Cory Woods never thought he'd get out of the kitchen and in front of customers at a fine dining restaurant. (Sam Harnett/KQED)
The next time you step into a fine dining restaurant in the Bay Area, see if you notice this racial divide: Often the waiters and hosts directly serving customers are white, while most of the people in the kitchen are minorities.
This divide leads to a difference in pay between white people and minorities working in restaurants -- a so-called race-wage gap, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), an advocacy group for restaurant workers. That gap in the Bay Area's restaurant industry, which is described in a report by ROC, is the worst of any place in the entire country.
“There is a $5.50 wage gap between white workers and workers of color in the Bay Area,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC. “That [gap] is larger than Houston, Texas’s race-wage gap in the restaurant industry. It’s larger than Seattle’s race-wage gap. It’s larger than every other region in the United States.”
A Case Study for Change
ROC is collaborating with two Bay Area restaurants, Alta and Homeroom, to address the race-wage gap in their establishments. The hope is to create case models for tackling the issue in the industry as a whole. Cory Woods, who is employed at Alta, said he has already benefited from the local initiative.
In the Bay Area, White Restaurant Workers Are Paid More. Why?
Woods, who is African-American, has worked in restaurants for 30 years, mostly in the kitchen. He said he got his start by flipping burgers and didn't think he’d one day be out front with customers at a fine dining establishment. It just never crossed his mind as a possible career path.
A year and a half ago, Woods began working for Alta in what’s known in the industry as the "back of the house." There, he said, is where all the grunt work is done -- for Woods it was washing dishes.
One day the owner approached Woods and asked him if he would like to try working in the "front of the house." Woods had been in restaurants long enough to know that a position out with customers would earn him a lot more money.
A Difference in Pay that Adds Up
Woods went through a training program that Alta set up to help those in the back of the house move to the front of the house. By May, management decided to give him a position out front. He began waiting tables and tending bar, interacting with customers for the first time. It wasn’t a totally smooth transition for Woods.
“Well, when I first started working here it was very uncomfortable,” Woods said, “I am urban African-American. I am dealing with a lot of Caucasian people with money, people who I have never been exposed to. So initially it was hard communicating with them.”
Woods said communication has gotten better with time. He said he has learned to chat with the customers about things like sports and retirement.
He is making almost double what he did while tucked away in the kitchen. “I come here and I get an $11 pay increase from $14 an hour to $25 an hour,” Woods said, “So yes, front of the house does have its benefits.”
On average, Jayaraman said ROC found the race-wage gap to be $5.50 an hour between white and minority workers. That difference adds up. Over the course of a year working full-time, an employee of color in a restaurant would make on average $11,000 less than a white worker.
Inequality in the Progressive Bay Area
Jayaraman said it is sad to see the restaurant race-wage gap so high in the Bay Area, a place that is hailed as a center for progressive thought and ideals. She said that, like income inequality and housing affordability, the restaurant race-wage gap is one more example of the gulf between those in the Bay Area with privilege and those without. Jayaraman said the situation is especially disappointing because the restaurant industry in the Bay Area has the potential to generate many career jobs for minorities.
Jayaraman said the restaurant industry “is now the nation’s second-largest and absolute fastest-growing private employer sector. There are 12 million workers in this industry. One in 11 Americans works in this industry. One in 10 Californians.” There is plenty of opportunity. The problem is, according to Jayaraman, most well-paying fine dining positions are held by white men.
At a panel on this issue held at Alta restaurant, Jayaraman said the paradigm in the restaurant industry is a result of all kinds of biases: restaurant owners are conditioned to think white men are better waiters; customers are biased against minority wait staff; and minorities don’t even apply for the jobs because they don’t see anyone like them working out front or even eating in these establishments.
An Unexpected Chance
Cory Woods said he could not have imagined transitioning from washing dishes to working with customers. He said he was shocked when his white boss trusted him enough to put him out in the front of the house.
Woods is originally from Missouri. He said now every time his mom flies out to visit him and sees where he’s at, she cries. “I'm proud to say this day that I am considered a success story,” Woods said. “I have two vehicles, I am getting ready to purchase a home. I never thought I'd be the owner of a life insurance policy.”
Woods said getting a chance like this is rare. Many restaurants have notoriously small margins and it takes money to set up training programs and develop workers.
Restaurant owners would have to be on board to effect change in the industry, but so would customers. They may have to pay more to support training programs at restaurants, and Jayaraman said they would have to be comfortable being served directly by people who don’t look like them. Otherwise, stories like Woods' will continue to be outliers in the Bay Area’s highly segregated restaurant industry.