Have you ever noticed that it’s sometimes hard to track down a utensil at a salad bar? In some establishments they’re in plain sight, alongside the containers for the self-serve food. But in others, finding them involves a hunt that can end with lost children and spilled food. (Speaking from experience here — although in truth, I may have been the one lost.)

Well, it could be that those sequestered spoons are due to sales tax, not maliciousness on the part of a disgruntled employee. Sometimes, sales tax is based on the availability of utensils.

Ingested or chewed for taste or nutritional value

Utah has a statewide grocery sales tax rate of 3% for certain food items. The Utah State Tax Commission has created an awesome Grocery Food Sales Tax Flowchart to help taxpayers understand how various ingestible items are taxed — at the reduced rate or the full state and local rate. It begins with what may be the best opener of a sales tax flow chart ever:

“Will the item be ingested or chewed for taste or nutritional value?”

If no, it’s taxed at the full rate. If yes… well, stick with the flow chart and you’ll find out.

Below this magnificent flow chart is a product list: The Food versus Non-Food Matrix. It provides product descriptions, comments, and whether or not the product is a food or “Non-Food / Prepared Food.” Almost as awesome as the flow chart is the fact that Non-Food and Prepared Food are clustered together. I’ve always suspected.

But I digress. The following lines of the table beg to be called out:

Product Description Food Non-Food/
Prepared Food
Deli salad by size or weightXIf utensils* are not available in the area
Donuts without utensils*XIf utensils* are not available in the area
Pet food X


In the matrix, the word utensil is accompanied by an *, explained as, “Utah Code 59-12-102(66) defines utensils as a plate, knife, fork, spoon, glass, cup, napkin or straw.”

The fact that “utensils” includes napkins and plates explains why donuts may sometimes be served with utensils. This is good. I was worried that I should be eating them with a fork.

I call out pet food not because it may or may not be sold with utensils, but because it is considered a non-food/prepared food. Consider your Keeshond’s kibble and puzzle that out.

Where’s the fork?

To summarize: if a salad bar requires customers to make their own salads (later weighed and priced at the cash register), the reduced rate applies when utensils are not provided and the normal rate applies when it’s impossible to find a fork.

If a donut shop sells donuts but doesn’t provide utensils, the donuts are taxed at the reduced rate. If utensils are readily available or offered with the donut, the general rate of sales tax applies.

The takeaway

December is a busy month. It is also replete with tasty, sweet treats. As a result, many of us will opt for an easy meal or two at a salad bar in the interest of saving time, energy, and calories. Or maybe we’ll stress eat some donuts. When we do, we should look first for the utensils. They could be a harbinger of the sales tax to come — or not come.