The (Not So) Festive Special

For many Canadians, Swiss Chalet‘s Festive Special is an annual tradition. Even if they rarely eat from chain restaurants, most people I know admit that the chicken dinner with stuffing, cranberry sauce and a chocolate treat is a seasonal guilty pleasure.

Greg and I are no different. When the ads appear, we run around the house yelling “Festive SpeCHULLLL!” at the top of our lungs. It may be the only chain restaurant food we eat all year, but for some reason we have to have it.

So when the ads appeared recently we hopped online and started to place an order via the chain’s website. As we got to the point where it adds the tax, we noticed that the website automatically added a 5 cent surcharge for a plastic bag.

Besides the fact that we think Toronto’s freaky plastic bag bylaw is really stupid, we didn’t actually want Swiss Chalet’s bag. As an apartment dweller (no yard and no green bin) and the owner of two very large dogs, I regularly show up at friends’ homes and raid their plastic bag stash. I have been known to go to No Frills, well before the silly bylaw, for the sole purpose of buying plastic bags because I was out, and desperate. But those Swiss Chalet bags – those things are nasty; they don’t fold well in your pocket, they don’t tie well, and because of the condensation from the chicken dinners, they tend to smell of rotisserie chicken for days after.

So we cancelled the online order and called.

“No cutlery, no condiments and no bag,” Greg tells the order taker over the phone. There was some talking on the other end. “No, I don’t want the bag,” I hear him say. Then, “she’s put me through to customer service.”

I take the phone and finish the conversation with the customer service rep, who makes it sound as if the issue is up to the individual franchisee. He comes back on the line and tells me that they refuse to deliver the meal without a bag.

“So let them take the bag back with them when they drop it off,” I say, this being the most logical of solutions to my mind.

No. They won’t do that. No one can tell me why, but they won’t deliver the order unless it’s in a bag, and we pay for the bag. So no Festive Special for me, because I’m not being strong-armed into paying for something that isn’t actually used by me and that I don’t want in the first place.

The next day I put in a call to Swiss Chalet’s head office and talk to Mark DiPratto, who tells me that the bag rule is a company policy.

DiPratto says that Swiss Chalet is “looking at alternatives, I would love to see environmental changes,” that would allow the company to avoid the use of plastic bags. But for now, he says, the company has no other options.

Why not give the customers the option of a paper bag, I ask, but DiPratto tells me it could become a quality control issue; they don’t want the food getting cold and customers complaining. That’s fair enough, but how about putting the food items directly into the store’s insulated carrier? No can do, as it would create sanitation issues if something spilled. Which kind of makes me wonder how often the insides of those insulated carriers get cleaned out.

Okay, so what about a paper bag inside a plastic one and taking the paper bag out at the customer’s door? In fact, why not put the food directly into the plastic bag and take out the items and hand the customer at the door, like I suggested to the customer service rep initially?

According to DiPratto, this would slow down the deliveries, and the driver would be stuck with the plastic bag. But as it stands, the customer is stuck with the plastic bag. One that they’ve been forced to purchase in order to be allowed to purchase the food.

A policy that, incidentally, just happens to be illegal.

As is typical with City of Toronto bylaws, the plastic bag law, which forces retailers to charge 5 cents for a plastic bag, wasn’t particularly well thought-out. The law was made to apply to restaurants without considering the logistics of how it would work. Like other retailers, restaurants are supposed to ask customers if they want a bag and then advise them that a bag will cost them a minimum of 5 cents. This applies to take-out orders, or even if customers want a bag to take home leftovers.

All of which is fine for an in-person transaction; Torontonians all know to bring their own bags, or cough up the bag charge. But is it fair to force a customer to buy a bag for delivery? To make them pay for something that is for the convenience of the driver, not them personally? Not according to a spokesperson at the Waste Enforcement Division of Toronto’s Municipal Licensing and Standards office. I was told that the restaurant can choose to carry the food to a customer’s location in a plastic bag but that they cannot force the customer to take – or pay for – the bag if they don’t want it. Because the bag charge is not a tax levied by the city, but the sale of a product by the retailer, they can’t legally force a customer to buy a product in order to be allowed to purchase another product.

DiPratto refutes this, claiming that Swiss Chalet’s policy is legal because of health and safety concerns.

He stresses that the company is looking at alternative solutions, because they are concerned about the environment, but that there is no time line or target in place for implementation.

As a potential (and now lost) customer, I’m not really buying any of it.

Most people either don’t notice the bag charge, or shrug it off. To be honest, if the bag was a different plastic, I might as well. But it’s not unreasonable to calculate the little bonus that Swiss Chalet makes on every delivery order. All of those nickels add up. So despite DiPratto’s insistence on Swiss Chalet’s dedication to the environment, there’s really not a lot of incentive for a company to stop charging for plastic bags if they can get away with it.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t really order a lot of delivery. The small local places I do get food delivered from seem to be either unaware of, or are ignoring, the bag charge policy. Plastic bags are handed over readily with no mention of a nickel in return.

Obviously chains are under more scrutiny when it comes to things like this, so I pop into the Quizno’s on the corner near my house to find out their policy regarding plastic bags and delivery.

“We put the food in a bag to get it there,” the guy behind the counter tells me. “And then when we get to the customer’s door, we take the food out of the bag and hand the items to them.” (Gee, that sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?)

“You don’t charge them for the bag?” I ask. Not unless the customer wants to keep it, I’m told.

So what happens to the bag? The driver brings it back to the store, and if it’s clean, they use it again.

Doesn’t this slow down the delivery process? That’s the excuse Swiss Chalet gave me for not doing the same thing, after all. “Uh, maybe 30 seconds to a minute,” he says. “It’s not that big a deal.”

Exactly. Now someone convince Swiss Chalet of that.

This article originally ran on