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Blow Up the Restaurant Industry and Start Over

A system that relies on exploitation isn’t one that should survive the pandemic. There’s a better way to feed people and care for workers.

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

March 14 would be the last Saturday shift that Sarah worked, though she didn’t know it at the time. “We were so busy, and everyone that came in was like, ‘I can’t believe how busy y’all are! It’s good that you’re busy,’” Sarah, who asked that I not use her real name, said of the upscale Brooklyn restaurant where she worked as a server until it was shut down due to the pandemic. “And I was like, I don’t wanna be here. I wanna go home.” Guidelines from the city, both around personal protective gear and sanitation, had been unclear and contradictory. The staff was terrified. “We were watching people cough into their napkins, and I had hives on my hands from washing them so much,” she said. “I was scared out of my mind.” By that Monday, bars and restaurants across the state were shuttered, and Sarah—along with the rest of the waitstaff—was laid off, with the promise that she would be hired again. She hasn’t heard anything from her former bosses since. 

Even before the Covid-19 crisis hit, the restaurant industry was a risky business that relied on razor-thin margins and offered few protections for its workforce. Cooks endure long shifts of grueling physical labor; servers generally live off tips, an inherently discriminatory practice that began in America when restaurant owners didn’t want to pay formerly enslaved people for their work. Restaurant workers are highly segregated by race and gender, with undocumented workers particularly vulnerable to wage theft and other unfair labor practices. Health insurance and paid time off are rare for anyone not working for a large restaurant group. Anyone who takes issue with this can be quickly replaced.

And this kind of inequity generally exists across the industry, with wage theft settlements dotting a map that stretches from franchises like McDonald’s to high-end restaurants like Per Se. In the Bay Area, often considered the heart of the sustainable food movement, workers at the beloved Tartine Bakery voted to unionize in March, an effort that the bakery’s owners have tried to thwart. Owners Liz Prueitt and Chad Robertson have taken the common party line of not being anti-union but claiming that a union isn’t right for their particular business.

The current crisis has turned the industry’s cracks into chasms, exposing the ways in which it fails its workers almost by design. It has also raised the question of what restaurants will look like—and how they could survive—once this is all over. But a better question might be whether they should survive as they currently exist. What could restaurants look like if we threw out the old system and built something better? 

“In Brooklyn, people take pride in the fact that their honey was harvested without harming the bees in the colonies,” Sarah said, “but they’re not thinking about the fact that undocumented immigrants with no safety net are making their food. If we really were talking about these things, people would take pride in the fact that they were eating at a restaurant that’s paying people fairly.”

At Reem’s, a bakery in Oakland, California, chef-owner Reem Assil has been trying to answer this question of how to build a stronger, more equitable restaurant, too. Her first food service job was at Arizmendi Bakery, a worker-owned cooperative that began in San Francisco and now has six locations in the Bay Area, and she sees that model as one way to make the industry more sustainable. It’s also set up to be more fair. (Worker ownership is exactly what it sounds like: Workers own the business, democratically manage major operations, and share profits.) “In a cooperative, people are emotionally in a better place, because they’re grappling with things together. You have to be embedded in the work to understand it, to understand what works and what doesn’t.” And it distributes the business risk more evenly, Assil added: “Why should the onus fall on one person to be the savior or the person who fails everybody?”   

Tunde Wey, a chef based in New Orleans whose work has centered around income inequality, racism, and gentrification, sees co-ops as part of the solution, too. “I don’t necessarily think all businesses should be worker-owned co-ops, but I think we need more healthy competition between different models of businesses,” he said. “Right now it’s heavily skewed to the top-down ownership model. But we need ownership models that challenge the status quo, all along the production line. I think one way would just be compensating workers in such a way that restaurants become a luxury.” 

The co-op model isn’t a cure-all, though. Worker-owners are still facing real hardship during the Covid-19 crisis, but they are figuring out what might come next democratically rather than depending on the whims of a single boss. “It’s both easier and harder,” Cathy Goldsmith, a worker-owner of the Cheese Board Collective, a Bay Area cheese shop, bakery, and pizzeria, told Eater in March when asked about reaching consensus on the co-op’s pandemic response. “When we decided to close, we decided to take that financial hit,” Goldsmith said. “And we all take that hit.”

Like the co-op model, unionization is another way workers are currently trying to bring more democracy and transparency to restaurants. And while drives are consistently popping up across the industry—from local wine bars to chains like Starbucks and Jimmy John’s—workers have a long way to go to build the kind of density that brings real power. Still, the unions that do exist stand as a real example of what’s possible. And looking at the success of nonunion collective advocacy efforts, like the Fight for $15, it’s clear that there’s power in coming together. 

Still, fixing the restaurant industry isn’t just about fixing restaurants themselves. Even if you make individual workplaces more fair, you can’t remake the industry, or at least not fully, without massive changes to the systems that it operates in and around, like agriculture, real estate, and health care. “Because most people running restaurants aren’t the owners of that real estate, they can’t dictate the cost of running a business,” she explained. Commercial rents in the Bay Area are among the highest in the country, with Curbed SF reporting in 2019 that retail rental sites that year posted “record increases in average prices almost every month, breaking all-time high records not just once but several times.” (Just last week, a restaurant an hour north of the city closed after 46 years because its landlord hit it with a staggering 300 percent rent increase.) 

And owners have long relied on exploitation, not just of their servers making $2.13 an hour (the national tipped minimum wage) or of undocumented back-of-house workers, but also, at a distance, of the agricultural workers growing and processing the food served on their tables, from farms to meat and poultry plants. Any attempt to “fix” restaurants must also include a fight for fair wages, reliable benefits, safe conditions, and workplace democracy for workers in the industries that restaurants rely on, not just the workers placing the fried chicken sandwich on the table. Unfortunately, Wey said, “a lot of people have a difficult time imagining a system that doesn’t exploit people.” (Just look at how take-out customers are tipping horribly during the pandemic.)

Which brings the question of how we eat into conversation with other matters of how we live. “At the scale that we are talking about, the system is so complex and so complicated that tenants don’t have power,” Wey said, returning again to the centrality of rent when it comes to the life or death of a restaurant. “The building is owned by a bank, the bank has sold your mortgage to a hundred different investors: Where is the relief?” You could say the same about the challenge of securing reliable benefits for workers in a for-profit health care system that places the burden of support on independent operators with already-high overheads. When the system is broken, efforts at working around its flaws can feel equal parts reassuringly radical and sisyphean.   

And because the problem is structural, the solutions need to be bigger than just individual price adjustments, union drives, or co-op models. The government needs “to invest in regenerative agriculture, a regenerative economy, and should be prioritizing areas that have been most economically hit by this pandemic,” said Assil. In other words, we need a redistributive model. There’s no way to change what’s wrong in the industry by fussing with the margins. 

In recent months, a number of big-name chefs have published essays and editorials to bring attention to the desperate need in the industry for financial relief, which simply has not come for the large majority of independent restaurants. (A large chunk of the Paycheck Protection Program Loans meant for “independent restaurants” went to places like Ruth’s Chris steakhouse and Shake Shack; Shake Shack and Sweetgreen returned their money and were quickly lauded for clearing a bar of decency that was sitting on the floor.) 

Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef-owner of Prune, wrote last month in The New York Times Magazine that she didn’t believe in setting up a GoFundMe for her workers: “I tried to imagine joining this trend,” she wrote. “I couldn’t overcome my pride at being seen as asking for a handout.” (“I also couldn’t quite imagine the ethical calculus by which I would distribute such funds: Should I split them equally, even though one of my workers is a 21-year-old who already owns his own apartment in Manhattan, while another lives with his unemployed wife and their two children in a rental in the Bronx?” she added.)  

Few of these articles have centered the worker in their arguments, and even fewer have offered much self-reflection. “Ownership has taken up the role of organizing, using the language of solidarity and empowerment, but that’s really called lobbying,” Wey said of the celebrity chefs now turning to Congress for help. “They’re talking about more investment in their own business so they can build their wealth position—they need workers as a tool for their businesses.” 

And then there’s Sean Feeney, a former bond trader at Goldman Sachs and current owner of two popular Brooklyn restaurants, who was a part of President Trump’s restaurants panel and told the president this week, “We view you as one of us.” As long as the restaurant industry relies on this sort of person to stay afloat, we cannot expect workers to be cared for. 

But workers themselves are taking on some of the ground-level organizing to fill the gaps left by owner-focused lobbying and inadequate state response. The organization America’s Table has begun organizing around a stimulus bill petition and a hospitality census that seeks to gather the information needed to organize and support the industry’s workers. “The lack of transparent and clear definitions of who the hospitality sector includes—in terms of laborers and structures of businesses—is something that needs to be addressed,” said Ashtin Berry, hospitality activist and founder of America’s Table. “Almost every other sector can provide detailed information on its laborers; our sector cannot. [This] prevents us from lobbying and erases those most marginalized within our hospitality sector, which we know are many.” 

The National Restaurant Association, Berry pointed out, is the one group that does have access to data about the hospitality industry. But it has done little to make that data widely accessible; it has also lobbied against raising the minimum wage

All of these forces, taken together, make the restaurant industry precarious at the best of times, but also one that relies on exploitation to exist. Which means that making the necessary changes to this industry—worker ownership, mass unionization, ethical supply chains, prices that reflect real costs—is in many ways scrapping how restaurants work now and starting fresh. 

To make restaurants, in Wey’s words, a “luxury”—which is really just another way of saying an industry that values its labor—would require not just government intervention but also a complete reworking of diners’ expectations and perspectives. It would change the industry, but it would also change us. “The whole thing about the restaurant industry is that nobody wants to see how the sausage is made,” Sarah said. “Think of the way your mother acts when you have guests over. It’s tacky to talk about how hard it is. And until people really understand, they’re not going to value that labor the same way.”