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Opinion: California restaurant board plan would increase prices

Over the past two years, COVID’s effects on small businesses have been profound. I am one of the lucky ones — a restaurant owner that made it through the pandemic.

Romy Uppal owns Saffron Indian Cuisine in Fairfield and is a franchisee of Sourdough & Co. in the Bay Area. 

I own and operate Saffron Indian Cuisine restaurant in Fairfield along with several Sourdough & Co. locations throughout the Bay Area. I am responsible for 46 employees and have worked hard these past two years to keep my doors open. It has been a struggle, but our restaurants weathered the storm while still taking care of our employees, giving back to first responders and serving our customers.

Others were not so fortunate — nearly a third of California’s restaurants closed during the pandemic. And those that did not — like mine — still face an uphill climb.

Record inflation is causing operating costs to skyrocket, with annual cost-of-goods increases at their highest level in over 40 years. Additionally, a tight labor market has driven up wages, creating an upward price trajectory that’s placing additional hardship on Californians already dealing with sky-high gas, housing and grocery prices.

California’s restaurant industry will take years to recover and even longer to repay the loans that were a lifeline during the worst of COVID. And yet, just as local restaurants get their feet back under them, California legislators are considering a new law that would raise costs at tens of thousands of locally owned restaurants frequented by millions of Californians and their families.

Assembly Bill 257 would change how and if my Sourdough & Co. restaurants could even exist. It would create a “Fast Food Sector Council” of 13 unelected political appointees to set wages, benefits and working conditions for all counter-service restaurants whose brands have more than 30 locations nationwide, even if individual owners like me operate only a few stores.

The Legislature and governor already set wages and workplace regulations throughout the state. So this council would actually result in duplicative rules and increased costs to thousands of local restaurants like mine.

The impact would be enormous. AB 257 would hit a huge and diverse range of local establishments, including juice and smoothie counters, frozen yogurt shops, salad bars, bakeries, coffee shops, taquerias, sushi counters, pizzerias and burger joints.

Counter service restaurants run on very low profit margins. Thus it is not hard to figure out how they would survive in the face of increased costs: They would be forced to make decisions such as increasing prices or offering fewer hours to employees. In addition, many prospective restaurants would simply not open if AB 257 moves forward.

Proponents of AB 257, citing low wages and poor workplace conditions, portray the measure as an anti-big corporation bill to protect workers. However, California already features the highest minimum wage and the strongest labor laws in the country.

If our elected officials feel that raising wages in the state is justified, they should do so for all industries — not put local restaurants at a competitive disadvantage. If a business owner flouts wage or workplace regulations, punishment is justified. What is not justified is legislators offloading their decision-making authority to a hand-picked special interest council.

Let’s leave governing decisions to our elected officials. Let’s not drive up prices at working Californians’ dining choices. And let’s leave management decisions to our local small restaurants who know their communities and their workers best. I urge the Senate Judiciary Committee today to vote no on AB 257.

Romy Uppal owns Saffron Indian Cuisine in Fairfield and is a franchisee of Sourdough & Co. in the Bay Area.

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