To surcharge, without love

Pub date June 17, 2008
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION With the first linen pants of 2008, this city commenced collecting employer contributions to the Healthy San Francisco universal health care program. Employers that don’t provide insurance now must pay the city for the public health care their employees use anyway. A number of restaurants have added "Healthy San Francisco" surcharges of 2 to 4 percent to diners’ tabs. These surcharges are at best sour grapes and at worst a diabolical plan to thwart democracy.

Present spite notwithstanding, I spend all my discretionary income on dining. My economic stimulus check stimulated some duck confit and tarte tatin. I’d trade a kidney for dinner at Coi. My disaster preparedness kit includes a Zagat Guide. The stokers of my culinary flame deserve to be treated well. Our restaurant scene should attract the best, the brightest, the most ingenuously-tattooed epicureans. The people of San Francisco deigned to achieve this noble goal by providing a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, and now universal health care. Oh, the decadence! We’re drifting dangerously close to becoming a civilized society, which could get us invaded. Don’t be surprised when Blackwater goes hunting for Tom Ammiano in a spider-hole.

Some disgruntled restaurants have decided to assess a surcharge rather than raise prices. But all prices fluctuate. When the cost of electricity or halibut goes up, menu prices rise. Regulation affects cost. We knew that when we passed the laws. A surcharge instead of a menu price increase is restaurant owners’ way of saying that workers are less valuable than halibut.

Let them have health care. I enjoy clogging my own arteries so much more when the people feeding me get their cholesterol checked.

Owners claim their profit margin can’t absorb higher labor costs, hence the price hike. Restaurants have high failure rates and run a tight margin.

But raising prices wouldn’t be Armageddon for fine dining in Baghdad by the Bay. Heck, it’s not even Shock and Awe. Maybe I’d notice if Bar Tartine raised prices by 4 percent. Maybe I’d be annoyed. But if my $60 meal became $62, I wouldn’t head to a taqueria. The amount surchargers would have to jack prices before surchargees stay home is quite high. Most of us eating at Bar Tartine can suck it up like so many amuses bouches.

San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer is wont to blame every restaurant closure on our labor largesse. But restaurants fail for any number of reasons. Could be labor costs, or it could be that Bauer panned them, or that their concept, food, and location were bad, or that the manager was on coke.

Some restaurateurs can’t abide the people of San Francisco reguutf8g them. But that’s life in a democracy. The same people excusing the surcharge as mere kindly consciousness-raising are currently appealing the Healthy San Francisco law. In fact, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association opposes any improvement in labor standards. The folks there hope that diners, our fury stoked by surcharges, will finally rebel against our labor-loving local legislators, stop imposing our so-called values on restaurants, and demand to be served by disease-ridden, malnourished indigent waiters as God and Milton Friedman intended.

Instead of an irascible surcharge, menus could note: "Our food is organic, local, and sustainable. And the cook gets his asthma treated." People who care will be happy, and people who don’t will blithely resume checking the NASDAQ on their iPhones.

So quit grousing. Enjoy the short ribs. See your doctor. Everybody wins. *

Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian who has meddled with the primal forces of nature and must atone.