Prominent Bay Area food leaders discuss what it will take to build a more equitable food system in the Bay Area.  Left to right, top to bottom: Real Foods Real Stories, courtesy of Maria Moreno,  Sana Javeri Kadri, Jude Rywelski, Eric Wolfinger, courtesy of Shakira Simley.
Prominent Bay Area food leaders discuss what it will take to build a more equitable food system in the Bay Area.  (Left to right, top to bottom: Real Foods Real Stories, courtesy of Maria Moreno, Sana Javeri Kadri, Jude Rywelski, Eric Wolfinger, courtesy of Shakira Simley.)

The Bay Area Restaurant System Was Always Broken. How Do We Fix It?

The Bay Area Restaurant System Was Always Broken. How Do We Fix It?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bay Area food industry was in a quiet but persistent crisis. The majority of restaurant workers earned far below a living wage for the region, even for jobs with tips factored in. Steadily rising residential and commercial rents meant that restaurant owners swallowed slim margins as an industry standard that would outlive their ambitions. Farmworkers across the state toiled from dusk until dawn with no employer or government safety nets to count on.

Then the pandemic hit and “everything changed,” said Mourad Lahlou, the chef and owner of Mourad and Aziza in San Francisco. “It shattered what was solid, and it exposed what was weak.”

From farms to restaurants and workers, there’s a lot of uncertainty that hangs over food systems and its fragile infrastructure. Amidst the crisis, is there potential to rebuild a more equitable food industry? What solutions could address the flaws that predate the pandemic? These are the questions we asked seven Bay Area food figures who are grappling with long-lived issues magnified by a new reality.

The Restaurant Dilemma

Mourad Lahlou, chef and owner of Mourad and Aziza: The problem is not so much when we're going to be able to open our restaurants again. What's going to happen is they're going to let us open at half capacity. People are going to be freaked out about sitting around other people. We're going to start taking temperatures of people who come in. We're going to start wearing gloves and masks and have disposable menus as if we were a business that had a big margin where we can afford to do these things. Our rent is going to be the same. The insurance companies are going to charge the same premiums. Minimum wage is still the same. It's incomprehensible to even think that anybody is going to survive this.

If we don't really address these issues now in a very forceful way, I truly believe that the impact of this is going to last way beyond the vaccine or the eradication of this pandemic. That's what keeps me up at night. It’s so scary to me that only the big corporations are going to have the means and the possibility to open restaurants whenever they want, wherever they want. That desire for people to share their culture wherever they're coming from, I'm afraid that's going to go away and the diversity [of the industry] is going to be damaged.

Mourad Lahlou of Aziza and Mourad in San Francisco fears the pandemic and its aftermath will decimate diversity in dining.
Mourad Lahlou of Aziza and Mourad in San Francisco fears the pandemic and its aftermath will decimate diversity in dining. (Jude Rywelski )

There were almost immoral conditions for people to be able to survive in cities like San Francisco where people could not even afford to live in the places they work. We, as a public and as operators, talked about it quite a bit, but we were never able to turn the corner on it. In return, we were squeezing everybody from the farmer to staff.

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Emiliana Puyana, Program Manager, La Cocina: What we've overwhelmingly seen at La Cocina is a reduction in sales and revenue, anywhere from 80% all the way up to 100%. The food industry is incredibly difficult. It's a business with such slim profit margins where seven to 10 percent is an industry standard. Commercial real estate in this town is untenable. That piece of the puzzle has played a big role in this effort to survive the crisis. The vast majority of businesses that cannot reach some sort of full rent abatement or meaningful rent negotiations with their landlords — it will be impossible [for them] to reopen. And that's not taking into account other outstanding loans that businesses might have, rehiring so many employees and restocking your kitchens. For some folks, reopening their doors will be a similar investment to the investment they had to make when they opened their restaurant in the first place.

It's a really difficult time, a time that puts a lot of people's livelihoods at risk. Not just the restaurant owners, but everybody that's employed within this industry. But it also allows this industry a chance to reassess and build a system that takes more factors into account. Not all restaurants are built the same. What a small mom-and-pop shop in the Mission needs might look very different than what a small mom-and-pop shop in [San Francisco's] Chinatown needs. It's not until we start really working together with the support of folks who can bring about change and fight on our behalf that we'll see the outcome we need.

Incubator La Cocina's is offering multi-meal food boxes to offset the severe fall in revenue its businesses have experienced.
Incubator La Cocina offers food boxes from its businesses to offset their revenue losses. (Gene X Hwang / Orange Photography )

We are very fortunate to not have a tipped minimum wage here in the state of California. But at the same time, the vast majority of our employees in the food industry are not [getting] a living wage [and] restaurant owners are unable to bear any more weight on that front. I don't know what the answer is there, but it seems like we need to ensure that we have affordable housing and more of it so that we can keep folks wanting to work in this industry in our area, which was already a huge problem before this crisis hit. Will there be anybody willing to work for $15 an hour or $16 an hour, when they're going to need to be on a crowded train coming into cities to work from wherever they live in order to be able to afford housing?

Maria Moreno, Community Organizer, Restaurant Opportunities Center: I feel really privileged and honored to be doing this work during this time. I feel like now more than ever an organization like ours has proved to be essential for workers. [We’re] getting funds out to people, answering people's critical questions [so they can] receive benefits for those who have benefits, advocating for those who don't receive any benefits, and uplifting the voice of workers from all sectors and from all socioeconomic backgrounds. It has felt really purposeful.

This industry is so fragile and there's so many people that depend on it. Why continue to pretend that it's not a professional career? It is for so many. So why don't we treat it like that? I want an industry where we're considered a real professional career. We can send that message by providing paid sick time for everyone, [by] providing health benefits, by providing ways for people to save their money in the same way that other companies allow you to [make] investments.

Inequities that Predate the Pandemic

Shakirah Simley, Director of San Francisco's Office of Racial Equity: 

There was a disaster before the pandemic. Public health emergencies exploit existing systemic inequalities across the board. Prior to the pandemic, one in four San Franciscans, that's over 200,000 people, were experiencing food insecurity. And now, [that] number has likely skyrocketed. We have existing food insecurity, we have people who are laid off and becoming newly food insecure. We have the particulars of the pandemics that make it hard to access food: transportation, the need to socially distance, the need to wear face covering, limitation on store hours and the impact that COVID-19 continues up the chain for our farmers, for our producers. In the Bay Area, we are surrounded by so much wealth. For us to be tackling such a baseline need and how much it has expanded is really intense.

The Food Industry Adapts

I don't think just because we open again, it's going to go back to “normal.” This society was never normal for a lot of people. It was never normal for communities of color, for LGBTQI communities, for folks who are undocumented.

Vincent Medina, co-founder, Cafe Ohlone: We come from this community that's had disease imposed as a weapon and weaponized against our people in the past. When we shut down [Cafe Ohlone], we knew that we had to turn that moment into focused work for our community: making sure that our elders [had] enough food, that our grandparents had what they needed; that people knew to prepare before grocery stores would be entirely swarmed; that we were able to find ways to provide culture to our community, even if it meant digitally; finding ways to share language, [and] spend this extent of time really searching through those old archives about ways that our community has historically responded to epidemics.

Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino have convened with Cafe Ohlone staff digitally while focusing their attention towards caring for elders in their community. (Courtesy of Cafe Ohlone)

Our Tribe, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, was historically recognized by the American government, called the Verona Band Alameda County and based on the Pleasanton Rancheria, which was the sovereign piece of Indian land in Pleasanton. That's where my great grandmother was born. As a result of UC Berkeley in 1925 erroneously writing that our people were extinct, in 1927 an agent from the Bureau of Indian affairs struck our Tribe off the list of recognized tribes. Ever since then, our Tribe has been working to have that federal recognition restored. What this means [is] that we don't have a protected land base where we could be able to live together as a community. Nowadays, what we do is we negotiate relationships with park districts. We negotiated gathering permits with certain East Bay regional parks [and] we've been able to gather our foods there.

Louis Trevino, co-founder, Cafe Ohlone: The East Bay Park District and the Hayward Area Recreation District and other park districts in the area deciding to close trails and parks [where it is] difficult to social distance is a responsible thing to do, but it is also a way that the park districts are exercising the ability to lock the gates. [Doing so] excludes the most local indigenous people, Vincent's family here in the East Bay, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, from being able to go out into their ancestral places. It sheds light on the fact that even though today we have been able to negotiate leverage positive relationships with the East Bay park park district, that relationship still exists within a colonial framework.

Vincent Medina: We want to make sure that we're continuing to do what we do, where we gather our foods with prayer and gratitude. We feed our community and we teach the public. But we also know that whatever we're going to do into the future, it's going to have to move slowly, carefully and cautiously. And Cafe Ohlone, it’s not going to look exactly like what it did before the shutdown where the cafe was so full that we would have to turn some people away for that time and invite them back. One of the potential outcomes of all of this could be this beautiful transformative time where a lot of those flaws that are having light shed on them can be corrected and fixed. In this time of a slowdown, we can really dream and imagine right now as we're, as we're all stuck inside. We know that our wisdom as Ohlone people and the wisdom that our elders carry and teach is more needed right now than ever. It has the ability to teach us that there's a better way forward that can transform the faltering society that we're living in, into something that's much more meaningful and richer.

Finding Solutions and Leveraging Momentum

Shakirah Simley: Sometimes what you see within pandemics is that you can be more flexible and creative in thinking about recovery. Advocates have been working for half a decade to get people to be able to buy groceries online with food stamps, and it happened in a snap. I'm hoping [we keep] the flexibility and adaptability of some of these federal and state programs.

I'm hoping there's a greater appreciation or direct relationships with people who feed you, from restaurant owners to farmers to artisans folks to your grocer. People are asking themselves, "If our industrial food system fails, what can I get locally to help me meet this need?" [The answer] is built on relationships.

A lot of our local restaurants, farmers markets and grocers have rather been extremely adaptive. That’s really powerful and I hope they're able to sustain that model and so we'd have more community, neighborhood-based feeding models. Even from aunty who lives in one housing development making plates for everybody and delivering it door to door with plates wrapped in aluminum foil. That needs to be maintained. The industry itself is stepping up and being adaptive, but there's individual people who have stepped up to feed their neighborhood, and often for free.

Mourad Lahlou: The majority of the work we've been doing with [Bay Area Hospitality Coalition] is to help the community and our fellow industry people. But at the same time, it's been good for us because we are talking to each other. It's a therapeutic session every day where we cry one day, we yell one day, we laugh one day. We're supportive of each other and it's been really wonderful. I've never been closer to my chef or hospitality community as much as I am right now. One of the ideas that I had was to ask the federal or state government to compensate us if we're mandated to open at half capacity. To compensate the other half so that we are able to pay people what we're supposed to pay them. We are able to pay our rents without being harassed. We are able to pay our purveyors, our farmers without asking them to wait 30 days or 60 days before they get a check.

Restaurant Opportunity Center's Maria Moreno is working towards safety nets for undocumented workers in the restaurant industry.
Restaurant Opportunity Center's Maria Moreno insists service work in the restaurant industry be treated as a career. (Courtesy of Maria Moreno)

Maria Moreno: Right now we're working on a “right to return” policy to ensure that workers who were already hired by restaurants all over the Bay Area actually have a place to come back to. And not just in restaurants, but all kinds of jobs. The policy requires [businesses] to rehire laid-off workers before hiring other people. If they only need 50% of the staff that they had before, that's okay. They just have to bring back laid-off workers who have worked there the longest and in qualifications that they need until they have as many workers as they need. It's not asking businesses to take on more than they can handle.

Personal and Corporate Accountability

Jocelyn Jackson, co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective: People want to say “You have my thoughts and prayers,” or there's the feeling of wanting to do the hero worship [of] the folks that are on the frontline. I appreciate the intention of that, but what doesn't happen at that celebration of their sacrifice is acknowledging that the people deeply impacted by these capitalists or profit-driven decisions are being put in harm's way. It doesn't matter if we call them heroes if they can't also be supported in their humanity. And that means having the pay that respects the value of who they are, the safety equipment that they need, the healthcare that they need, the housing. To have the visibility that's required for our economy to totally, absolutely shift forevermore away from something that invisibilizes and dehumanizes them. Folks that are getting the support like the medical community, they deserve it, absolutely they do—but are food workers getting that same support? Are they getting the offers of free meals for a year? Are they being offered hotel rooms so they can quarantine so they don't put their families at risk? No, because the disposable nature of the food community is so entrenched in the habits of this industry.

Accountability is often achieved through watchdog groups—people taking the initiative and the personal responsibility to hold corporations accountable for their actions. There needs to be a new wave of that in the activist world. It's not simply mutual aid. It's not just the activism of protest. It's not an easy task. [But] it's essential because we're using this phrase “essential workers,” and it feels like a misnomer because of the treatment that they're experiencing. The essential quality is their humanity and for that to be lifted up and for that to be amplified is one of the biggest parts of re-shaping the food community so that it is supportive of everyone at every level and not filled with the dynamics of disposability.

People's Kitchen Collective founders Saqib Keval, Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik and Jocelyn Jackson have spent the past 10 years imagining and working towards more equitable food systems. (Sana Javeri Kadri)

Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik, co-founder, People’s Kitchen Collective: We don't want this to return to the way things were, and it can’t. [People’s Kitchen Collective] is always in a state of change, but I think that in times of crisis, we are more ourselves and the problems bubble up in neon in a way that they demand more of our attention. As we make decisions about how it is that we feed ourselves and each other, one of the biggest challenges for me in this pandemic is the ways we are used to supporting our community could also be harmful in terms of gathering in large numbers. We're planning for future events including Life is Living and looking to distribute food instead of gathering together.

I have both hope and disillusionment around [the future]. I do think that this moment is about the alienation of labor laid bare and what that means for restoring our whole selves as people. [I] think about this question that a former student of mine, Marianna Martinez, asked me: “What are our jobs outside of capitalism?” What are we really meant to be doing? Are we meant to be caring for an elder in our family? Are we meant to be a writer? Are we meant to help people start gardens? How can more of our lives be taken up with the activities where we are the brightest? I would ask that if you are a person who is waiting for things to go back to normal, to think about all of the people for whom that is not true.

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It's about asking those questions and they're difficult to reckon with in the face of so much real loss and real fear. It is so important to think about our collective survival in a way that truly supports, not just any one person, but how we can get there together because that's the only way we're going to get there.