Take the High Road: How to Boost Wages and Dignity for Restaurant Workers

At the beginning of her new book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, author Saru Jayaraman tells the story of her great-grandfather owning and managing a restaurant in the small town of Karur, India. It’s a moving tale of legacy, grit, and entrepreneurship. Even as Jayaraman writes how her great-grandfather treated his employees as family, she acknowledges that he did not always pay them enough to keep them out of poverty.

As the founding director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), Jayaraman works to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workers. Employers who are striving to meet those goals do exist, according to ROC United, calling these restaurants “high-road” employers. They are the ones taking the high road to a successful business and ensuring their workers don’t earn poverty wages.

Such models are sorely needed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4.7 million food and beverage-serving workers in the United States take home a median pay of $18,550 a year. Despite consistent overall growth in the sector, workers in the restaurant industry still occupy seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the country. In 2012, one in four women of color with jobs in the restaurant industry found themselves living in poverty.

In Forked, Jayaraman compares and contrasts employers who are choosing to take the high-road — offering paid sick days, health care, and childcare, improving job mobility, combating sexual harassment, and more. Below, we profile three of the high-road success stories.

Paying One Fair Wage: Florida Avenue Grill, Washington, DC

Restauranteur, lawyer, and real estate developer Imar Hutchins purchased Florida Avenue Grill, a Washington, DC diner established in 1944, as a part of a larger real estate deal in 2005. A vegetarian and former proprietor of vegan restaurants, Hutchins strove to maintain the legacy and culture of the site (including serving meat), while increasingly promoting health for both the diner’s workers and customers.

In the beginning, change was slow to take effect. “When you start something from scratch,” Hutchins told me, “it’s easy to set it up the way you want. But when you have something that’s been going, in our case for 70 years, it’s very hard to change anything.” In 2012, Hutchins introduced paid sick and vacation days and hiked the starting wage for both tipped and non-tipped workers to $9.50 an hour. Providing paid sick leave in food service protects the health of customers as well as job security for workers. Only 10 percent of U.S. restaurant workers have paid sick leave, while 60 percent have reported coming to work sick.

Believing in its principles, Hutchins joined ROC United, and is now a board member of the organization. One of their major campaigns, One Fair Wage, advocates for cities and states around the country to require restaurants to pay all their employees at least the regular minimum wage, so that the decision to increase wages doesn’t just fall on individual small business owners like Hutchins. The federal tipped minimum wage has been stagnant at $2.13 since 1991. The strongest proponent for maintaining this meager standard is the trade association and lobbying group the National Restaurant Association, whose member associations include McDonald's and Darden (the parent company of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Capitol Grille).

Mom-and-pop restaurants “just don’t have the capital that large corporations have,” said Hutchins, “so it’s ironic that the companies that are in the best position to do things like pay employees more money, for example, are the most ardently against it.”

ROC United also works alongside other local and national organizations and coalitions led by workers that are advancing campaigns like the Fight for $15 and institutionalizing a workers bill of rights in every major city.

Creating Job Mobility for Workers of Color: Busboys and Poets, Washington, DC

ROC United has documented the vast inequities along racial lines in the restaurant industry. Workers of color are consistently segregated into lower-level segments in the food industry — especially in fine dining — and workers of color earn $4 less than White workers in the U.S. restaurant industry.

Busboys and Poets, the chain of eight D.C. metropolitan-area restaurants that also features bookstores and event spaces, exemplifies an equitable approach. More than 600 people are employed by the chain and proprietor Andy Shallal has launched several initiatives to close the racial wage gap in his business. He encourages group conversations about race and culture as a part of the new employee orientation process.

Shallal also ensures that hiring is inclusive and that no one racial or ethnic group is concentrated in any particular position. He sees it as both a personal conviction and a smart business decision. “If you start hiring people from all types of diverse backgrounds, you expand your ability to attract people of different backgrounds,” said Shallal. “Customers like to go to places where they feel represented.”

“Eliminating the two-tiered system [of tipped and non-tipped employees] isn’t the whole sum of the solution in terms of eliminating racial disparities, but it is a huge part of it,” said Jayaraman, noting that it goes hand in hand with policy and desegregation work, “and working with employers to get them to actually promote from within from busser positions to server positions.”

Creating a Level Playing Field: Vimalas Curryblossom Café, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is a farm-to-fork Indian restaurant located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Owner and Executive Chef Vimala Rajendran left an abusive marriage and began selling takeout as a way to raise her children as a single parent. She ran her take-out business for 16 years before opening her current brick-and-mortar location in 2010. It has since become an award-winning, community favorite.

Two of the reasons Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is categorized as a high-road business: Rajendran has formalized a homegrown primary health care plan, Curryblossom Creations; she also offers a childcare allowance to her employees. “What’s replicable is not the specific benefits that she provides,” said Jayaraman, “but her consistent attempts to improve what she provides.”

The day Forked arrived in her mailbox, Rajendran’s neighbors read the entry on the restaurant to her and her husband. “All of us were in tears,” Rajendran remarked, “because Saru captured the soul of my life leading up to the start of this restaurant, as well as how I run it and the way we treat our employees.”

Jayaraman said she emphasizes the “high-road” metaphor in Forked and elsewhere because it underscores that restaurant employers are demonstrating an ongoing commitment, not reaching a destination. She also highlights ROC United’s legislative efforts as a demonstration of the strength in numbers. “We actually aren’t trying to create change company by company or get everyone to move out on their own in this direction,” commented Jayaraman. “We want employers to work with us to make it a level playing field by [helping] us pass policy that would have everyone do this, not just one employer.”

To purchase Forked, visit forkedthebook.com, and take a consumer pledge to support high-road restaurants. ROC United also has a diners’ guide app available for download.

Read the rest of the April 7, 2016 America's Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.