Sunday, November 18, 2012

Slimy Restaurants, and Why We’re Better Off Without Them

There are groups organizing boycotts of Papa John’s and other restaurant chains that are taking public stands against health care. Apparently, to draw a boycott, all the CEO of a billion-dollar restaurant chain has to do is talk loudly and often about firing all its full-time staff and limit the hours of its part-time staff in order to avoid paying the cost of health insurance. Health coverage was also an issue in the closing of Hostess Brands. The bakery fell apart in a matter of weeks after it took away health benefits from workers.

“Boycott” may not be quite the right word, then. Papa John’s really could close down if customers stay away because they are turned off by the idea of businesses that go to great lengths to avoid paying for health coverage. So could Applebee’s, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden, and other restaurants that jump on this bus. It’s no secret that U.S. restaurants have not been doing so well in the last five years, and if they give customers an extra reason to stay away, some of the locations could have trouble paying the rent.

But in truth, we are better off without businesses whose business mentality is based on exploiting their workers and their customers. Some pundits are asking if it is fair to boycott a restaurant or food manufacturer just because it opposes health care. This question makes more sense if you turn it around the other way: Do you really want your food handled by workers who are forced to work sick, potentially spreading infectious diseases to you? Or, given the choice, are you personally better off buying food from a business that cares enough about health to provide regular health coverage to its workers?

You can’t see the infectious disease risk when you buy restaurant food, and so the more slimy restaurants don’t pay much attention to that aspect of their product. They focus on what you see and what you can taste, and not much more than that. This is the same mentality that leads restaurants to use the cheapest ingredients they can get away with, or to imagine that MSG is a spice, or to mop the kitchen floor only on days when the health inspectors are coming. In the food business, the health coverage question is not just about fairness for the workers. It is also a marker of businesses that care what happens to their customers.

There is a lot of talk about a Denny’s franchise that is adding a 5 percent surcharge to all menu items, supposedly to cover increases in costs from providing health coverage to workers. This approach provides at least five ways for customers to take offense. These include the victim mentality of the restaurant owner, the dishonest prices shown on the menu, just the idea of a surcharge, and the use of the place of business to make a political statement that relatively few customers are likely to agree with. But the worst thing about it, if you are a customer, is the suggestion that the restaurant sees the health of its workers, and by extension, its customers, as an afterthought.

Restaurant chains have closed before — it happens every year. The world changes, and businesses that fail to adapt to the changes eventually fail. It will hardly be surprising if some of the next restaurant chains to close will be ones whose executives are publicly seen with their thumbs up their noses, even if only metaphorically. And after they are gone, we won’t miss them any more than we remember the restaurants that closed in past years. In our role as customers, we are actually better off without businesses like these.