkage fees on specific nights or for special events. This approach can encourage customers to try the restaurant again while generating additional revenue.

Corkage Fee and Wine Selection

Curating a Wine List

Even if you allow customers to bring their own wine, having an enticing in-house selection is important. A carefully curated wine list can appeal to different tastes and budgets, encouraging customers to explore your offerings. This can be a delicate balance – you want to offer enough variety to be attractive but not so much that it discourages BYOB entirely.

Encouraging wine sales vs. Corkage Fees

Encouraging in-house wine sales while maintaining a BYOB option requires tact. Special promotions, like discounted bottles on certain days, or a unique selection not easily found elsewhere, can entice customers to purchase from your selection. Additionally, offering a wine tasting experience can be a great way to showcase your wine list and encourage sales.

Real life examples of corkage fee implementation:

Here are some examples of restaurants that have successfully implemented a corkage fee and how they did it:

1. Barbuto in New York City: Barbuto is a well-respected Italian restaurant in New York City that charges a corkage fee of $35 per bottle. The restaurant is upfront about its corkage policy on its website and menu, and its staff is well-informed about the policy. Barbuto also has a strong wine program, so customers who are willing to pay the corkage fee can enjoy a wide selection of wines.

2. Rosa Mexicano in Atlanta: Rosa Mexicano is a Mexican restaurant chain with locations in several major cities, including Atlanta. The restaurant charges a corkage fee of $25 per bottle. Rosa Mexicano is transparent about its corkage policy on its website and menu, and its staff is trained to explain the policy to customers. The restaurant also has a good selection of wines available by the glass, so customers who do not want to bring their own wine can still enjoy a variety of options.

3. Staple House in Atlanta: Staple House is a farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta that charges a corkage fee of $30 per bottle. The restaurant is transparent about its corkage policy on its website and menu, and its staff is knowledgeable about the policy. Staple House also has a strong commitment to sustainability, so it encourages customers to bring their own wine in reusable bottles.

4. Amali in New York City: Amali is a Turkish restaurant in New York City that charges a corkage fee of $45 per bottle. The restaurant is upfront about its corkage policy on its website and menu, and its staff is trained to explain the policy to customers. Amali also has a unique wine program that emphasizes Turkish and Middle Eastern wines.

5. Arlington Club in New York City: The Arlington Club is a private members' club in New York City that charges a corkage fee of $50 per bottle. The club is selective about its members, so it is able to charge a higher corkage fee than most restaurants. The club also has a well-respected wine cellar, so members can enjoy a wide selection of wines.

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Future outlook of corkage fees

Corkage fees are likely to continue to be a topic of debate between restaurants and their customers. The future of corkage fees is uncertain, but it is likely that restaurants will continue to offer BYOB options, and consumers will continue to bring their own wines to restaurants. The key for restaurants will be to find a balance between offering BYOB options and maintaining their profitability.