Restaurant News & Reviews

Environmentalists want 1 percent charge on restaurant bills. Restaurants have reservations

A new statewide environmental program may soon mean an extra charge for customers at some Sacramento restaurants.

That’s if the restaurants buy in. Launched earlier this month, Restore California Renewable Restaurants asks participating eateries to add a 1 percent increase at the end of customers’ bills. Sacramento restaurant owners like the sound of the program but nobody has committed to the 1 percent charge. The money would go to farms participating in the Healthy Soils Program, which supports sustainable farming practices in California.

The voluntary program has attracted national media attention and caught the eye of several restaurateurs in Sacramento, including Mulvaney’s B&L co-owner Patrick Mulvaney. He is intrigued by the idea but not yet convinced.

Too many extra charges and restaurant bills begins to resemble those customers might receive at a hotel, Mulvaney said. Diners might contribute 1 percent toward the Healthy Soils Program, but they won’t feel as welcome and might not come back to Mulvaney’s B&L anytime soon, he worries.

Mulvaney and his wife/co-owner Bobbin have commissioned a study to analyze the restaurant’s carbon footprint, he said. They’ll determine whether to take part after seeing the results.

“We’re on board with the concept, we’re on board with moving forward. We’re not at a place where we’re going to (commit),” Mulvaney said. “It’s hard for me to see myself putting another surcharge on the bill. It’s easy for me to see the value of contributing to the zero-footprint campaign, and in between those two spaces lands the middle, where I say ‘What’s our responsibility?’”

Restore California is a joint effort by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the California Air Resources Board and San Francisco nonprofit Perennial Farming Initiative. The money raised will be distributed to farms participating in the Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program, which have been screened to show they practice methods that sequester carbon, reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases and improve soil health. Customers can opt out of the 1 percent fee, but as with back-of-house surcharges, it’s expected nearly all will pay.

Other Sacramento restaurateurs are similarly conflicted. Mother and Empress Tavern’s ownership team will decide over the next few weeks whether to implement the 1 percent increase, co-owner Ryan Donahue said.

At Localis, chef/owner Chris Barnum-Dann said he appreciated Restore California’s mission and voluntary nature. He said he was “leaning towards doing it.” Still, he wanted to check the program out more thoroughly before fully embracing it.

“I wouldn’t want to put something like that on a restaurant bill unless I knew without a doubt where the money goes and what it’ll be used for, so I’m just going to take a little time to research that,” Barnum-Dann said. “Anything we can do to try to help offset what we, as a food culture, do to planet Earth is a good thing.”

A restaurant’s carbon footprint includes all greenhouse gasses (mainly carbon dioxide, as well as methane and nitrous oxide) created in the production and transportation of food to customers’ plates or homes, as well as all energy use. The amount varies by restaurant, but a 2015 study found Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco – owned by Perennial Farming Initiative co-founders Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz – produced about 600 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Extra money from the surcharge would help carbon-conscious farms thrive and sell to more restaurants, Myint said. That could help keep carbon emissions down across a broader net of restaurants, he said, instead of only those that are environmentally tapped-in.

“Rather than a handful of restaurants buying at a farmers’ market, this is a way for any restaurant to get involved with creating a renewable food system,” Myint said. “If (people) believe in climate change or want to work toward solving it, improving farming practices is one of if not the most practical way to do it.”

Restaurants can lower their carbon footprint by selling fewer dishes with meat, especially beef, and sourcing ingredients as locally as possible. They can also buy directly from farms that take part in the Healthy Soils program – including Bolin Farming Co. and Dixon East LLC, both of Solano County – or other carbon-enrichment initiatives.

An in-house shift toward those practices might be easier to absorb than a surcharge, Mulvaney said. He compared Restore California’s 1 percent surcharge to a tithe given to a church: Pay this amount and you’re absolved for the sin of environmental gluttony, regardless of whether your practices change.

“Their goal is noble and their attempts are good, but the question exists: Are there other ways to approach the issue and ... make (it) better? Perhaps,” Mulvaney said.

Then there’s the fact that humans’ role in climate change is still questioned, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of record greenhouse gas levels and warming oceans. Unlike asking for extra money to benefit Camp Fire victims or mental health organizations, an environmental surcharge can appear political and has the potential to alienate some diners.

A rare one-star review popped up on Localis’ Yelp page after Barnum-Dann talked about Restore California to CBS13, even though the chef/owner never said his restaurant would participate.

“You want to add a 1% global warming fee to the bill?” Steven M. from Orangevale wrote. “I will NEVER eat in a restaurant that does this and I will never eat at Localis again.”

About 25 of the state’s 76,000 restaurants have signed up for Restore California, Myint said. He’s hoping for 200 by year’s end. The first restaurants will begin charging customers the extra percent this fall.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.