What Goes on Behind the Kitchen Door

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Behind the Kitchen Door reveals the real plight of many restaurant workers. Photo: Courtesy ROC-United
Behind the Kitchen Door reveals the real plight of many restaurant workers.
Photo: Courtesy ROC-United

Most self-respecting, food-focused, restaurant-goers can wax on about the provenance of their poultry, chat with their local produce farmer on a regular basis, or rattle off the names of several fine-dining restaurants, the celebrity chefs who run them, and their signature dishes. Some consumers are even on friendly terms with the waitstaff and bartenders at their regular haunts.

But few diners can tell you much – if anything -- about the largely invisible army of restaurant workers who make eating out possible. With 10 million members in their ranks these employees represent the largest sector of the U.S. workforce. And yet these servers, bussers, runners, cooks, and dishwashers, who are the lifeblood of many restaurants, scrape by on some of the lowest wages in America, putting food on diners' tables at the same time they struggle to make enough money to feed themselves and their families.

Up until the Twin Towers fell, Saru Jayaraman had never given much thought to the lives of restaurant workers. And then the young labor lawyer got a call from a union leader representing workers from Windows on the World, the restaurant that had graced the top of the World Trade Center. After the 9/11 tragedy some 250 workers were displaced (73 of their coworkers perished on the day) and they wanted their former boss to make good on his offer to hire them back when he opened a new restaurant. With the help of Jayaraman and one of the headwaiters from Windows on the World, Fekkak Mamdouh, the restaurant workers secured new employment for several former staffers, a victory that was covered by the New York Times. Jayaraman cofounded the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers (now ROC-United) with Mamdouh, and she hasn't stopped thinking about the working conditions and wages of restaurant workers ever since.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Saru Jayaraman, represents disadvantaged restaurant workers. Photo: Sekou Luke
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Saru Jayaraman, represents disadvantaged restaurant workers. Photo: Sekou Luke

Jayaraman caused quite a stir in New York City, when she and her organization went up against several prominent restaurateurs, including Mario Batali, whose Del Posto restaurant settled for millions two lawsuits last year brought by ROC-United for unfair labor practices and abusive working conditions. (Irony alert: Batali's restaurants have been lauded for their Slow Food sensibility and sustainable practices, as BAB has noted.)

Now the director of UC Berkeley's Food Labor Research Center, Jayaraman has written a book, Behind the Kitchen Door, exposing the dirty little secret of exploited restaurant employees and the successful campaigns ROC-United has waged in securing a better work environment for these workers, many of whom are immigrants and people of color. Helping the disadvantaged is nothing new to Jayaraman: The Yale Law School and Harvard School of Government graduate was recognized by former President Bill Clinton while an undergraduate at UCLA for founding a mentoring program for women of color in L.A., where she grew up, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who worked hard to make ends meet.


Jayaraman, who lives in Oakland, returns to the Bay Area this week for book events including tonight at UC Santa Cruz and tomorrow night at the Disposable Film Festival's Just Food Dinner Screening in San Francisco, with more Bay Area dates slated for later this spring. ROC-United's Sekou Luke will discuss the book and accompanying video at the San Francisco Food and Farm Film Festival on Saturday, March 30. While back East last week Jayaraman talked via phone to Bay Area Bites about her recipe for change and the concept of sustainable labor practices along with sustainable food.

Behind The Kitchen Door. By Saru Jayaraman

What was the catalyst for the book?
It's really a call to action to everyone who eats out about what's really happening behind the kitchen door in many restaurants around the country. People want to eat ethically -- look at the impact brought about by books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Consumers spoke up and restaurants changed their menus. We're seeking the same thing for restaurant workers in terms of working conditions and wages. It's not enough for diners to care about the food they eat and how the animals were treated. It's important to care about the well-being of the people who cook and serve the food too.

What don't diners know about restaurant workers?
Since 1996, the national minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 an hour. The National Restaurant Association has done a good job lobbying to keep the minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers low, and they want diners to stay in the dark on this score, it's a very purposeful move on their part. For many Americans restaurants are their second kitchens; as a culture, we eat out more than any other country, and many of us celebrate significant milestones, like birthdays and anniversaries, in restaurants. And yet most diners really have no idea about the working conditions for these employees.

Few diners know that most restaurant employees around the country don't get paid sick leave and since they can't afford to take time off work, they come to work sick, which isn't good for their health or that of the people they're cooking for and serving.

The racial segregation in restaurants is real and plays out across the country and restricts opportunities for advancement for many people of color. Our research shows that generally speaking, lighter-skinned employees work in the front of the house and darker skinned workers are relegated behind the kitchen door or in less prominent roles. This situation is very stark in places like Miami, where light-skinned employees work as waiters, brown-skinned Latino employees work as bussers and runners, and hidden in the back are the darkest employees, typically Haitians working as dishwashers.

Photo: Courtesy ROC-United
Photo: Courtesy ROC-United

How does California and the Bay Area measure up on restaurant workers' rights?
California has a higher rate for tipped workers, its the same as for other minimum wage workers, a minimum of $8 an hour across the board. California is one of seven states that doesn't have a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. But keeping the federal rate low for tipped minimum wages has the effect of driving down wages across the country; and most states pay under $3 an hour for tipped workers.

San Francisco was the first city in the country to require all employers to offer paid sick leave to their employees, so this area is a leader in that regard.

And several restaurants here do all the right things by their employees, including offering opportunities for advancement for its lowest paid staff members. Zazie in San Francisco comes to mind on that front, as do Pizzaiolo and Boot & Shoe Service in the East Bay.

Are you optimistic that restaurant workers will get their due?
There's incredible momentum right now for our work. A number of states are passing laws that will transform the working conditions of restaurant employees. Philadelphia just passed an ordinance allowing restaurant workers to receive paid sick days, it's the largest city in the U.S. to pass such a measure. [The measure is subject to pending mayoral approval.] President Obama mentioned raising the minimum wage, including for tipped wage workers, in his State of the Union speech. I'm confident this is our time.

Photo: Courtesy ROC-United
Photo: Courtesy ROC-United

What can consumers do?
Spread the word about this book. Speak up when you eat out around the country. Ask restaurant employees about their working conditions, including wages and tips, and whether or not they have paid sick leave. Let the managers of restaurants you frequent know that the working conditions of restaurant employees is something you care about. If a restaurant is doing all the right things by its employees, let management know that's important to you and you'll keep supporting them for their efforts. We've created a dining guide (it's also available as a smart phone ap) for consumers. Let Congress know you care; sign our petition. It's not enough just to tip better, though that's a nice thing to do, it's not really the point. We're trying to create industry-wide, systemic change in working conditions across the country for all restaurant employees.