Sandeep [00:00:35] You're listening the Food by Design, an IDEO podcast, where we talk to the people who are building the food systems will need in the future, right now. We go where the questions are looking at the gaps in the current systems and share what we learn all to find out - what's next? We're here to start the conversations that can help make better food systems for every one of us. I'm your host, Sandeep Pahuja.
Sandeep [00:01:07] When we were researching this series, it became clear that if we only talked about food itself and didn't shine a light on the people whose labor makes food consumption possible, we'd leave a huge hole in the story. Without people, our food system simply doesn't work. And what I've learned about people's experience in the food system is so shocking that we need to take a detour away from climate change the main focus in this series up until now.
Sandeep [00:01:34] I've always been a numbers person, so here's a number for you. Five. That's how many days a week I used to eat out at restaurants before the pandemic when I was commuting to IDEO's offices or meeting up clients for on weekends when we were too tired to cook at home. Now, when I walk through the restaurant districts near my apartment in Oakland, California, a lot of places are shut for good. Here's another number, 5.5 million. That's how many food service industry jobs were lost in America during the COVID 19 shutdown.
Sandeep [00:02:07] It's estimated that at least 25 percent of independently owned restaurants will never reopen. The ripple effects across our food system for farmers, ranchers, fishermen, food service workers and all of their families are breathtaking. We spent a lot of time talking about designing solutions to problems in our food system. But whether we're able to build back better after the pandemic will depend on how we value the people that are doing the actual labor. So this episode is about equity and the current lack of it in our restaurants. And that starts with health care and fair wages.
Saru [00:02:48] The restaurant industry we found has been the nation's second largest and no one absolute fastest growing private sector employer.
Sandeep [00:02:56] This summer, we called up Saru Jayaraman. She's a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Go Bears! And that's where she leads the Food Labor Research Center. Saru also heads up One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit. Her life's work has been advocating for higher wages and improve working conditions across the food service industry.
Saru [00:03:17] We as a nation, we eat out more than anybody else on Earth. We eat out an ever increasing numbers. But unfortunately, despite being the largest and fastest growing, what the data has shown is that it is the absolute lowest paying employer in the United States.
Sandeep [00:03:32] When she says lowest, she literally means lowest. One thing she told us that shocked me was that in many states it's legal to offer restaurant workers a sub minimum wage of less than five dollars an hour, sometimes as low as two dollars and 13 cents an hour. That wage hasn't changed in two decades. Two dollars and 13 cents. The logic is that workers will make up the difference in tips. The reality they don't. Not even close. 43 states allow this practice. Only seven states, including California, require a full minimum wage with tips on top. So why and how did this become OK? Saru's research shows that the history of tipping led directly to the problems we have now. The restaurant lobby, she says-
Saru [00:04:19] ...Has been around in various forms since emancipation of slavery, when it first demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, particularly black women, and not pay them anything and have them live entirely on a new fangled idea that had just come from Europe at the time called tips. Now, tipping had originated in feudal Europe as an extra or a bonus, always on top of a wage, something that aristocrats and nobles gave to serfs and vassals, but always on top of a wage. When the idea came to the States, it happened to come to the states right around the time of emancipation and the restaurant lobby, essentially because Black workers were not valued at the time to have any wage at all, wanted the ability to hire those Black workers for free, not pay them and have them live exclusively on tips.
Sandeep [00:05:11] Under the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It banned child labor and set a minimum hourly wage for about one fifth of the labor force. Guess who was left out?
Saru [00:05:24] Farm workers, domestic workers, incarcerated workers and restaurant workers who were told you get a zero dollar wage as long as tips bring you to the full minimum wage. All of those groups of Black workers, you know, because of slavery continue to this day to be in some way excluded from the full rights and privileges afforded to other workers in America.
Sandeep [00:05:47] That legacy of slavery. It's right there in today's restaurants. It still affects how much money restaurant and food service workers make and the kind of life they can aspire to. The culture of tipping also privileges front of house workers like servers, bartenders and hosts over back of house workers like cooks, kitchen porters and dishwashers. And these differences often fall along racial lines. So what happens when you're a person of color who gets that front of house gig you've trained and worked so hard for? A recent study from One Fair Wage, the nonprofit run by Saru, found that among tipped restaurant workers in New York, white men made almost eight dollars an hour more than Black women. Gender inequity only makes the pay gap worse. Here's another number. One out of six restaurant workers lives below the poverty line, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Saru [00:06:40] And today, those workers continue to be majority female. Disproportionately women of color working at casual restaurants, mostly like IHOPs and Denny's and Applebee's, struggling with the highest rates of economic instability of any workforce in America. And absolutely and statistically, the highest rates of sexual harassment of any workforce in America because they're having to tolerate all kinds of inappropriate customer behavior to feed their families in tips.
Sandeep [00:07:10] Sexual harassment and worse has been a part of the food service sector as long as women have been in it. But the industry had its Me Too moment in 2017 when two dozen female employees accused Chef John Besh of harassment. Not long after Mario Batali fell from grace over indecency charges that went back two decades and eventually ended up in court and there were more. There are always more. I remember reading these stories and wondering how could this have gone on for so long? Why wasn't it stopped and why didn't we know? Of course, many people did know. And like everything else, it comes down to power. Who holds it, and more and more, who's taking it back?
Erin [00:07:59] Many people in all industries had their first job in hospitality where they experienced a pretty high degree of harassment.
Sandeep [00:08:07] Erin Fairbanks is one of three co-founders of Women in Hospitality United, or WiHU, a group they created to support, train and advocate for women in the industry.
Sandeep [00:08:17] And through countless conversations with we WiHU members, she hears about the sheer variety of everyday harassment that women are subjected to on the job.
Erin [00:08:25] The harassment is not just internal staff to staff, employer to employee, but also if you're working in an environment where you're dependent on tips, where you're serving the public, there's a huge spectrum of things that can happen in that space. And those things come up in these really intimate at the table side spaces like what do you take back to your floor manager? What do you do if, like, someone grabs your butt, you're like, okay, cool, pretty clear. But if someone just some throwaway comment, you know, are you going to kick them out of the restaurant in the kitchen?
Sandeep [00:08:58] Male coworkers cross lines all the time. But Aaron and her co-founder, Elizabeth Meltz, told me how much pressure women are under to just put up with these incidents.
Elizabeth [00:09:09] It's called the brigade system based on military air, and it's like you're fighting a war every night.
Erin [00:09:13] It's hot. It's fast. It's intense. It's loud. Dangerous. You're physically close. The people I feel like in a lot of ways it really reminds me and being part of like I really competitive sports team. Right.
Elizabeth [00:09:26] That's why there's a chef. Everybody listens to the same person because he can't go rogue.
Erin [00:09:30] Any type of like harassment that folks might be more familiar with happens in that space. I always joke about, you know, the porter who holds out they like penis shape parsnip and it's like, hahaha. And you're like, it's funny the first time, but it's not funny like the fiftieth time.
Sandeep [00:09:49] Elizabeth works for Mario Batali for 11 years. In 2017, several women accused him of sexual assault, but Elizabeth says he never assaulted her. Still, many say that he created a culture in his restaurants that normalized sexual harassment. And she thinks she contributed to the problem by allowing herself to be a part of that culture.
Elizabeth [00:10:10] I was working for Mario at the time and I really felt like I had a lot of feelings. You know, it was I an enabler? Should I have known? Could I have done something? Was a victim? I didn't really know.
Sandeep [00:10:22] She says female line cooks like her constantly code switch just to get what they need from their male colleagues to do their jobs or to navigate around their behavior.
Elizabeth [00:10:33] You play three different roles. You played the boy like the bro. You want to get along with everybody. You high all the line cooks should get blowjobs. Yeah, that's hysterical. You play the mom, right? You want a mother. The oh, maybe you should get more sleep or let me help you with that or I'll make the mashed potatoes today and you play the coquette you know the like I can hang. Yeah sure. You wanna look at my bar, you wanna touch it and you know anything to sort of get through the day. And I don't think I thought there was anything wrong with it at the time.
Sandeep [00:10:59] WiHU gives women a place to network and a platform to share stories. The goal is to build a national movement that can revolutionize the hospitality industry. But when we who held a listening tour in 2019, the workers who came to their events told them that sexual harassment was just one of the many urgent problems the industry needs to address health care, economic mobility and equity. That's a lot to take on, so much so that starting over from scratch could be the only way forward.
Sandeep [00:11:31] There are restaurants that have been rethinking the entire power dynamic that gave rise to so many of these problems in the first place. One of the most interesting examples is a Soho Manhattan restaurant that turned the whole front of house back house hierarchy completely on its head. Its name is West~bourne, and it was founded in 2017 by Camilla Marcus.
Camilla [00:11:50] Camilla, like Vanilla.
Sandeep [00:11:52] I'll break this down for you in a second. But here's Camilla's description of west~bourne's philosophy and their business model.
Camilla [00:11:58] When we start to say we are L.A. Inspired, mission driven and vegetable forward, we are hoping to be the first certified zero waste restaurant in Manhattan. And in addition, our team is entirely generalist and cross-trained. Everyone gets paid the same. We have no porters, no dishwashers and really find that element of the industry, something I very much keen to change.
Sandeep [00:12:19] If you hadn't read up on west~bourne before eating there, you might not realize that it was enacting several ambitious, normed, challenging principles all at once. I've never worked in a restaurant, so I didn't fully get this before meeting Carmilla. Everyone gets paid the same. No porters, no dishwashers. Everyone is cross-trained and they've drastically reduced waste and decided not to serve meat, both in the name of fighting climate change. Rethink the labor model. Check. Rethink how her restaurant impacts the earth. Check.
Camilla [00:12:55] You know, if you envision a world a different way. You have to start from the beginning. And be willing to redesign how everything is done. Can't just hope for a different outcome and keep using the same process and system.
Sandeep [00:13:07] I visited the restaurant on a cold, wet day in December 2013 for lunch. It was cozy and packed with people. I had a memorable meal there, a rainbow grain bowl with falafels, squash, broccolini and pickled carrots. I almost forgot it was vegetarian.
Sandeep [00:13:25] When Camilla founded west~bourne, the goal was to teach every single person in the restaurant how to do everything, whether or not they had a background in restaurants. In the long term, they could build in that training and move up into management. This idea came from her own experience in other restaurants and at culinary school.
Camilla [00:13:44] You know, there's this very clear divide between front of house and back of house, those that cook and those that serve and also have this sort of weird underbelly of porters and dishwashers who it's really a caste system. Very few ever get out of that. They are not considered by everyone else to be part of the team. It was always really hard for me to reconcile when, you know, this is a business that is really one of the last frontiers to the real middle class.
Sandeep [00:14:13] Restaurants and food service are one of the last industries where you don't have to go to high school or college. You don't have to have any sort of background in the industry. Just the passion for hospitality and hopefully a passion for food and beverage as well. It should be a springboard and not a dead end.
Sandeep [00:14:30] (In Interview) That is so different from how the restaurant industry normally works. So for people who are not familiar, can you just explain really briefly how it's incredibly different what you're doing?
Camilla [00:14:39] We have a full day orientation program and then we have a five day fall training program before you're even put on a station, on to a position. It's a round robin and involves testing. It involves tasting everything. For example, we do wine training for every single team member. It's not some it's not soms only. And, you know, everyone is expected to know in every dish looks like on a plate. Everyone's expected to know the menu backwards and forwards, understand all of our standards and sort of how we do things.
Sandeep [00:15:14] From its inception,west~bourne has donated one percent of revenues to the door. The Door is a hospitality training program for New York City youth.
Camilla [00:15:23] How do you even know if you like to cook if no one's putting something in your hand? How do you know if you like coffee, if you've never been sent to a coffee program and you were never allowed to touch the espresso machine.
Sandeep [00:15:34] Camilla told me the story of a super shy young team member who came to west~bourne with some very basic entry level skills. He was a hard worker and she could tell that he had passion, but his shyness was holding him back. So Camilla put him up at the front of house and made him talk to every table at the top of every hour.
Camilla [00:15:54] Six months later, he is the most gregarious. He builds the most regulars on our team. He is named by name by more guests than I can tell you has totally come out of his shell. It is extraordinary. And you could see it finally clicked. And he said, you know, I was really going through a hard time, and what I realized was this could be my place. And it's like you could see it almost in a switch. And he said, you know, honestly, this is the first place where I've ever received positive feedback from anyone. And, you know, I definitely cried and I said, I see you as someone who I want to be here long term. I see you as someone who could be a potential manager. It just takes time and dedication that you have the heart of all the things I can't teach. And I'm sorry that you have never had a place before see that in you.
[00:16:48] Here's the crushing part, west~bourne closed its physical space this summer because of COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants in New York City. West~bourne was small, with no space for social distancing and nowhere to set up tables outside. Since then, Carmilla has joined the Independent Restaurant Coalition and co-founded a group raising funds for New York restaurant workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. And that's a lot of workers. One in four jobs lost as a result of COVID came from restaurants and bars. But even before the coronavirus hit, 90 percent of restaurant workers across the country reported that they didn't have the ability to take a day off when they were ill. Two thirds reported working while sick, cooking, serving and preparing your food because they had no other choice and they were afraid to lose their jobs before covered. Americans spent more money eating out than they do eating at home. And I hate that the act that brings so much joy an escape is built on the backs of so many essential workers, many of whom are black and brown. Now, some of these workers are being asked to return to work for the same wages and even fewer dollars in tips. Customers don't tip the same for takeout. But back to Saru. She says that this time something's changed.
Saru [00:18:09] Workers across the country are saying, no, I will not do it. I refuse to go back. And as a result, we're seeing literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of restaurant employers, namely independent restaurants. Listen, pay attention and begin to think maybe it's time to change the industry.
Sandeep [00:18:28] That is a big shift. People are unwilling to go back to the system as it was before and changes in the air. Saru says that the Black Lives Matter movement, plus the body-blow to the restaurant industry - those too strong winds of change together have resulted in independent restaurants across the country looking seriously at reforms, reforms that could strengthen their own ability to survive. Many of those changes could help alter the entire fabric of the food industry.
Saru [00:18:56] For all the horrors that I've spent the last 40 minutes talking about, it's an extraordinary moment of beautiful hope and and potential for change. None of those restaurants can survive without their workers. So a lot of independent restaurant leaders and even small mom and pop restaurants have come to us and said because of the pandemic, because of the murder of George Floyd, we have changed our mind and we agree we need to move away from this legacy of slavery.
Sandeep [00:19:27] That last part is a common refrain and an ugly truth in the industry and frankly, beyond. It's disturbing, but not surprising to learn that some restauranteurs were spurred into action by the loss of another black life. It's as if only through this tragedy, they found permission to wake up and be aware finally of the violence towards black people in the US. Systemic racism is responsible for the continued exploitation of workers, all part of this legacy of slavery that the restaurant industry has yet to overcome. As long as the restaurant industry is built on cheap labor, it will never be a sustainable way for millions of Americans to support their families without the fear of risking a single sick day, let alone another pandemic. And so, while reforms from the inside could help, it's structural change from the outside that will matter the most. Change that finally puts workers needs at the center, starting with their health care and their wages.
Saru [00:20:28] If we really want to solve for the problem of public health disasters coming out of restaurants, we need to both require paid sick leave and mandate a full minimum wage with tips on top. What we call one fair wage, which is what the seven states, including California, have already done.
Sandeep [00:20:48] 43 states to go.
Sandeep [00:20:54] Dining has always been about the experience you have as much as the food that you eat. But too few of us consider the workers who made that meal possible and exactly what kind of an experience they're having. I know I always haven't.
Sandeep [00:21:09] Camilla's story about the shy young team member at her restaurant reminded me of a memory. Last year, I ate a meal at noma, arguably one of the best restaurants in the world. It's in Copenhagen and it's the kind of place you don't get to eat at without an enormous amount of good fortune and privilege when you arrive at no most stunning space on the water. You're greeted by a man named Ali Sanko. He's the first face you see, and he welcomes every single guest. Ali emigrated to Denmark from Gambia, and he's been with noma since 2003 when he started as a dishwasher in 2017. He was made a co-owner of noma receiving ownership shares in the business and honestly, I remember Ali's story better than most of the things I ate that night. Imagine if more restaurants offered a path to a better life or if they were able to operate in ways that helped people up, instead of keeping people down.
Sandeep [00:22:03] That means fighting for policy level interventions on health care and wages while also pushing individual restaurant tours and big restaurant companies to change their practices. Next time you're out ordering food. Ask your favorite restaurant if they pool tips or if they pay a sustainable minimum wage or if they offer sick pay to their workers. Hearing directly from you might be the first step in helping them change.
Sandeep [00:22:43] So here's the design opportunity how might we design a thriving restaurant industry that has equity at its center?
Sandeep [00:22:51] If this gets your wheels turning and makes you excited to share ideas, thoughts or maybe even better questions. Visit IDEO.com/food and help us keep working to create better food systems for everyone. Thanks for listening. If you learn something and enjoyed this, please send it to a friend and you can really help. By leaving a perfect rating and a review. You know, the algorithms love that. I'm Sandeep Pahuja. This is Food by Design. The show was created by Sarah Codraro and me. Today's episode is produced by Evan Roberts and edited by Julia Scott. Mark Henry Phillips composed our original music. Chris Hoff is our engineer. Special thanks to Allison Kave, Keavy Landreth, Devin Peek, Stacey Fenton, Meija Jacobs, Alex Gallefant, Sarah Rich, and Hannah Lennett.