Why Aren’t There More Court Cases?

There are about 80,800 restaurants in Canada (CRFA), and about half are audited every four years.  That’s a lot of restaurants being audited, and you just know that the majority of them receive reassessments at the end of each audit.

Rather interestingly, there are only about 10 significant court cases involving restaurants that had been audited using the mark-up methodHow can this be?

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A False Sense of Security

Many restaurant owners think they’re protected from the tax auditors, simply because they have a good accountant.  While that’s true in some cases, just about every restaurant that gets hit with a tax audit reassessment (and usually a large one at that) had a “good accountant”!

In Canada, every restaurant that appealed tax audit reassessments in court had an accountant.  In the U.S., many states publish details of tax appeals by restaurants (informal tribunal appeals, roughly equivalent to Canadian appeals by Notice of Objection).  There are literally thousands of cases and virtually every one had an accountant.  In the vast majority of cases, the restaurants lost their appeals.  I’m sure most of these restaurants thought that their accountant would protect them from these tax reassessments.

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Beware Harried Ontario Tax Auditors!

When the Ontario government repealed the Retail Sales Tax (RST) in favour of the new Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), it transferred audit and collection activities to the Canada Revenue Agency.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Ontario restaurants can forget about the old RST!

Ontario is still responsible for auditing the old RST for periods up to June 30, 2010.  Under the Statute of Limitations, Ontario has up to four years to audit the RST.  Actually, they can go back more than four years, if they can show fraud or misrepresentation or if they obtain a waiver from the taxpayer.

Many of these Ontario auditors will be transferring to the CRA in 2012.  So, they are racing to complete audits of most Ontario RST vendors.  This is especially true for Ontario restaurants, which have always been a target of the Ministry of Revenue.

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Auditors Don’t Know Your Business

Here’s a bold statement:  tax auditors don’t know your business.

It’s true!  You know it, I know it, even the tax auditors know it!

As a result, you may think you have an advantage over the tax auditors.  Unfortunately, you don’t.  What tax auditors lack in knowledge they make up for by making assumptions about your restaurant.  Often, these assumptions are nothing more than the tax authority’s decisions to use certain “standards”.  For example, the “industry average” shrinkage allowance for draft beer (or liquor, or wine).  Here’s a surprise:  there isn’t one!  In almost every case, the tax auditor makes assumptions that are not favourable to your tax position, leading to large tax reassessments.

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The Real Threat

Despite what has been published in the press and disclosed by the CRA and the Ministry of Revenue Quebec (MRQ), the use of zappers has not reached epidemic proportions in the restaurant industry.  Zappers have been around since the mid-1990s, though most of the usage seems to have been confined to Quebec.  In fact, the vast majority of the convictions for sales tax evasion have occurred in Quebec.  For background on the use and abuse of zappers, please read this, this, and this.  The unfortunate thing about all of this attention is that it may draw our attention away from a far larger threat to our operations.  The indirect audit approach.

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Restaurant Tax Fraud – Then and Now

Recently, we’ve begun to hear a lot more about tax evasion in the restaurant industry.  More specifically, we’re talking about technologically-assisted tax fraud, using zappers or phantom-ware.  It made the news, again this past week, when it was disclosed that the Canada Revenue Agency had found more than $40M of unreported tax in the restaurant industry attributed to the use of zappers.  Today’s post looks at the issue of tax fraud in the restaurant industry and tries to determine how “rampant” it might be.

While tax fraud can occur in many different ways, when we talk about the restaurant industry, it usually takes the form of cash sales “skimmed” off and not reported for tax purposes.

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It’s Going to get a Whole Lot Worse!

I don’t want to scare you, but I feel it is my duty as a fellow restaurateur and as an accountant.  After reading this headline, many of you will think this blog entry is going to be about the economy and how it will affect your restaurant business.  As for the economy, I think the worst is behind us, but there is another threat to your business that is going to be a lot worse in the next few years.  Let me explain…

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Auditproofing – Average Costs

So far, I’ve discussed the POS system and how to maintain it for accurate reporting, how to document your sales mix for all audit periods, and the importance of maintaining an accurate history of your menu prices.  Taken together, these bookkeeping tasks are crucial in helping the restaurateur determine, and properly support, accurate weighted average prices.  This is a crucial component of the mark-up calculation performed during a typical audit.

Now we’ll take a look at the actual cost of the alcoholic beverages purchased for sale.

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Auditproofing – Tracking Menu Changes

As a restaurateur, you probably have a general idea how your menus and prices have changed over the last few years.  Unfortunately, only having a “general idea” can land you in a big pot of trouble when your restaurant is audited.  This post reviews a few of the methods of documenting key changes to your menu and prices.  When the time comes, you will have accurate, credible information to support your actual margins and document the reasons for variances from the expected margins.

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