A Middle-Finger Salute

A few weeks ago, I had a lunch meeting with a writer at a local Gator’s Dockside. I had the buffalo shrimp, which were, well, about what you’d expect from fried sports bar shellfish — not great, not terrible, just whatever.

Long, understated and thoroughly unpleasant story short: They didn’t sit well.

I mention this to offer context, to confess that perhaps my opinion of Gator’s was colored before I read last week that the Gator Group, which owns eight of the restaurants, including four in Jacksonville, started tacking on a 1 percent surcharge to its customers’ checks, a move the company blamed on the Affordable Care Act.

Overnight, Gator’s became not just another in an endless sea of mediocre middlebrow chains, but a political restaurant — a cause célèbre on the right, touted by the Heritage Foundation’s blog as proof that “Obamacare is no free lunch,” and the object of scorn and derision on the left.

If the Gator Group knew what they were getting into, they deserve every ounce of the fallout. If they didn’t, they’re hopelessly naïve. Either way, they roundly deserve the ol’ middle-finger salute.

Some background: The health care law requires small businesses, like Gator’s, to offer insurance to 70 percent of their full-time employees. The Gator Group already does so for its managers, but not the rest of its workers. Offering these 250 employees health care, the company says, could cost a half-million bucks a year. The surcharge, meanwhile, could net $160,000 annually. (The Gator Group’s beneficence, it seems, will make up the difference.)

This is not, the company says, a political statement. (Uh-huh.) The signs and line items on checks are just there for transparency. (Sure.) They love their employees, one corporate flack told the media, and just want to keep them on full-time, that’s all. (What kind souls.)

Of course, the Gator Group (which, if you follow the company’s math, earns $16 million a year in revenue) didn’t love those employees enough to offer them insurance before Obamacare, even though, in general, you want food-service workers to be as healthy as possible. (At least I do.) And, it’s worth noting, the owners of the 13 Gator’s Docksides that aren’t part of the Gator Group haven’t felt the need to hit up their customers. As an independent Gator’s franchisee posted to Facebook: “I know that this is a very complex and divisive issue and would like to take the time to reassure you that this is not part of how we here at Gator’s Dockside Gainesville operate.”

There is one upside here. One of the White House’s mistakes in selling health care reform was minimizing the real costs of disruption. If nothing else, the Gator Group is inadvertently highlighting the fact that those costs are actually quite manageable.

My buffalo shrimp cost $8.79. The surcharge, to make sure my waitress wouldn’t go broke if she faced a health-related emergency, would have amounted to 9 cents.

Nine cents.

I can live with that. Not that I’ll ever eat there again.