You’re Different And That’s Bad

I remember a dozen years or so ago, an email circulated with supposed names of rejected children’s stories. My favorite was “You’re Different And That’s Bad.” Because that’s so often the lesson that our schools, corporations and institutions teach. In fact, they teach it so well that some people spend their whole life with a fear and loathing of anything that’s different.

At the Linkery, we’re different. Five years ago, we made it our mission to get real, non corporate food — ingredients from local farmers, the kind of food that’s widely available in the Bay Area — easily available in a North Park community restaurant. Most people didn’t think it could be done, or at least not by us, but we were willing to do things totally “out of the box” and, one way or another, things work out.

Of course, some people just hate those who do things differently than the way “everybody” does it. Even now, I get nasty emails from people who are offended that we list all the farms on our menu (“why don’t you just write a novel?”) or that we tell the details of our changing menu (“people who know food know it’s nothing special”). And certainly our decision to charge for table service instead of taking tips upsets a lot of people who, for whatever reason, are really emotionally invested in the tipping system.

Where you or I might think, hey, I don’t like the way this business operates, I’ll go somewhere else, these people think, I don’t like the way this business works, I hate them and am going to try to make them suffer.

Which brings me to a letter I received today from Jan Goldsmith, City Attorney. The City Attorney has decided that our charging for table service is a violation of the State law against advertising one price for an item, and then charging another. In other words, it’s not enough for you to decide whether or not you want to come to a place that charges a table service charge — they are saying the mere act of doing so is illegal.

The accusation is patently false, for a litany of reasons:

* The table service charge is clearly labeled as a charge for table service only, and does not apply to takeout orders. In other words, the food costs something, and table service costs something. The prices listed for the food are exactly what we charge for the food.

* We make it clear that if the guest doesn’t feel the service was worth what we charge for it, we will waive the charge. In fact, if we know that we’ve made a major service mistake, we waive the charge without being asked.

* We provide notice on both the menu (shown above) and on a 3 foot wide sign at the host stand as you enter.

* Almost every catering company charges for food and service separately, with service being at a fixed percentage rate. This has never been found illegal.

* The State of California acknowledges the legitimacy of restaurants charging service charges in its own tax code:

(B) When the menu, brochures, advertisements or other printed materials contain statements that notify customers that tips, gratuities, or service charges will or may be added, an amount automatically added by the retailer to the bill or invoice presented to and paid by the customer is a mandatory charge and subject to tax. These amounts are considered negotiated in advance as specified in subdivision (g)(2)(A). Examples of printed statements include:
“An 18% gratuity [or service charge] will be added to parties of 8 or more.”
“Suggested gratuity 15%,” itemized on the invoice or bill by the restaurant, hotel, caterer, boarding house, soda fountain, drive-in or similar establishment.
“A 15% voluntary gratuity will be added for parties of 8 or more.”
An amount will be considered “automatically added” when the retailer adds the tip to the bill without first conferring with the customer after service of the meal and receiving approval to add the tip or without providing the customer with the option to write in the tip. Nonetheless, any amount added by the retailer is presumed to be mandatory. This presumption may be overcome as discussed in subdivision (g)(2)(C) below.

* Many restaurants charge a fixed service charge for parties of a certain size, for table service. This has never been found illegal.

* Chez Panisse has been charging 17% for table service in California for decades, and the State of California has not had a problem with it. (And, a point courtesy Ben in the comments: Most/all San Francisco restaurants charge a 4% surcharge on each bill for health insurance, with the support of the city government. Clearly this is not in violation of state law.)

So clearly our table service charge is not a violation of the State code. However, the truth is, the City Attorney is spending our money, and we will have to hire expensive attorneys in order to defend ourselves. And that’s the point here — to punish us for being different. And to make it as difficult as possible for us to operate this business to serve the neighborhood.

I get that some people don’t like that we do things this way, and I think it’s great if those people don’t come in. But now they are trying to take away your option to patronize a business that charges a flat rate for table service, instead of taking tips. Clearly, that’s not about consumer protection, but about making sure that new ways of doing business don’t take root.

This is just like the laws that keep coming up to make it difficult to buy food from farmers — instead of buying food the usual way: industrial food from Sysco, Monsanto, Cargill, et al. Change threatens some people.

The bummer is, it really motivates us to stop trying to create the best business possible for North Park, and instead just try to make money like most other businesses do. Because as we are working to make things better here, this sort of thing is continue to happen: there’s always someone out there who see a business that is supported by its community, that is trying to make a difference, who just hates it.

If you’d like to contact the City Attorney’s office, and tell them to try harder to throw me in jail (or perhaps respectfully ask them to not pursue unjust action against honest local businesses) you can do so at Jan Goldsmith, 1200 3rd Ave, Suite 1620, San Diego CA 92101.

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