The corkage fee you just got charged? Totally illegal

Why BYOBs can't charge you for bringing your own booze. But do anyway.

Wait, corkage fees can’t be illegal, right? Citywide, BYOBs—from tiny Indian spots on Devon to upscale eateries like Schwa—charge a per-bottle or per-person fee when you bring your booze to drink with their food. But the practice actually violates city law, as Manager Alex Trejo at Mixteco Grill (profiled in our roundup of our favorite Mexican BYOBs) found out on Wednesday, when a police officer issued the restaurant a citation for having a corkage fee. Mixteco has been BYOB for a long time, but it had just instituted a corkage fee for the first time, of $3 per bottle, a week earlier. “[The police officer] said the big deal is somebody called and said ‘these guys are charging,’ implying that if nobody had called, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

If you can find the info on the city of Chicago’s website (no easy task), the wording makes it pretty clear: “There should not be any direct or indirect fees charged for the allowance of BYOB unless the business location has a liquor license.” If a BYOB charges a corkage fee (or a “hospitality fee,” “recycling fee”—it’s illegal under any name), most likely they just haven’t been snitched on.

But before you decide to lower your personal entertainment costs by dropping a dime on your favorite mom-and-pop Thai spot, keep in mind that liquor service actually does cost a restaurant money—many small spots rent, rather than own, their industrial dish washers, and pay per wash load. Restaurants of all sizes have to buy glasses and replace breakage, and, priciest of all, a BYOB restaurant is almost forced to buy additional liability insurance: If a patron gets plotzed on their premises drinking his own booze, and then does something stupid (say, crash a car), the restaurant can be held responsible. How’s that for a double-bind?

For his part, Trejo at Mixteco is taking it in stride. Mixteco removed the short-lived corkage fee, and Trejo feels that it may be better off that way, regulations or no: “It’s not a big deal. With the economy and everything, [without a corkage fee] maybe we’re keeping more customers.”

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