Minimum-Wage Increase Could Mean Higher Restaurant Prices

Photo by Andinarvaez
Fast-food workers could soon be making more money.
Last Tuesday during President Obama's State of the Union address, fast-food workers and their fellow minimum-wage workers were an important topic. Obama called for the minimum wage for federal workers to be raised from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. He also called for an increase in the minimum wage across the country, a move that would help people in the restaurant, construction and retail industries (among others) to make a "living wage."

But while many see a pay increase as a positive step toward reducing income inequality, the restaurant industry worries that operators will have to raise food prices to respond to the higher labor costs. The National Restaurant Association reports that a higher minimum wage could lead to more expensive food, fewer employees, a drop in the quality of food that is served and fewer franchises.

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Your Anonymous Reviews and Comments May Not Be Anonymous Much Longer

Screenshot by Kaitlin Steinberg
A Virginia court set a new free speech precedent, and Yelp ain't happy about it.
So much for free speech.

Last week, a Virginia court ruled that Yelp must turn over the identities of seven anonymous reviewers of a carpet store because the commenters may not have been actual customers. According to Yelp's terms of service:

"You may expose yourself to liability if, for example, Your Content contains material that is false, intentionally misleading, or defamatory; violates any third-party right, including any copyright, trademark, patent, trade secret, moral right, privacy right, right of publicity, or any other intellectual property or proprietary right; contains material that is unlawful, including illegal hate speech or pornography; exploits or otherwise harms minors; or violates or advocates the violation of any law or regulation.

The part that stood out to the court in Virginia is the bit about "material that is false." According to the court, these statements aren't protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. By that logic, neither are your restaurant reviews on Yelp or your anonymous comments on blogs unless they're clearly non-libelous opinions or verifiable statements of fact ... Right?

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Tipping in Restaurants Reaches a Tipping Point...Will 2014 Be the Year It's Abolished?

Photo by Marya
Tipping after meals is no longer as universally accepted as it once was.
Next time you hear a waiter or waitress complain about his or her tips, remember that the United States and Canada have the biggest tippers in the world (but maybe don't tell them that fact, 'cause it probably won't help). In many other countries, service is included in the bill, and tipping is reserved for truly exceptional service. People in the service industry also make higher wages than waiters in the United States, who rely on tips to bring their salaries up to minimum wage.

Lately, though, there's been a lot of talk about abolishing tipping in America altogether. A Slate article from last July called tipping an "abomination." The author, Brian Palmer, wrote, "Tipping is a repugnant custom. It's bad for consumers and terrible for workers. It perpetuates racism. Tipping isn't even good for restaurants, because the legal morass surrounding gratuities results in scores of expensive lawsuits."

He brings up some good points about the practice. So good, in fact, that others are starting to echo his concerns. In September, Pete Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times, highlighted a number of restaurants that are moving away from tipping and toward surcharges or higher-priced menu items. The money made from these practices would then go toward paying servers a fair wage -- as in, more than $2.13 an hour, the amount many servers make before their "tip credit."

But what about our right as consumers to let service staff know we're pissed by leaving a small tip? How are we supposed to express gratitude if not monetarily? And how are misguided teenagers going to elicit donations after they're stiffed for being gay (but not really)?

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Vapor Conflict: E-Cigarettes Ignite Debate About Smoking in Bars and Restaurants

Photo by Michael Dorausch
Should Houston ban e-cigarettes in restaurants and bars?
I couldn't get anyone I know to speak on the record for this story.

The only regular smokers I know are in the restaurant industry, and in spite of the fact that anyone can see them smoking outside between shifts, no one wanted to admit to smoking e-cigarettes.

"Is it because e-cigarettes look kind of silly?" I asked. "Or is it because you don't want to give the impression that you're harming your palates with nicotine?"

No, and no, everyone said. They just didn't want to talk about it. Then they would turn away and continue puffing on a device that resembles a shiny ballpoint pen.

People are starting to talk more about e-cigarettes, though, as the once-oddball implements are becoming more common everywhere from the classroom to the boardroom and many restaurants in between. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the New York City Council announced that it would add e-cigarettes to the 2002 Smoke-Free Air Act, effectively banning them from all public places. Though the ban will ultimately come down to a vote, it's raising a question that many have so far neglected to answer: Should e-cigarettes be allowed everywhere regular cigarettes are not?

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FDA, Calling Them Detrimental to Human Health, Moves to Ban Trans Fats in Food

Photo courtesy the FDA
All of these foods currently contain trans fats, but if the FDA has its way, they won't for much longer.
On November 7, the Food and Drug Adminstration proposed that partially hydrogenated oils no longer be "generally recognized as safe" -- a ruling that, if made final, would effectively mean companies could no longer use anything containing trans fats in their products.

I asked Houstonians what they thought about this ruling, and it turns out many people don't know exactly what trans fats are, and many are not even aware that they were consuming them.

Because I'm not a scientist, I turned to the American Heart Association to put the definition of trans fats into layman's terms. According to the organization's Web site, "Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Companies like using trans fats in their foods because they're easy to use, inexpensive to produce and last a long time. Trans fats give foods a desirable taste and texture."

Basically, trans fats make food taste "better" and last longer for less money. But at what cost to our health?

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Houston Mayoral Candidates Talk Food Trucks, Their Go-To Lunch Spots and Cooking at Home

Photo by
No, no, don't worry. Rick Perry isn't running for mayor. He obviously appreciates good food, though.
In one of the great election movies of our time, Wag the Dog, CIA agent Mr. Young gives some helpful advice about food: "There are two things I know to be true. There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war."

Okay, maybe it was more about war than food. And there's definitely such a thing as inferior flan. Whatever. We all know what's important around here, and it's not global warming or war or the economy. It's food!

Clearly I'm joking. Here at Eating Our Words, we understand that not everything is about food. We just kind of wish it was. Talking about food all the time would make things less complicated, and everyone would be fat and happy.

Tuesday, November 5 is election day, and in Houston, the most exciting race is the mayoral battle. While we've been following the debates closely to learn about the candidates' platforms, we haven't heard much talk about the Houston dining scene. So we called the mayoral candidates to discuss their thoughts and feelings about local food.

We were able to get in touch with three of the nine candidates by our deadline, but these three candidates represent the Democratic Party (incumbent Annise Parker), the Republican Party (Eric Dick) and the Green Party (Don Cook). They provide a great political cross-section, and their thoughts on food happen to differ almost as much as their politics.

Note: Before you vote, please take a moment to consider each candidate's goals for the city, and not just his or her favorite restaurant. Though you are more than welcome to consider that as well.

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Hobby Center Lawsuit Has Put Artista in Hot Water

Photo courtesy of Artista
The Hobby Center and Cordúa Restaurants are locked in a dispute concerning the lease of Cordúa's restaurant in the center, Artista.
It seems Cordúa Restaurants are in a bit of hot water, at least according to the lawsuit recently filed by the Hobby Center for Performing Arts.

The Cordúa restaurant Artista has been located inside the Hobby Center for the past 11 years, but when its lease ran out, in 2012, issues began to arise concerning its cost. According to the lawsuit, the Hobby Center is now seeking "judicial declaration that its lease with Cordúa for the Artista restaurant has ended."

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Maximus Coffee Workers Strike to Protest Planned Wage Cuts; Voodoo Queen Supports Strikers

Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Striking workers seemed in high spirits outside Maximus Coffee Group Thursday evening.
It still smells like coffee outside the Maximus Coffee Group plant on Harrisburg Boulevard in the Second Ward, but there's no smoke coming from the plant's exhaust chimneys, and no trucks are driving in and out of the complex carrying Maximus coffee.

Ninety percent of the 250 unionized workers at Maximus Coffee (the bulk of the employees) are striking in response to proposed pay and 401k cuts and a more expensive health care plan.

"They're wanting to cut their wages by 40 to 50 percent for some of the folks," explains union rep Sue Mann. "They're wanting to cut their 401k by not paying into it and matching it like the agreement says they would. They want them to go off of the union insurance plan and go onto what they're calling the company plan, which is 30 percent more than what they're paying now."

The workers began striking at midnight on Thursday, and by 5 that evening, many were still out there holding signs and encouraging passersby to honk in solidarity. There was a steady chorus of honking car horns, and strikers acknowledged that they've gotten a lot of support from the neighborhood. One big supporter is new bar Voodoo Queen.

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Shutdown Not Affecting Houston Food Safety, Yet

Photo by Chris Buecheler
Dear America: Please do not interrupt cheese imports.
Think of the government shutdown as you would a hurricane. Stock up on canned food, sit tight and wait it out. Evacuate if you must, but you're going to have to travel pretty far to get out of this mess.

The government has been getting a lot of (much deserved) grief over the shutdown, and I was only half kidding when I told my friends yesterday that I give up, that I'm moving to Europe (where things are clearly better?). I'm not kidding about the canned food thing, though. Buy canned food. For real. One of the effects of the government shutdown is the cessation of "safety activities" by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to a contingency plan released by the Department of Health and Human Services, the "FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities." FDA will also have to cease safety activities including "routine
establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of
imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the
majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making."

Fan-flippin-tastic, Feds.

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Food Expiration Dates Not Necessarily the Last Word

Categories: Food Policy

Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
What does this label mean? Is my sandwich rancid?
Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report titled "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America". The gist of it is something that most Americans can probably agree on: Labels on our food that seek to aid us are often very confusing.

Some labels state "sell by," which is presumably directed at the producer. Others have "use by" dates, which presumably inform consumers when food will go bad. Still other food labels read "best before," which implies that the item can still be eaten after the printed date, though it might not taste as good as it should.

The issue, according to the NRDC, is that these labels are "both poorly understood and surprisingly underregulated, such that their meanings and timeframes are generally not defined in law." What that means is that any producer can pretty much put any date or no date at all on its products, and consumers follow these dates without really knowing what they mean.

There is no comprehensive research on the amount of food waste generated by labeling systems (or lack thereof), but talk to any chef or market owner, and they'll tell you it's a big issue.

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