Lawmakers look to head off bans on freebies at restaurants - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Lawmakers look to head off bans on freebies at restaurants

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Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 1:19 pm | Updated: 2:25 pm, Thu Apr 14, 2011.

State lawmakers want to make sure that Happy Meals remain, well, happy.

On a split vote, the House Commerce Committee on Wednesday voted to block local governments from imposing any restrictions on the kind of giveaways now offered by many restaurants. That would range from toys and trading cards to crayons and placemats.

Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said no Arizona community has moved to ban these items — at least not yet. But Chucri said members of his industry are paying attention to what is happening elsewhere.

Most notably, the San Francisco board of supervisors voted last year to forbid restaurants from offering toys with meals if they had more than a set limit of calories and fat. That same ordinance also says that restaurants that do provide toys would also need to include fruits and vegetables with those meals.

And Chucri said Nebraska is weighing whether to ban coupons and vouchers.

“It’s coming,’’ Chucri said. “It’s spreading like wildfire in California.’’

Nicole Dreier, who lobbies for Burger King franchise operators, testified that these kind of incentives are “vital to our business.’’ She said Burger King uses virtually all of the kind of marketing tools that HB 2490 is designed to protect.

But the practice is not limited to fast-food sites.

“We depend highly on our family-style atmosphere, which includes giving children crayons while they’re eating their dinner and other coupons for seniors,’’ said Sherry Cameron, whose family owns the Bill Johnson’s Big Apple restaurant chain in Phoenix.

Cameron said this is different from restricting things in meals for very small children that could be choking hazards.

“You know, you could choke on a carrot,’’ quipped Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, who crafted the plan at the behest of the restaurant operators.

And it’s also not just restaurants that cater to children that would be affected. Michael Head, operating partner of Fleming’s Fine Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Scottsdale, called it a “necessity’’ for restaurants to be able to use incentives.

“Even in fine dining, we depend on increasing sales from coupons or specials aimed at promoting special food items,’’ Head said. He said the legislation protects “my rights to market to my guests and future guests to build sales and revenues.’’

Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said she sees no reason for the Legislature to interfere with the decisions of locally elected officials.

“We complain about other governments telling us what we have to do,’’ she said. “Here we are telling other forms of government what they can or can’t do.’’

Nothing in the legislation puts limits on other kinds of restrictions that some communities have imposed, like the ban on trans fats enacted by New York City.

“That’s a different subject,’’ Chucri said. He said his members aren’t worried about such a local mandate, as many, responding to customer demands, already are switching to healthier oils.

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