Thursday, June 30, 2011

Brazil's Consumer Protection Law vs. Restaurants

Brazil's federal consumer protection law (Código Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor) is one of the strongest in the world. On paper it is probably the strongest worldwide in terms of the protection it affords the consumer from abusive practices on the part of businesses. In terms of actual business practices, however, the law is not always obeyed, and in many cases businesses continue practices that are explicitly forbidden in the law. It's a question of impunity, lack of enforcement, lack of consumer knowledge, or even at times lack of knowledge on the part of a business that a certain practice, common in their industry, is illegal.

There are two practices that are commonly encountered in Brazilian restaurants and bars which are forbidden by the law, yet which in many types of establishments are almost universal. A recent survey indicated that the majority of Brazilian consumers were unaware that these practices were illegal, and those that were aware were likely not to know what their remedies were. These practices are something called the couvert (cover charge) and a charge for live music.

Tourists visiting Brazil and dining in a restaurant (especially an upmarket one) are often pleasantly surprised when the waiter brings to the table, unasked, a selection of breads, olive oil, perhaps some cubes of cheese and salami. This is called a couvert in Portuguese, and is normally placed on the table while the diners are reading their menus and deciding what to eat. One might be forgiven for thinking, "what a nice gesture." It's only when the bill arrives, if then, that the customer realizes that they've been charged for that nice gesture. It might be only a small charge, but in fancy restaurants it can reach R$20 (about USD $12) or more.

The consumer law specifically prohibits the practice of placing a a couvert on the table without informing the customer that there is a charge for the plate and offering them the option to decline it. This almost never occurs. In the real world, customers have two options if they do not want the couvert. First, you can tell the waiter that you don't want the couvert and ask him not to place it on the table. Alternatively, you can eat nothing on the plate, and leave it to be cleared away at some point by the waiter. If you do this, be sure to check the bill carefully to make sure the couvert has not been charged for. If it has, speak to the waiter or the manager if necessary to have it removed. Note, however, that if you eat even one little olive or cube of cheese you have, in effect, contracted to buy the couvert and will be correctly charged for it in full. It's a bit like Persephone eating one pomegranate seed in Hades - you've locked yourself into a bargain, one that you may not want.

It should be pointed out that sometimes the couvert is very well done and well worth the price. Some restaurants are famed for the quality and variety of their coverts, and no one objects to paying for them in these establishments. The point of the consumer protection law is not to forbid couverts - it is to allow the consumer to make an informed choice whether she wants to eat and pay for the couvert or not.

The second way that the consumer protection law bumps into restaurant/bar practice is the charge for live music. One of the delights of many a Brazilian bar or boteco is the live music offered to accompany drinks, snacks and lively conversation. It can be someone singing bossa nova and playing an acoustic guitar. Or it might be a trio singing hits of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga in thickly-accented English. It can be the touch that completes a perfect night out with friends, or it can be something that will cause you to flee the bar with your hands over your ears. But what it cannot be, according to the law, is an item on your tab at the end of the night. The argument that the law makes is that the consumer goes to the bar for food and drink, and may or may not want to listen to the music. However, they have no choice whether to listen or not, and as listening is not a choice of the customer, it cannot be charged for.
Zug Choperia, Fortaleza

In the case of a live music charge, however, the consumer law is more honored in the breach than the observance. A charge for live music is to be expected in bars and restaurants where it is offered. It's usually not very high, especially considering the quality of what you might be listening to - a few dollars at most. Unlike the couvert, which is easily refused on a per table basis, the practice of billing for live musica cannot easily be declined with grace. A restaurant is certainly not going to stop the music to accommodate you - and it seems a bit churlish to refuse to pay for what one has listened to, especially since the music charge usually goes directly to the musicians and is their only pay for their work.

So here we have two practices which theoretically are forbidden but which are often encountered. Flavors of Brazil, in its wise counsel, recommends that you make your own decision about whether to eat the couvert or not - it's easy to decline if done at the right time. As for the music charge, we pay it, and recommend that you do the same. Just mark it down as part of the cost of enjoying a typical Brazilian experience - a night out with a group of friends, good snacks, plenty of icy beer, all accompanied with a live music soundtrack.


  1. This is great post!
    I am Brazilian and had no idea about either of these two laws.
    These laws must be somewhat new, and the problem I see is that these are old traditions in Brazil and most people are probably not aware.
    I will say that I have noticed the "couvert" is very rare nowadays, at least in Sao Paulo restaurants, it is very "old school", you will definitely not see it in any new hip restaurant.
    The charge for live music, can easily be avoided at the large cities when you can just go to a different bar or restaurant, but think if you are driving for hours and when you finally find a road side restaurant to rest and eat, you are forced to pay for live music that you might not be interested in listening to, or if you are in a small town with only one or a few restaurants to choose from and are forced to pay the fee for live music, yeah, I can see what the legislator had in mind when they created this one.
    Thanks for sharing.


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