KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Health Care Ordinance Infects Restaurant Industry
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Friday, March 07, 2008
Health Care Ordinance Infects Restaurant Industry

San Francisco restaurants are suffering from what Michael Bauer at The San Francisco Chronicle called "another 1-2-3 punch to their already slim wallets." The first hit: a minimum wage increase to $9.36 per hour. The second: a sick leave law which states that employees receive one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

And then came the rabbit punch: The Health Care Security Ordinance, which mandates that businesses employing 20 or more employees to spend a minimum of $1.17 per employee per hour on health care. For businesses employing more than 100, that minimum increases to $1.76.

If one also factors in sharp increases in fuel costs, the doubling of wheat prices, and a public hyperventilating over dismal economic forecasts, the San Francisco restaurant industry isn't looking forward to a rosy-hued 2008.

The cost of business, my friends, is rising like so much expensive dough. How, then, are our local eateries attempting to punch it down?

A few are taking it on the chin, while others are increasing their menu prices to help absorb the costs.

And some are implementing an additional service charge, in the guise of either a percentage of the total bill, or a per person cover charge. With letters of explanation attached.

There are those among us who appreciate the transparency of these explanatory letters, even applaud them. Others find this new trend offensive. I sense that composing such letters and adding these charges was a tough call for those who have added them-- one made under the strain of coming to terms with a well-meaning, but essentially flawed ordinance. The result has become unavoidably political.

Personally, I don't want my dinner to be any more political than it needs to be. I make enough of those choices in my daily life as it is. Even the choice of which restaurant I go to is often a political decision. Once I enter that restaurant, however, I'm done. I want someone to greet me warmly, I want to be fed and watered well, and I want to forget-- for an hour or two-- the problems I purposefully left outside the front door. I want to feel taken care of.

If I want a full explanation of what goes into a Tripe alla Fiorentina, I'll ask my server, thank you. The same goes for any price increases. I don't need an essentially whining, buck-passing letter of explanation slapped in my face. It is the diner's role to whine, not the restaurant's.

If these letter writers were indeed so "proud to do business in a city that has chosen to test a landmark solution to this ongoing and serious national problem," these letters would not have been written in the first place. It is clear that the authors are distressed about the increased financial burden this new ordinance places on their shoulders. Of course, they are. But these letters just smack of insincerity. What's next? "Dear Guests, we are excited to announce that our rent has just been raised! We are proud to live in a city of astronomical real estate values..."

I think not.

For the time being, the health care ordinance is, for better or for worse, part of the cost of doing business in this city. There are many other restaurants here that have chosen to deal with this hit gracefully. And, yes, I think that a discreet increase in menu prices is graceful. It allows customers to make their own choices. Actually, it allows customers to feel more akin to what they should be feeling like-- guests. It offers a choice. It allows them to feel a little more in control of the dining process. If a guest wishes to pay x amount of dollars for a steak, he will. If not, he will opt to pay y amount for something else. Regardless, he is paying for his seat one way or another. Adding an extra math equation in the form of a service charges is anything but guest-friendly.

Great restaurants don't just fill the stomach, no matter how spectacular the food. They must satisfy an emotional need, as well.

Think of all the people who go out to dinner and then think for a moment about how these people have spent their day. Most likely, they have been working at their own jobs, seeing to the needs of others. How many people come into restaurants after hours of taking on the stress of their children, their bosses, or their customers? As a waiter and twenty-year veteran of the restaurant industry, I have to remind myself daily that it is my job to see that the people who walk into my place of work forget their troubles and get happy, even if it's just for the two hours they are under my watch. They've got problems of their own. They don't want to hear about mine. Or yours.

By writing these letters and adding this charges with little notes attached, restaurant owners are chipping away at the fragile-yet-necessary fa├žade that a diner's needs are what matter most. By reading these letters, people of good conscience trade in a part of their much-needed role of the care-given, to that of care giver. It's a subtle shift, but it's important.

As diners, we know that we all have to pay in the end-- the check, I mean. But tacking on an extra percentage or per-person fee to the end of the bill will ultimately cost the restaurant industry far more than the money it hopes to recoup from the sting of this health care ordinance. Like goodwill.

The letters? To me, it's like reading the list of ingredients on the side of a pint of ice cream. I already know the basics of what goes into the mix, but do I want to know everything? Not always. Sometimes, I just want to treat myself to something that is going to make me feel good for a little while. If the machinery involved in the perfect churning of the cream is expensive to maintain, if the vanilla pods are of the best quality, I am quite willing to pay the reflected price for my indulgence. I don't want to read a god damned sob story about it on the side of the package.

What is most irritating to me is that these charges are being implemented by some of the busiest -- and most influential-- restaurants in the city. These chefs and owners have ridden mighty high in the good times. Now that the going has gotten tougher, they're still busy as hell but, rather than deal with their problems gracefully, these darling prime ballerine of the food press are bitching to the audience that their toe shoes are too tight.

If they want to play the Dying Swan, I suppose we should let them. However, to the best of my knowledge, no one ever paid Anna Pavlova to honk and squawk when she first performed it-- it is a role that is most effective when it is played in silence.

Yes, this is a troubling time for the city's restaurants, but if these restaurateurs could stop their complaining and blame-gaming long enough to realize that their integrity is potentially at stake, they might hopefully get back to the business of doing business. If these already-successful places keep providing us with the food and service they're known and respected for, we'll keep supporting them. Should they need to raise prices to offset the costs of a harsh city ordinance, no one in their right mind is going to think they're greedy. I just want them quit their pandering, stick out their grease-encrusted chins, and remember that the show must go on.

Because it will.

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Blogger wendygee said...

So, do you think they are just playing a psychological game by adding a surcharge and not simply raising prices? That customers can more easily accept and feel sorry for the additional insurance burden by it being isolated as a separate charge and not seeing their "food" costs go up? I guess it will be interesting to see how many restaurants jump on this surcharge bandwagon.

3/07/2008 1:13 PM

Blogger Amy Sherman said...

I couldn't agree more. Surcharges are lame. Your costs are rising? Frankly, I don't give a damn. We all have our own problems. If you need to charge me more, go ahead, but please don't forget, I came for a meal and a pleasant experience, not for a sob story about how rough your business is.

By the way, I'm waiting for a message on my bill that says: "To pay for the restaurant owners Jaguar a 4% service charge is included"

3/07/2008 1:48 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've recently heard the new Sundance Kabuki cinemas added a surcharge to their ticket prices for being "green." These tactics definitely blunt the goodwill one might feel in visiting such establishments.

3/07/2008 4:12 PM

Anonymous Grumpy said...

"There are those among us who appreciate the transparency of these explanatory letters, even applaud them."

Count me among them. This post is just SO wrong is so many ways. For a complete counterpoint, way to long for a comment section, see http://grumpyglutton.com/2008/03/08/michael-and-i-dont-mean-bauer-you-ignorant-slut.aspx.

3/08/2008 1:54 AM

Blogger Michael Procopio said...

Wendy-- Do I think this is a head game? In a way. I am half hoping to see this letter-writing confederacy bring Sally Struthers into the mix. Perhaps she might start crying outside their restaurants.

Amy-- Agreed, agreed. The Jaguar jab is a real dig, though. But so was that last bit about Sally Struthers.

This is no easy thing. What restaurateurs like this ordinance? It's a mighty prickly affair as to how it is handled. Absolutely contentious.

Anon-- A green fee? What is this, golf?

Oh, and speaking of contentious...

Grumpy-- I've already commented on your own blog. Again, I hope I might have sparked a little debate on this. Not a knock-down fight, mind you, because it's nice out and it's the weekend. I'm going to settle down in some coperto-free park and read me some Sherlock Holmes.

And my friends will giggle at the thought of someone calling me a slut when I tell them tonight. I've been called ignorant plenty of times, however, but never a slut.

3/08/2008 12:49 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is part of that "us vs. them" mentality that propagates the idea that somehow restaurants are in the business of fleecing customers. Most restaurant owners work extremely hard, often 18 hour days, and the ones driving Jaguars are most likely been doing it a long, long time before they got to that point.

I think when prices go up, some guests want to know why. It's great the city is ensuring health care for some of it's residents, but am unclear why those costs (and benefits) aren't evenly distributed amongst everyone, setting a model for a single-payer system for all.

3/17/2008 6:33 AM


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