Food Policy

Overbearing Regulations Are Slowly Killing Restaurants

Running a restaurant is hard enough without government micromanagers trying to stir the pot.


Last month, Eater's New York vertical published an excellent and damning investigation into the city's awful food-safety inspection regime. The article details some of the ways restaurants of all types are forced to game the system in order to pass muster with the city's notoriously overzealous health department. Many of these examples are farcical, including one centered on a covert, all-hands message that "Beyoncé is here," one unnamed restaurant's code language that warns employees of the arrival of a health inspector.

"These businesses aren't necessarily in gross violation of the health code—they're simply reacting to a system that feels broken," writes Saxon Baird.

Overbearing, broken restaurant regulations aren't just a thing in New York City. They're hurting restaurants across America. And while a few cities and states are chipping away at bad rules they now have on the books, many others are busy adopting bad new ones.

With low profit margins and high failure rates, running a restaurant is already a risky endeavor. That's why restaurant owners find it so onerous when additional regulations eat into those profit margins and raise the risk of failure.

That fact doesn't stop lawmakers around the country from piling on restaurateurs nevertheless. Chicago lawmakers, for example, are considering a new ordinance that would limit flexibility in scheduling workers' hours. In a great editorial last week, the Chicago Tribune urged the city to back off, noting the rules don't make sense and would hit restaurants and restaurant workers particularly hard.

The Tribune reports the new rules would impose restrictions on flexible schedules for hourly workers (and even, in an apparent nod to the snowballing Bernie Sanders' campaign labor scandal, many salaried workers). Many of these workers, the Tribune notes, "prefer getting called on short notice to work [and] actually like a more fluid schedule—and extra hours." The editors, lamenting the fact that "employers find Chicago an increasingly hostile place to do business," close with this argument: "City Hall should not be interfering in shift changes at…Taco Bell."

Chicago and New York City are as blue as blue gets. Certainly, red-state lawmakers would never interfere with businesses, right?

Well, sure. Unless, say, you're a restaurateur in Mississippi who wants to allow your customers to let their dog chill next to them on your patio while they eat.

After the Clarion-Ledger published an article last week directing diners in and around Jackson to a list of dozens of dog-friendly restaurants, the state's health department turned scold.

"After the story came out, [the state health department] contacted the Clarion-Ledger and said any restaurant that allows pets on the patio is violating the Mississippi Food Code," the Clarion-Ledger reported in a follow-up piece.

State health officials say the ban has been on the books since at least the mid-2000s. They claim they'll only enforce the rule if complaints arise. The health department's overbearing communiqué to the Clarion-Ledger virtually assures that will happen.

Whom should decide if, say, dogs may sit with their owners outside a restaurant? Shouldn't it be the restaurant owner herself?

Thankfully, not every new restaurant law or regulation stinks. New rules designed to allow restaurants to limit waste—one in California, the other in North Carolina—highlight the possibilities of deregulation. The new North Carolina law allows restaurants to reuse cleaned oyster shells—as, say, a serving dish for ceviche. The California law, meanwhile, allows diners to bring to-go containers to restaurants and allows festivals and food stalls to provide reusable cutlery.

These are but a few examples of good and bad restaurant rules currently making the news. Others include legislation around restaurant worker pay in Connecticut, proposed alcohol deregulation in North Carolina that would benefit restaurants, a court ruling in a case that centered on whether a California law requires an employer to buy some employees' shoes, a new law that allows Illinois residents to use SNAP (food stamp) benefits to buy fast food, and a proposed law in Michigan "that would ban the ban of plastic bags ban," which has the support of the state restaurant association.

Restaurants get by on the slimmest of profit margins and are constantly at risk of failing. Instead of jumping on the regulatory bandwagon, lawmakers around the country should resist that urge and instead reduce the spiraling barrage of regulations that restaurateurs around the country face. Restaurateurs—and voters who like to dine out—will thank them.