Dinnertime for democracy or wage hikes and the death of restaurants 

click to enlarge The owner of Borderlands Books cites the minimum wage increase as one of the main reasons the bookstore is closing. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The owner of Borderlands Books cites the minimum wage increase as one of the main reasons the bookstore is closing.
As any restaurant worker would tell you, if you spoke Spanish and looked up from your phone, restaurateurs hate democracy. That’s why businesses blame minimum wage, paid sick days and health care regulations when they close.

They’re right, of course. We’ve all noticed how whenever we leave our shared studio, we can’t find one place to eat amongst the sea of boarded-up restaurants. And how there are no cranes on the skyline because no one can afford to pay workers to build. How will our city survive without businesses?

Class war on fleek, several enterprises recently claimed that they will or may close because of our Leninist labor regime.

South of Market vegan spot Source’s closure notice read, “Due to the new labor health laws for a business with more than 20 employees and other unforeseen situations, we cannot afford to run a business of this type in San Francisco.” Source’s menu featured “organic locally-sourced 100% vegetarian food prepared with love.”

Love perhaps, but not justice. It’s tough getting Source’s signature dosadillas right. If only Source cared as much about busboys’ health as which global culture’s wrap they poached. Why not dosablintzes?

Said owner Mitchell Fox: “The labor board is a very unfair board, not friendly to business owners at all.” First, there is no labor board. The City Hall agency that implements labor laws is called the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, but we can’t expect someone to know the name of who they’re publicly blaming for putting them out of business.

Second, clever to blame the board, rather than the 77 percent of voters who voted for Proposition J. Fox can’t imagine that the voters weighed the arguments and decided that we’re willing to risk losing Source. San Franciscans voted twice at the ballot to raise the minimum wage, once to mandate paid sick days, and repeatedly elected the politicians responsible for creating and extending the health care mandate.

(Disclosure: I was on the Steering Committee for the 2003 campaign to pass the original San Francisco minimum-wage initiative. It passed with 60 percent of the vote, compared with 77 of voters in 2014, which complicates the “San Francisco getting more conservative” narrative.)

Luna Park may or may not close, but if they do, they blame the minimum wage. Luna Park rode a trend of restaurants opening after 9/11 to salve our national malaise with whimsical takes on American comfort food. Remember Blue and Home? Its closure would not be because of the minimum wage, but a sign that we have healed from 9/11. Luna Park should rebrand as a Benghazi-themed restaurant.

Borderlands Books is closing. The Bold Italic blamed the minimum wage but noted that Borderlands moved to Valencia because of rent. UC Berkeley Labor Center Chairman Ken Jacobs told me that to the degree higher labor costs make it harder to operate a business in San Francisco, rents would come down. Which sounds like something we all should totally want.

No one is forced into the restaurant business. No one deserves a successful business. Restaurant workers shouldn’t be immiserated because their boss picked a risky venture. New rule: If owners get to blame minimum wage when they fail, every failing business has to announce the reasons why.

Restaurants have been opening and closing in San Francisco since the first hangtown fry was served to the first syphilitic miner. Restaurants may close because of labor or market changes or mismanagement or a bad concept or the owner was on coke. (Yes, people still use coke and they work in restaurants.)

As an individual consumer, I can be disappointed when my favorite joint fails. Jacobs says that higher labor standards may be associated with a little more “churn,” hastening the demise of businesses that were doomed anyway, while maintaining the same overall employment trends. Policy is concerned with the aggregates, not the dosadilla.

The people voted. Restaurants made their case and lost. Democracy wins.

Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and union activist. Yell at him on twitter @natogreen, or see him do stand-up every week with The Business at Hemlock Tavern.

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