Bartenders for McCain?

San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer complains about Healthy San Francisco surcharges still appearing on restaurant checks:

I’m losing patience with the way restaurants are handling the “Healthy San Francisco” initiative.

I’ve been supportive of restaurants such as Delfina (which charges $1.25 a person) and Zuni (4 percent of the check) adding surcharges because these are well-established, moderately priced restaurants. This allowed those businesses to keep prices stable while educating customers about the added expenses. I figured it would last a few months, and once the public was familiar with what was going on, the surcharges would be removed and incorporated into the menu prices…

I’ve talked to some diners who are subtracting that percentage from the tip, kind of as a way to protest about being taxed and taxed again. Those same people wouldn’t mind if each dish cost a little more, negating the need for an additional charge, but they end up feeling cheated when the surcharge lands on the bill. Diners are becoming more vocal, too. Wednesday, in fact, Eater SF began to build a map that details restaurants implementing surcharges.

It’s gotten to the place that I can’t hold my tongue any longer. Enough with the surcharges. Here’s my proposal of how restaurants should handle the situation: Incorporate all these expenses into the menu prices. At the bottom of the menu, the restaurant could say something like: “Our prices include the cost of buying locally produced, sustainable ingredients and providing a living wage, sick leave and health insurance for all employees.”

While it may be unpleasant to be reminded that social policies really do cost money, transparency is a good thing. One of the reasons the scope of government has expanded so much in the past century is that it’s gotten very good at obscuring the tax burden (income tax withholding and the bogus “employer contribution” to Social Security being two of the most egregious examples). The Healthy San Francisco initiative, which requires many SF restaurants to provide health insurance for their staffs, dramatically increases labor costs. Diners should know that the extra dollars appearing on their bill are going towards paying politically mandated benefits, not sourcing better ingredients or taking extra care in the kitchen.

In addition to raising costs, the initiative prevents businesses from expanding because the amounts they must spend on health care are tied to their number of employees. The LA Times reports:

“We will always have 18 [employees] now,” vowed Anna Weinberg, a co-owner of South, a 50-seat restaurant featuring Australian cuisine that opened in October. Weinberg plans to open her next eatery on the Westside of Los Angeles.

San Francisco costs already are among the nation’s highest, experts say. “It costs me triple to hire a waiter than a New York City restaurant,” Scherotter said. Health insurance costs at his Palio D’Asti are doubling to $120,000 a year under the new program, he said…

Local establishments, they point out, already are paying a $9.36 hourly minimum wage, the nation’s second highest and 17% higher than in any other California city. They also are the only employers in the state required by law to grant paid sick days to all workers.

All of which raises the unasked question of why restaurants should be relied upon to cover their employees’ health insurance. Our current system arbitrarily allows employers to pay for health insurance tax-free, but if an individual buys his own insurance he gets no break. This has predictably led to a market dominated by employer-provided health insurance that often leaves restaurant workers out in the cold. Businesses can’t afford to provide coverage, or employees are only part-timers, or they change jobs frequently and go without between gigs. For all of these reasons, making it easier for individuals to buy their own insurance would be better for many service industry workers than tying them to employer-provided plans.

While I’m hesitant to enter the minefield of health care policy, and especially reluctant to be seen as endorsing John McCain (or any other candidate), one bright spot of a McCain presidency would be a more favorable tax policy for workers in the service industry. Fixing the disparity described above is a cornerstone of McCain’s health care plan. He advocates health insurance tax credits for individuals and families, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines to increase competition and decrease costs, and expanding the kinds of associations that can establish group plans. All of these ideas would bring concrete benefits to those of us in the service industry. (Details here. Note that this does leave problems for people with high premiums, a subject McCain will have to further address.)

Is that enough to make me excited about a McCain presidency? Hell no, and I’m not seriously advocating a “Bartenders for McCain” movement. But the change would be a significant consolation if he wins and gets it passed, and one that I doubt many of my friends in the industry are aware of. And if the plan works, San Francisco might finally be able to drop those pesky surcharges.


4 thoughts on “Bartenders for McCain?”

  1. I despise companies that are not forthright with the cost of the final service until the bill arrives. I don’t know how it’s handled in these restaurants, and perhaps they’re perfectly clear about it on the menu, but it is totally unreasonable to have one price on the menu, and then a different, higher price on the bill. Of course customers are unhappy.

    In reality, ALL taxes should be included in the menu prices (you can break them out into fees, taxes and whatnot there if you’d like), but I’m at least used to sale tax and know how to ballpark that myself. Cell phone bills, cable company bills and rental car charges are borderline fraudulent in their lack of connection between advertised pricing and actual pricing. I’d really hate to see other businesses start moving in this direction. It’s a despicable, anti-consumer choice.

  2. That is a fair point. If I were a tourist in San Francisco and didn’t anticipate the extra charge, I’d be pissed too. While I’d still like to see the extra fee charged separately to call attention to the costs of the city’s program, putting notice on the menu that the charges will apply would be a responsible thing to do. (Some places might already do this; I don’t know.)

  3. It’s not like every place in SF is doing this, either, so even SF people won’t necessarily expect it. It’s mostly the places that are somewhat high-end, but not high-end enough for their market to be price inelastic. They get a lot of scrutiny for their prices in that range of $20-30 entrees. Those kinds of places operate with extraordinarily low margins, so they can’t afford to just absorb the extra cost. Clearly, though, that’s no excuse to hide the cost until the end.

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