24/05/2005 - 22:00

Restaurateur pulls the cork on BYO

24/05/2005 - 22:00


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The issue of BYO has recently been thrust back into Perth’s restaurant scene.

Restaurateur pulls the cork on BYO

The issue of BYO has recently been thrust back into Perth’s restaurant scene.

A local restaurateur, who prefers to remain anonymous, has taken the unusual step of writing to 300 restaurants in an effort to raise awareness over what he calls the ‘unfair practice’ of BYO wine.

The issue of BYO has occupied an uneasy truce between restaurants and diners for nearly 50 years.

Post-war efforts to coax diners out of the family home to eat saw unlicensed restaurants offer incentives such as BYO.

The thing is that this informal code of practice has never been legislated, reformed or discussed widely on an industry level.

The letter that restaurant owners received facetiously starts thus: “Customers are embracing new BYO business trends in Australia. Once popular in restaurants as corkage, consumers are now being creative and using BYO in every day dealings:

• At a car mechanic workshop – ‘Hi buddy, I want to BYO my special tools kit and pay you $10 toolage for servicing my car’.

• To a law firm – ‘I will let you prepare the lease documents for my property if you allow BYO papers. I am happy to pay your company printage’.

• To a taxi in Perth – ‘Hi, here is a can of petrol. Can you drive me to Rockingham? I will give you $6 petrolage’.”

Whether one agrees with the analogies or not, the fact remains that the business of running a restaurant is viewed somewhat differently by the public than that of an ‘ordinary business’.

Whether it is associated with some romanticised notion of culinary skill or the noble pursuit of great chefs, there is a disparity.

Clearly there is a less than logical foundation supporting the idea of BYO but its proponents are often very passionate in its defence. They cite overpriced wine lists as justification for BYO generally but that in itself doesn’t explain the basis for the system.

As the mysterious nobyoaustralia campaigner states, it has got to a stage where Perth restaurants “are selling food and corkage, not food and wine”.

The major problem seems to be a lack of industry-recognised standard for BYO.

Legally, the situation of BYO is as grey as a pinot grigio. WA’s only consolidated legislation on the subject, the Liquor Licensing Act 1988, is silent on all topics of BYO, with the law giving an unfettered discretion to licensees on all matters BYO.

In preparation for this article, Gusto contacted 50 different restaurants across Western Australia and found little if any continuity in their approach to BYO.

While a handful of licensed restaurants flatly refuse BYO under any circumstances, the rest were spotted along a seemingly endless line of corkage charges. Prices ranged from $0 to $25 and could be applied on a per-person, per-table or per-bottle ratio.

This represents a point echoed by one of the state’s most successful wine merchants. Michael Tamburi, owner/proprietor of La Vigna, says: “There is a lot of confusion surrounding the issue.

“There is a definite need for certainty. I know the consumer is confused. I can’t understand how it [corkage] is assessed sometimes either.”

The distinct lack of knowledge of BYO policies in Australia hit a new low when the host of a reality restaurant program complained about the corkage charge on his BYO bottle, which was under stelvin closure.

He could not understand why a charge should be attached to the mere ‘flick of a wrist’ in order to open his beverage.

And as he sat in the restaurant, drinking from its glasses, which were polished by its bartender, sitting on its chairs at its linin-covered table, enjoying its music, air-conditioning and lighting, this host of a nationally-syndicated hospitality program still wondered why the owners of this small business would dare charge a customer a fee for bringing into their establishment his own drink.

The problem with this attitude is that it is sadly not confined to the realms of reality television. The advent of screw tops no more shields a restaurateur from the lost profits due to BYO that cork ever did.

What restaurateurs, wine merchants and consumers alike seem to demand is a recognised system for bringing one’s own beverages into licensed premises. To do so would create some certainty in the hospitality industry.

At the end of the day, it is at the licensee’s discretion but the issue is wide enough to allow give and take from both sides. While restaurateurs already surviving on knife edge profit margins want to remain viable, surely punters want to enjoy their 1979 Chateau d’Yquem with something other than homemade tuna casserole.


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