Wages in Restaurants: The Real Bread-And-Butter Issue
More and more, people want to know where their food and drink comes from. We ask: were these grapes organically grown, or doused with pesticides? Were the cows that make up this burger free to roam the pastures or crammed into overcrowded feedlots?
Less often do we ask about the conditions under which our food is prepared and served to us at our favorite restaurants.
A string of recent lawsuits suggest we should. Flyers recently slapped on lampposts in my neighborhood, the East Village in Manhattan, refer to one of them: three bartenders accuse the owners of downtown wine/tapas spots Bar Veloce and Bar Carrera of skimming up to 30% of their tips, along with failing to pay proper wages and overtime. The flyers exhort locals to think twice before frequenting these bars, along with nearby Porsena and Ugly Kitchen – also owned by defendant Frederick Twomey, who denies the allegations.
It's not just Twomey. Earlier this month, celebrity chef Mario Batali and his business partner agreed to pay $5.25m to settle claims that their restaurants including downtown Manhattan's Babbo and Casa Mono illegally nabbed a portion of servers' and other staffers' tips. Del Posto, another Batali restaurant, faces a separate lawsuit in New York alleging employees were underpaid.
Other New York City eateries sued for similar allegations include Keith McNally's Pastis and Balthazar, which settled for $1.48m; BLT restaurants, which settled for $925,000; and Nobu, which settled for $2.5m.
A pending class action lawsuit against Capital Grille, a nationwide chain of upscale steakhouses, alleges it misappropriated tips and failed to pay minimum wage and overtime to servers, bartenders, bussers and others who worked at one of 40-plus locations across the US.
The spate of lawsuits reflect a profound disconnect between the polished image of our most celebrated restaurants and the stark reality of wage theft in the industry – one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the US economy. The cases mentioned above involve mainly front-of-the house staff workers; conditions behind the kitchen door can be worse. Workers in these jobs – often immigrants or people of color – can earn poverty wages and face health and safety hazards, even as they lack health insurance.
It's sad and strange that consumer concerns can nudge a high-end restaurant into sourcing heritage pork over feedlot meat, but that it takes going to court to ensure servers and kitchen staff are properly paid. But just as they advocate for grass-fed beef and organic eggs, consumers also have the power to exert pressure on restaurant owners to raise their game on employment practices.
For a start, we can all do a little research to look beyond the pleasing lighting and hip décor of our favorite spots. A non-profit worker advocacy group called the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)-United recently released a guide book that rates popular restaurants according to how they treat their staff. Available free online, it shows which places offer decent wages and paid sick days.
As the guide shows, plenty of restaurants are able to treat employees well while serving top-notch food. For one, there's Colors in New York City, owned and operated by former workers of Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center destroyed on 9/11. Or Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, which offers paid time-off and subsidized health benefits to workers in its four locations – as does high-end Craft restaurant in New York.
The more successful these places are, the more they can grow and form a real alternative to low-road employers. They can also serve as examples of leaders of the industry.
So, we can let the lawyers play their part in the courtroom, but it's also up to us to ask still more questions of our restaurants. If we're to be truly conscious consumers, we need to demand that our food is sourced fairly from its origins right up to the moment it reaches our privileged tables.