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Tony SF Restaurants Adopt Surcharge to Fight Climate Change

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Diners at the city’s hottest restaurants might notice a new fee on their bills

A waitress using a credit card scanner at El Balcon del Zocalo Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Diners at some of San Francisco most popular restaurants might notice a new line item on their bills this month, a one percent add-on that’s known as the Restore California surcharge — a fee that’s intended to assist in efforts against climate change. In a city where additional charges are as common as “unexpected” Muni delays, one might be tempted to roll one’s eyes at the sight of yet another additional cost to dine out. But this one has the support of San Francisco’s leading restaurant trade group, making it a veritable unicorn in the world of restaurant emoluments.

In April of 2019, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Air Resources Board, both of which are state agencies, announced that they had partnered with a San Francisco non-profit called the Perennial Farming Initiative, an organization founded by Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, the restauranteurs behind Mission Chinese Food, the Perennial, and the since-shuttered Commonwealth.

The collaboration, called Restore California, is intended to “help local farmers implement climate beneficial farming practices,” via a series of grants, its website reads. How that will actually be done is still unclear, as the farmers’ grant application deadline was Monday — and those applications won’t even be reviewed until April, with fund disbursement planned for May of 2020.

With terms like “grant” and “disbursement,” savvy readers likely realize that this is where surcharge comes in. As part of the partnership, all California restaurants were invited to add an optional (that means, yes, a diner can indeed ask to have it removed) fee of one percent of the total bill to every diner’s check. According to Restore California, with a $97 billion restaurant industry, if only one percent of the state’s restaurants implemented the surcharge, it would generate $10 million in the first year alone. In addition to grants to farmers, the money collected by California restaurants will go toward existing programs intended to improve soil health and fight climate change.

Though the plan was announced in April, it didn’t kick in until January of 2020. And while every restaurant in the state could participate, so far, it’s mostly upscale restaurants, most of them in SF: think Atelier Crenn, Flour + Water, or Lazy Bear, for example. (A full list of participating restaurants is here.)

One interesting player in this initiative is the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which since 1936 has lobbied the city of San Francisco for restaurant-friendly policies, a history of advocacy that included a four-year battle against city-mandated requirements for restaurants to fund health care for its employees.

The GGRA fought tooth-and-nail against that program, called Healthy San Francisco, back in 2006. It lost that struggle, the only vestige of which might be the “SF Mandates” surcharge some city restaurants still choose to tack on to their bills. Over a decade later, however, the GGRA seems all for this new, optional fee: in fact, they’re embracing it, a spokesperson tells Mother Jones, as the agency will add an extra one percent to the menus of every restaurant that’s participating in San Francisco Restaurant Week. “We all know climate change is real and it’s happening,” GGRA policy manager Chhavi Sahni tells Mother Jones. “We’re at a time where we really have to focus on all we can do.”

Despite the GGRA’s support, some diners are already pushing back against the additional fee. Great Gold, a Mission District restaurant that opened in August of 2019, has already removed the surcharge, chef and co-owner Brandon Kirksey tells Mother Jones. “Having that additional surcharge on there I think made a lot of people feel uncomfortable,” Kirksey says, and when too many diners posed questions “in a negative way,” the restaurant dropped the fee and chose to raise prices by one percent, instead, with the plan to send that percent on to Restore California every month.

The California Restaurant Association, a statewide lobbying group, is similarly cautious about the new fee’s chance for success. “These days, bill surcharges are nothing new, whether it’s to help with employee pay and benefits or for a cause like the wildfires,” spokesperson Sharokina Shams tells USA Today. “This seems like a group of well-intentioned people finding another way to use a surcharge,” Shams says, but “it’s too early days,” to know if the program will catch on.

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