In wake of receipt controversy, Bleu Bistro drops sick leave surcharge

(Image: CHS)

Inside the Grotto (Image: CHS)

One night of business following exposure of the practice, Bleu Bistro’s Grotto will eliminate its 1.9% sick leave surcharge.

“We’re going to take it off and we’re going to raise our prices,” Bleu owner Ross McCartney told CHS Tuesday afternoon. “I thought I was being transparent. I just found out people don’t want that.”

McCartney said he decided to stop adding the charge Tuesday and he’ll likely raise prices with the E Olive Way bistro’s next menu printing.

“A tipster provided us with her receipt, which includes a $1.54 ‘City Ord. S.S.L. Charge’—a reference to ‘safe and sick leave,'” Publicola posted Monday along with an image of the receipt and plenty of questions for McCartney.

The safe and sick leave law requires companies with five or more employees to give workers leave for illness or to care for sick family. It was signed by the mayor right here on the Hill in a ceremony at Plum Bistro in fall 2011.

McCartney tells CHS he wants it to be clear that he supports the law and paying sick leave  — in fact, he says, his strong adherence to the law is what lead him to decide to include the surcharge so customers would see the cost as a clear line item.

But the move could be a violation of state law and Publicola reports that its unnamed tipster has filed a complaint with the State Attorney General over the surcharge.

McCartney said he’s done nothing wrong beyond being bad at predicting what the public reaction would be to the charges the bistro has been collecting. “I’m listening to what people want,” he said. “I’m still going to give the benefit. I actually like it — and my employees like it.”

It also helps, of course, that *it* is the law.

McCartney said he doesn’t expect the complaint to lead anywhere serious and also doesn’t plan to try out any new itemization on his receipts any time soon.

“It wasn’t to be this political person,” McCartney said. “There’s a bill that needs to be paid. This seems like the way to do it.”

Here’s more explanation from McCartney in a comment he confirms he posted to the Publicola article:

The employees safe sick leave has been awarded every payperiod via a transfer to their pay check so the fund have been the employees the entire time, not the business but put on the checks to the employees…. it was from day one of the ordinace. It was transfered to PTO ( paid time off ) and the employee still didn’t have to work if they were sick as the ordinance required. I felt giving them the new benifit was good and over charging for a product was the deceptive action but if citizens want hire prices without a reason being put before them then I can do as they require and I can only appologize for being trasparent, as for myself: I appreciate being told that my beer is $4.00 and my Seattle safe sick charge is .06 cents, and so the people want,” what then want’ I will not put the fee on… and raise the prices to accomodate the benifits that I have been giving to my employees. The real question is how many of the bars and small business you support are even giving their employees this benifit, really look and find out… at least I know I abide by the law and give the benifit. Effective today the fee is off, the benifit remains and yes the menu will be reprinted with a price increase. Please remember restaurants just had a bottom line rize in price at the cost of their liquor when we as a State went private business owning and pricing liquor, and as for food …. it seems to be ever climbing for the restaurant owners, you have to be ever changing in this market of inflation of good at the wholesale level that does eventually find its way to the final charge of an item.

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41 thoughts on “In wake of receipt controversy, Bleu Bistro drops sick leave surcharge

  1. It seems like the damage has already been done. I know I’m not going back there. There are too many other fish in the sea to bother with BB.

  2. I call bullshit. Is McCartney putting a “fire sprinkler surcharge” line item on his receipts because he has to have adequate safety equipment in his kitchen? Is he adding a “sanitation surcharge” line item because he isn’t allowed to throw his trash into the street? Where’s the “thermometer surcharge” because he has to keep his refrigerators at a level that ensures food safety?

    It’s a naked political statement, full stop.

  3. Yes, people are sensitive to price increases at restaurants. But these increases are applied across the board to every restaurant in the area… so why make a big political stink about it? Just figure out how to keep serving your customers and taking care of your employees.

    And go back to middle school and learn to write in English, for fuck’s sake. (If Mr. McCartney is not a native English speaker, I’ll retract this comment…)

  4. I know it’s an unpopular view, and I’m not sure how much this impacts Bleu Bistro’s decision, but the sick leave law presents problems for some small employers, in particular sole proprietors with just over 5 employees. For example, suppose you provide a cleaning service, or lawn mowing service, in which you hire employees to help out. When an employee calls out sick, as the business owner you need to cover for them, or if you’re booked yourself, you need to cancel. So the best case scenario is that you work for peanuts, worst case scenario is that you lose money due to the canceled service and wages paid to the sick employee. And if you get sick yourself, nobody pays you. If you’re a big business that makes lots of money this is no big deal; it’s the cost of doing business, and to that end the law is great. But many smaller sole-proprietor businesses, particularly those starting out in which the owner work long hours with little-no-pay simply to get the business of the ground, don’t have this luxury. Why is one person’s livelihood less valuable than that of their employees, simply because they decided to go into business for themselves? I think the law would make a lot more sense if it didn’t discourage small businesses from hiring that 5th employee, or if it treated sole proprietor owners as the workers they often are.

  5. This is really sad. Bleu Bistro is a restaurant my wife and I eat at frequently. One of our very first dates was there so we have a lot of sentimental emotion placed in Bleu. But this stunt is a huge turn off. I can’t say we’ll stop going there forever.

    But we’ll stop going there for now and in the near future. And it’s likely we find another restaurant we like as much or better.

    Sorry Bleu. You lost our business.

  6. This is one of the worst passive-aggressive tactics I’ve seen in some time – “we LOVE this one surcharge SO MUCH, we’ll tell EVERY CUSTOMER all about it, because, TRANSPARENCY!” As RC above says, if that’s the case, why not print all the other surcharges he presumably “loves” just as much on the customer receipt? Rather, it seems to me he was hoping people would make note and COMPLAIN about the upcharge, thus creating an opportunity for him to opine about what an intrusion this is, how he already treats his employees sooo well, what a difficult business he’s in, yadda-yadda…

  7. I didn’t go that often–it wasn’t high on my list of Hill restaurants. But after this it’s off my list completely. What a jerk.

  8. After reading his explanation, I can finally see why the grammar/spelling on bleu’s menus has always been so horrific. apparently he doesn’t want to let anyone proofread his menus before he prints them, lest he be forced to subject customers to a “grammar adjustment charge.”

  9. This guy is alienating customers and those who may have become customers. Just pay the tax and pass on the cost. I will assume that you have all sorts of costs and I don’t need (or want) total “transparency.” Please don’t try to make employees feel like shit because the law now requires that they be treated fairly.

  10. Jeez, Louise (and others saying they’ve called bullshit on BB). Can’t you just take him at his word, and consider the possibility that he wants customers to know he’s participating in the sick leave plan? I wouldn’t be offended seeing such a note on my tab; in fact I’d be inclined to support such a business even more.

  11. Every restaurant in San Francisco that I went to had a sick leave surcharge on their tab. The locals who were showing us around said that it was a point of pride that this line item exists because they knew that their money was going to support the staff. It’s odd that Seattle is having the exact opposite response. We would rather the owners just raise prices quietly instead of providing us any insight into how much of our bill is going to this cause we support.

  12. That place has gone seriously downhill since it left its old location. Food’s mediocre, service is slow and the place feels every bit the retrofitted Quizno’s that it is.

    Now this…

  13. I’m utterly baffled by the reaction of commenters here. Not by the gratuitously vicious ad hominem attacks – that’s now the norm for public discourse in America – but by the objection to an itemized bill. Why are Seattleites outraged by knowing what they’re paying for?

  14. I give him a year and he’ll be washing dishes for someone. Not everyone has what it takes to run a business. If he wants to try again, I would suggest an English class first.

  15. I remember awhile back when a popular barber on the hill raised their prices and they posted a sign explaining that they wanted to provide medical benefits for their staff. I thought this was really classy. And I was/am more than happy to patronize places that pay living wages and provide PTO and health care. As a consumer I feel it’s my moral obligation to only buy what I can afford. Nobody should have to live in poverty so that I can have the luxury of eating out.

    I don’t see the need to call this guy names. This was not a bright move from a marketing perspective. A notice in the menu explaining that the increased prices are needed to comply with the new city ordinance seems appropriate. I think most people in this city are willing to pay a little more in order to provide this benefit.

    It makes no sense to itemize it out though. I mean if you take that to the ridiculousness of it then maybe you need to itemize out how much you pay for Social Security and Medicare and Labor and Industries, etc.

  16. but he has no choice BUT to participate in the “sick plan”. It’s not a plan, it’s the law. Do you want to see a surcharge on every restaurant tab for L&I or Employment Security? Those are also delightful employee protections that take profits out of the pockets of hard working small business owners….otherwise known as the cost of doing business.

    I’m more irritated that he has succeeded in convincing at least one person that he’s this great guy for following the law than I am about his passive aggressive “I totally support this thing except I totally don’t and people need to know how hard things are now wah” messaging.

  17. He has all kind of options. Heck, he should have provided sick leave all this time – this is a basic – in a restaurant – you want sick people preparing and serving your food. Ick.

  18. That is not the issue. The issue is misrepresenting the law as a tax (as opposed to an additional compliance cost), and generally doing so in a douchy manner.

  19. Restaurants are required to have restrooms. He should have a shitter surcharge. Seriously, I detect a libertarian snot here in McCartney. Much as I like the facon sandwich, I’ll stay away. I’d like to see an employee owned restaurant on the hill. Now that would be a progressive idea for a progressive neighborhood.

  20. I don’t care how much itemization is done on the receipt, as long as I’m not asked to pay more than that which was listed on the menu. I don’t like that the sales tax a business must pay to the state is tacked on any more than I like the idea of a paid sick leave fee or a waste disposal fee being tacked on.

  21. Can I assume the person who complained was an Amazon employee that felt she/he didn’t need to give back to the city in which it has taken hostage? Fortunately for me, I work at two bars on the Hill and both have offered us time off based on this policy and they have subsequently raised prices due to it. Whatever, get over it. Blame your mayor or city council member if you don’t like it!

  22. Whatever. I love Bleu Bistro, and this doesn’t affect my love of that place and the people who work there. Not to mention, you guys realize there’s like a hundred other businesses pulling this same stuff, right? Cherry Street Coffee was doing this up until a couple of weeks ago when the customers had the same freak out. Ross is a pretty honest and smart business owner. As for RC’s facile analogy about “sprinker tax” etc…..those are expected one-off charges a business knows they will incur. This is an ongoing expense in an already cost-prohibitive market. He was just trying to keep all the bottom lines covered (employees, his own, and customers — who were only going to have to pay a measly 1.6%!!!) and I think all in all, he did a darn good job making all adjustments without any excess. I guess no one else feels this way.

  23. Blew was overpriced at it’s old location, and is overpriced at it’s new location. Now, this sort of shenanigans just gives me another reason NOT to patronize the place.

  24. Reading about this San Francisco came immediately to mind. I completely agree with you. I do not understand the backlash here. It is truly bizarre.

  25. I think the majority of you are ignorant and I too do not understand the backlash from people. You are correct this is a city ordinance so has to provide the paid sick leave, so the government is going to enforce yet another obligation on business owners and what? Expect them to just roll over and take it? You guys don’t have access to his books you don’t know the financial impact that this ordinance will have on his business, how can you be so judgmental? How about this, instead of raising prices, he pays all his employees less, would that make you happier? Instead of going after a small business owner, who I genuinely think was just trying to show customers what their money was going towards, people should be mad at McGinn or the City Council who continue to tax and make things more difficult for hard working Seattle residents while continuing to give handouts to people that do nothing to contribute back to society.

  26. What this boils down to is that people shouldn’t be forced to work for poverty wages/benefits simply so I can afford the luxury of eating out at a restaurant. So charge me what it costs you to pay your employees a living wage and provide them with health care and sick/vacation pay. If I can’t afford to pay what it actually costs I shouldn’t be eating out. Eating out is not some sort of entitlement. Living wages and health care are basic human rights, IMHO.

    I don’t think this guy is evil, just not bright. I’ve been to Bleu a few times, great food, great staff, but a little pricey for me, so I only indulge once in awhile.

  27. Dave, you think the city giving the employees sick time is giving a handout to people that do nothing to contribute back to society? Really? How would Bleu operate without employees? How would any business operate without employees? It’s not like an unemployed person is being paid sick time by businesses. Every civilized society sets up rules for businesses to follow with respect to how they compensate their employees. If you can’t set up a business plan that is profitable while following the rules then you don’t have the right to be in business. Period.

  28. That’s actually not what I meant at all. I’m actually in favor of the sick time, hey if you get sick you should be able to take a day off of work to recoup without worrying about losing a day’s pay. What I get angry about is that we pass these ordinances making business owners foot the bill, or we toll bridges, increase parking rates/times, add more registration taxes and make commuters and the working people continue to pay more while we enable other “residents” on Capitol Hill to give the area a bad name. My objection is more towards the people getting mad at this guy who was just trying to continue on his business.

  29. I love these conversations, but I wish it was easier to get context and tone via text. We should all meet for a drink at Bleu and discuss this further. Maybe Ross could join us.

  30. People complain about tipping and some claim they refuse to tip because they can’t afford to do so. Well, the truth of the matter is, if you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford the meal. So don’t eat the meal. In this case, as JRT said above, “it’s the cost of doing business.” If you can’t afford to pay the increase to cover sick leave for your employees, you can’t afford to run a business. It’s not there to put you out of business, it’s there to protect your employees. Which, quite honestly, you should have been doing before you were forced to do so by the law. All this concern about the cost and trouble this law has caused business owners. No talk about how those who work for the lowest wage possible (by law) have no protection, no health insurance, no sick leave, nothing but scraping and struggling to get by.

    Blue Bistro will never have my business. Ever. But not because of this incident. I stopped patronizing them many, many years ago for their crappy service and exorbitant prices.

  31. I can’t believe the simple and narrow minded are most of the comments. Maybe it was a good idea gone bad. In hindsight, maybe he should have just raised his prices to cover the added expense. But for a business owner, that is not an easy decision to make. Raising prices may cause him to lose business. Could he afford that to happen? Rather than do that, he chose to be clear why his prices are more expensive than they used to be. It turns out it was the wrong decision. Regardless, what’s the big deal? Until you have walked in his shoes, you really do not know how difficult a position he was/is in. Cut him some slack.

  32. So he’s right for showing a charge forced on him by the city for something he should have been doing?

    Er…. Right…

    I love the smell of contradictory Libertarian thinking in the evening.

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