In-N-Out won’t check vaccine cards. Is it really that hard for counter-service restaurants to do? – San Francisco Chronicle

In-N-Out at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco was temporarily shut down by the health department for not enforcing the vaccine mandate.
An employee takes an order at Gott’s Roadside at the Ferry Building. Employees at the cash register ask customers who want to sit inside to show their vaccination cards.
In-N-Out’s refusal to check vaccine cards has sparked conversations about just how feasible it is for a busy fast-food restaurant to enforce indoor vaccine mandates. Operators of local counter-service spots say it’s indeed challenging compared to full-service restaurants, but still doable — if you have enough staff.
The nationwide struggle for restaurants to hire staff may be why many quick-service chains in San Francisco, including certain locations of McDonald’s and Panda Express, still aren’t offering indoor seating at all. And Chronicle staffers have noticed uneven enforcement at a handful of San Francisco restaurants.
Unlike more formal sit-down restaurants, counter-service spots don’t typically have host stands at the entrance that require diners to check in and provide a location for an employee to ask for vaccine cards. There are often multiple entrances and exits, so it’s easy for people to slip in unnoticed. They also tend to serve a far higher volume of customers, making it more difficult to track who and who hasn’t shown their proof of vaccination, according to multiple local restaurant operators.
“That’s not an excuse not to do it, but it does provide a harder time enforcing it,” said Clay Walker, president of popular burger chain Gott’s Roadside.
The company maintains locations in two cities with indoor vaccine mandates, San Francisco and Walnut Creek. “We try to be perfect but we probably aren’t.”
At Gott’s, staffers ask customers at the cash register whether they’ll be eating inside, outside or taking food to-go. If customers say inside, they’re asked for their vaccine card and handed food on a tray. But if they say outside or takeout, they’re given food packaged to go.
Crispy ahi poke tacos and fries are packaged to-go at Gott’s Roadside in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. In San Francisco and Contra Costa County, the restaurants package food for outdoor dining to-go as a way to tell which customers have had their vaccine cards checked.
While the proliferation of expensive compostable packaging makes this system cost Gott’s more, it helps managers who are roaming the dining room to ensure the people eating inside actually requested to eat inside. If managers spot a customer inside eating from to-go containers, they’re tasked with asking to see a vaccine card at the table. It’s always possible a customer changed their mind at the last minute, or “changed their mind” to avoid the vaccine check.
At local chain Super Duper Burgers, vice president of operations Edmundo Oñas employs a similar system with “little hints to help us follow up.” Managers are also supposed to be on the lookout for customers with takeout packaging indoors. For outdoor diners, staffers give them for-here trays but to-go plastic cups as a signal that their vaccine cards have not been checked.
“It’s pretty standard procedure,” Oñas said, who added that his restaurant group, Back of the House, uses the same system at locations of fried chicken outfit the Bird and taqueria Uno Dos Tacos. “It works out most of the time.”
An employee packs a lunch at Gott’s Roadside at the Ferry Building. Because of San Francisco’s indoor vaccine mandate, the restaurant packages food for outdoor dining to-go as a way to tell which customers have had their vaccine cards checked.
Occasionally, the restaurants encounter a customer who fights the vaccine check. Gott’s has had to call security at the Ferry Building location to escort angry people off the property. That potential pushback is part of why fast-casual Cuban spot Media Noche still hasn’t opened its Mission District dining room for indoor seating.
“We’re already having issues with mask enforcement, which is something we’d hope at this point people would just accept,” said co-owner Madelyn Markoe. “It’s choosing our battles.”
But the bigger reason is the staffing shortage plaguing restaurants all over the region. Markoe said she couldn’t imagine properly enforcing the vaccine mandate without someone checking cards at the door.
“It would require additional staff that we just don’t have the capacity to employ and, to be honest, pay,” she said.
While Gott’s employs 50 people at every restaurant location, Walker said he understands why it’s tough to consistently enforce the mandate at a smaller operation, where perhaps only one or two people are working at a time. But a huge chain like In-N-Out, he said, doesn’t have that excuse.
“Politics aside, restaurants need to abide by local mandates, or local law enforcement should close the business permanently. Otherwise it’s not fair to all the other do-gooders,” he said. “The problem is we’re all in this together and unless everybody abides — and far from everybody is abiding — it doesn’t work.”
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker
Janelle Bitker joined The San Francisco Chronicle in 2019. As the food enterprise reporter, she covers restaurant news as well as Bay Area culture at large through a food lens. Previously, she served as a reporter for Eater SF, managing editor at the East Bay Express, and arts & culture editor at the Sacramento News & Review. Her writing has been recognized by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and Association of Alternative Newsmedia.