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5 political developments restaurants need to watch

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Despite the unrelenting stream of political news filling cable-news broadcasts, the host-pundits somehow missed these regulatory and legislative developments, probably because the measures promise to shake up restaurants far more than the general public. Here’s a primer on the overlooked initiatives that governments and elected officials are considering.

A ban on cashless restaurants

Restaurants that don’t accept cash, a small but rapidly expanding group, would be fined in New York City under a bill expected to be introduced in the City Council on Wednesday by Ritchie Torres, a Democrat representing working class communities in the Bronx. Torres, like an increasing number of lawmakers, believes a no-cash policy discriminates against lower-income consumers, who may not be able to afford credit cards or smartphones, now the only means of payment accepted in some branches of Sweetgreen, Amazon Go, Starbucks, Dos Toros and Shake Shack, among other chains. In an interview with Grub Street, a website for New York City foodies, Torres said he’s also concerned that cash users will be stigmatized the way food stamp users were when the councilman was growing up in the city.  Asked how he expects restaurant chains to react, Torres said, “I expect a big fight.” The chains argue that eliminating cash speeds up service, since money and change don’t have to be counted out to complete a transaction.

Greenlighting marijuana cafes

Cannabis advocates in Oregon, one of 10 states where it’s now legal to catch a buzz from marijuana, have teamed up with a state lawmaker to legalize the consumption of pot in what are being called marijuana cafes, whose description makes them sound like a Starbucks without an emphasis on coffee. Instead, the places would be marketed as comfy places where cannabis aficionados could buy and openly consume THC. Right now, marijuana can be purchased in public dispensaries, but can only be consumed in private homes. It’s not clear if the legislative proposal championed by the advocacy group New Revenue Coalition and state Sen. Lew Frederick would allow existing restaurants to double as marijuana cafes, or if nonlaced food and beverages could be featured.

Proponents of legalizing the cafes say the establishments would bolster public safety by providing pot users with a place to come down before getting behind the wheel of a car. 

Will New Jersey be the next state to OK recreational use?

Lawmakers in both houses of the New Jersey legislature are expected to vote within the next few days on a proposal to legalize recreational use of cannabis, which is already permitted for medical purposes. Passage is expected, in part because recreational weed will be taxed at a rate of 25%. Gov. Phil Murphy is also a zealous advocate of legalization. The state could be in a race with New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also indicated he favors OK’ing recreational use. 

It’s not clear when toking for fun would be permitted, and precisely what sort of establishments would be licensed to sell the cannabis. 

The economic impact could be profound. In Massachusetts, where marijuana for recreational use went on sale last week in just two dispensaries, consumers spent $2.2 million on weed in just five shopping days, at an average ticket of $39.33.  

Another punch thrown in Washington, D.C.’s tip-credit fight

Roller coasters have fewer twists and turns than the struggle underway in Washington, D.C., over the district’s tip credit. To recap: Pro-labor forces succeeded in June in putting a proposal to kill the credit on a special-election ballot. To restaurants’ dire regret, residents voted overwhelmingly to disallow the payroll break for restaurants and other employers of tipped staff members. Operators warned that their labor costs would skyrocket if they were required to pay waiters and waitresses the full minimum wage.

Then local lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to set aside the results of the initiative. That prompted labor groups such as Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) to start collecting signatures for a second referendum on the credit. 

They were about to succeed—until a lawsuit was filed this week by a bartender opposed to disallowing the tip credit. The suit argued that the ballot initiative is misleading because it suggests that restaurants don’t have to pay their servers, bartenders and other tipped employees the minimum wage. The industry points out that waiters and waitresses still collect at least the minimum wage, currently at $13.25 in the district, but a large percentage can come in the form of gratuities. If those tips don’t amount to the minimum wage, the employer makes up the difference.

Progress on the ballot initiative was temporarily suspended because of the lawsuit filed by bartender Valerie Graham, who’s being represented in the action by the same lawyer who serves as counsel to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.  

Public to sound off on changes in overtime pay regs

An overhaul of federal overtime pay rules was largely put on hold by Donald Trump’s election in 2016, though some sort of update is expected to be proposed in coming months. In the meantime, Washington state is forging ahead with plans to rewrite its overtime regulations, with the intention of having new guidelines in effect by 2020. The gist of the plan is to require overtime pay for salaried employees earning two to 2 1/2 times the minimum wage, or $56,000 to $70,000—a huge jump from the federal threshold of $23,660 in annual pay. 

The Washington Department of Labor & Industries is holding hearings this week on how the rules should be updated. 

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