Is The Public Ready For A Transparent Restaurant Industry?

| December 11, 2006 | 20 Comments
  • 20 Comments

When we go out to eat in restaurants we are all looking for something similar. Although we think it is for good food, we go back when the service is exceptional. We are looking, as Danny Meyer would say, for an emotional experience. We are eating out to be a part of something.

As a professional cook I would like to believe diners sit in the dining room of where I work because they want to eat my food. The food I help create, prepare, conjure and plate. When I go out to eat I am looking to be inspired by other chef’s visions. I’m always on the lookout for delicious food, and like a Chowhound, I will look harder for it than the average person who may only follow what one or another restaurant critic likes or doesn’t, or what the latest trend-setters say is fabulous. Of course I like to know what’s new, I want to see who’s cooking for whom and where they last worked.

In an era where chefs are becoming superstars, having TV shows and naming brands of supermarket sauces, a brighter light is being pointed at the restaurant industry. What the public expects from my field has changed, especially in California, birthplace of Chez Panisse and the local-sustainable-Organic food movement. Supposedly in California we like to know where our food comes from, who grows it and how. We do this research by shopping at farmers’ markets, talking to the chefs who shop there and “voting with our dollars.”

When I eat at a restaurant because I know the owner, chef, pastry chef or cook, I say I am “supporting” said establishment. When the restaurant industry in San Francisco was hit by two consecutive blows, September 11th and the dot com bust, it became important to be aware, without the intentional support of “regulars,” our favorite places would close. Many restaurants did close at the start of 2002, and just as many menus changed to reflect the devastated economy. Cook and chef jobs became scarce and few people migrated the way cooks tend to do.

At the end of 2002, a chef I knew scanned the horizon, commenting on the lack of those restaurants he felt should not have opened in the first place. Ones seeming merely to exist as a place for young millionaires to spend money. He and I talked about how opening a restaurant without understanding all its hidden costs and responsibilities was a crime. It seems amazing that very few restaurateurs understand accounting math or have any grasp on State, Local and Federal labor laws.

Just knowing how to cook is not enough. Opening an eating establishment is only in part about the food you serve, how you plate it and the names embroidered on chef’s coats. In all fairness, if a person is going to take an interest in where their food is from, how it’s grown and who grows it, one must also be able to see beyond the smoke and mirrors of cheffing and take an interest in who is really prepping and cooking their food, night after night, week after 6/7 day week.

Can a person who gives $1 every day to the homeless person say they’re doing enough? Giving to charity? Voting with their dollar?

Is a restaurant worth its conscionable weight if it never has enough capitol/care/time to offer its employees health insurance? Do you ask the waiter if the chicken is free-range if you don’t care whether he/she’s making a living wage? Can you say you believe in immigrant’s rights if you eat in a restaurant that hires undocumented workers because they’re cheaper and won’t complain about low wages/lack of healthcare/unbearable working conditions/boring, repetitive tasks/long hours without overtime? Can you preach the Organic values of a restaurant whose kitchen is 25% unpaid “volunteer” workers?

How transparent do you want the place you go for a nice warm meal to be?

I’m not sure it’s the diner’s responsibility to take on how a restaurant chooses to run itself, or treat its employees, except of course when an eatery puts diners at risk because of unsafe food handling. But these are important questions for the person who does feel a responsibility to their food growers, handlers and preparers– owners or not.

When I heard about the horrible accident involving 3 of Bar Crudo’s staff and a taxi driver I was deeply saddened. I have worked in restaurants where deaths and horrific accidents have taken place. When I hear the news it never escapes me, the funeral I am attending could be my own. On September 11th I lost friend and colleague Heather Ho. Both my parents cried, knowing down to their core that she could have been me.

But I cannot say that my sadness is not also mixed with anger. How could a restaurant conscionably hire a chef and not offer her/him health insurance? In such a dangerous industry, how can we continue to overlook such an important issue?

I know the answer; because I can count on one hand how many restaurants in my 14-year career have done so. Have seen it’s importance and necessity. Have made their employee’s health a priority. Even when I have barely been able to make rent, I have paid for my own health insurance.

Much discussion has been had about transparency as it has to do with food businesses. Michael Pollan’s back and forth letters to Whole Foods can be found by clicking here. An article about how the Golden Gate Restaurant Association is suing SF over the proposed restaurant worker health care mandate. Kim Severson wrote of NYC’s restaurant trans fat ban in the NY Times.

In an era where eating, paying for food, and making intentional choices about what food we eat and why, has become politicized, it becomes ever important to weigh in the answers on all the backs of those who carry a portion of the burden– helping to create your warm meal, your emotional experience at restaurants and eateries.

My grief is not a cry for war, but it is a cry for action.

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink

About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • mingerspice

    I didn’t realize that the chefs at Bar Crudo didn’t have health insurance. That is pretty awful.

    I’m not sure if anyone is ever ready for an unpleasant truth. That’s sort of their nature.

  • Amy Sherman

    It always disturbs me to see restaurant owners driving luxury cars but complaining they can’t afford health insurance for their employees. Thank you for reminding us all that people matter,more than profit, even more than food. Sometimes it seems we forget that.

  • Michael Procopio

    Well stated, Shuna! Having worked in the restaurant industry for the past 16 years, I can only count on two fingers the number of places I’ve been employed that offered any sort of health insurance assistance. One is the place I work now. The other, sadly, went under trying to live up to it’s own standards of providing first quality ingredients and first rate benefits for it’s workers. Sadly, it seems nearly impossible for a small-scale restaurant to manage both.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this important, unsetlling, and terrific post.

  • kung foodie

    Wow, this is really surprising considering how many restaurant associations there are. Typically an association works on the behalf of it’s members to negotiate deals on insurance. Even if the company could only afford to pay a small percentage of the cost per employee at least a more affordable insurance package would be available for the staff who are interested.

    I guess in some ways I shouldn’t be surprised. I spent many years working front of house for catering companies who are great at keeping your hours just under full-time so they’re not obligated to offer you benefits. I never imagined that regular kitchen staff also struggled with this.

  • Shauna

    This is so important, Shuna. When I met my Chef, I was saddened to find that he did not have health insurance, nor has he in twelve years. (Now, he does, because I insisted, and we simply make it part of our budget together. His relief is palpable.)

    It seems to me that as we make great food more and more of a commodity, a theatrical experience, and a competition, we are losing sight of the reason we eat.

    Great food is about connection. And if you care about where your food is grown, you should also care about the people who make it for you.

  • Anonymous

    Insurance for restaurant staff? Unheard of (nearly) outside the hotel industry!

    Honestly, when you are working back of the house positions with all the cuts, burns, smoke, back-breaking lifting, shrimp tails under the fingernails, fingers shredded from debearding mussels, bruised tailbones from slipping on wet, greasy, tile floors and the incredible pressure and stress to do everything, “faster! Faster!! FASTER!!!” ten or twelve hours each day you aren’t thinking, “I could really use some health insurance.” You are thinking, “My back hurts. Where did that new cut come from? Crap, that shrimp tail under my fingernail is getting infected. I’ve been standing, stooping, lifting, chopping and peeling for the last eight hours and I could really use a ten minute smoke break.”

    I don’t know how it is allowed, but non-chain restaurants don’t seem to be bound by the same rules about ten minute breaks and lunch breaks as the rest of the working world. Sometimes they even look down their noses at you for taking two minutes to go to the bathroom. They may as well say, “You are not human, you are a cook. You are the same as the pots and pans. You are not even worth as much as the Hobart mixer. Breaks? Insurance? HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

  • shelly

    A powerful post. I always try to tip really well wherever I eat no matter what the service is like, because I have friends who waited tables and I know from them that it’s very hard work that isn’t paid well. But often, I admit, it’s hard to remember all those people in the kitchen who work so hard preparing your meal and who may not be treated properly as employees.

    As a customer, I think it’s often difficult to really know what goes on behind the scenes. Is there an organization that surveys the labor practices of local restaurants? Chocolate labeled “Fair Trade” informs consumers that the bar they’re buying was produced without slavery or child labor. Can a watchdog organization start labeling restaurants similarly? I’d gladly choose a “Fair Employment” restaurant over an eating establishment that won’t pay for employees’ healthcare.

  • Anonymous

    Hear hear! This is truly an excellent post that calls attention to a prevailing problem in the industry. On the flip side, we can’t ignore the plight of smaller, mom&pop or hole-in-the-wall restaurants. While an upscale eatery like Bar Crudo *may* be able to afford health insurance for it’s employees with some cutbacks in other areas, what about your average Chinatown establishment with its cheap eats and paper-thin profit margins? Until we as consumers are willing/able to pay more for our food and expect more of our dining establishments, few will be able to implement drastic, across-the-board policy changes regarding health insurance.

    There are no quick or easy solutions to this problem. We can pay the same, but expect restaurants to increase their costs. Some will fold. We can pay more to cover the expense of health care and eat out less. More restaurants will fold. We can deplore the lack of health care in the restaurant industry, but coming up with an effective solution that doesn’t economically cripple small business will be far more difficult.

    What this situation really highlights is the need to a universal, entry level of government sponsored health care in this country.

    - Chubbypanda

  • Tea

    An important post, Shuna. Thank you for asking the hard questions.

    The more I learn about how restaurants operate, the more astounded I am that we have so many; we take them–and the people that make them run–for granted.

  • Catherine

    Shuna, you make a very important point.

    Being a Brit, I think health care should be free, paid for by our society through taxes as an essential “right” of all citizens (and residents). Alas, the result (in the UK at least) is long waiting lists for operations, minimal/poor care, etc. People don’t go bankrupt because they have health problems, but they don’t sue for incompetance either.

    People eat at restaurants, of course, because they want to eat wonderfully prepared food that they couldn’t prepare themselves, but also because they want to indulge themselves in a treat. Celebrate this or that special occasion, impress a client, or catch up with a friend. They’re seeking smoke and mirrors, not thinking of the poor underpaid worker with no health care prepping their food. If people were forced to think of the unfair treatment of food preparers when they’re treating themselves to a nice meal, it wouldn’t be nearly as reinforcing an experience.

    Your point is ultimately a societal/political question: where does an individual’s responsibility end? With themselves, their family, their immediate community, their county, state, country, world? beyond?

    Should the overpaid help the underpaid? Do movie stars deserve to make more than teachers? What does that say about societal values?

    Food and eating is such a communal topic and a good place to address larger equity issues in our society.

    Thanks for opening the discussion and bringing a difficult topic into the light.

  • Anonymous

    so, who pays for the added expense of health insurance? The diner? Will people be willing to pay $15 for a salad and $30 for an entree at their “neighborhood” restaurant?

  • the pauper

    You bring up a good point and it’s great that you want to vote with your dollars. It reminds me of people who vote for Nader during the elections. Mmm… statement votes! And we end up with dead American soldiers in Iraq. Yum-o!

    Wow, too snappy there. Anyway, the problem with the problem is that there’s a high layer of abstraction. Look, kids who want Air Jordans didn’t care where Nike made them or how they made them. And millions of women in the U.S. could care less were DeBeers got their diamonds as long as it is shiny.

    If you want to take this all the way, which it sounds like you do, why don’t you make sure you stop shopping at any place that gets ANYTHING from China since they have a despicable human rights record. That means if your local organic farmer bought one thing from China, then he’s supporting the killing of democracy and you supporting him (by the associative property I learned in 6th grade) means that you are supporting horrible human rights!!!

    OMG!!!! Holy cow!!!! Stop it man. Just stop it ok? if you’re not prepared to go all the way, then what are you really saying? “I want to do enough so I feel good about my own life?”

    That would be pretentious and silly, but by the tone and topic of your post, you seem to strive to be anything but… so why the hypocrisy?

  • mingerspice

    San Francisco may have universal health care next year.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/11/30/BAGJNMMG3L19.DTL

    One of the benefits of universal health care is that the costs are shared by all employers (at least in the scheme set up in SF), so nobody gets a competitive advantage by letting their employees go without.

    Oh, and I think the pauper needs to revisit 6th grade classroom memories to recall what s/he learned about the logical fallacy of the slippery slope.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been working as a professional cook for about 8 years now. Currently, I run the kichen of one the the most successful and highly rated restaurants in San Francisco. What really bothers me about many of the above posts is that people seem to assume that restaurant owners are making a profit at the expense of their employees.

    My employers provide a group health plan through Kaiser. The owners of the restaurant pay for HALF of everyone’s premium. VERY generous, and as generous as many health benefits offered at “white collar” jobs. I think forcing businesses in San Francisco to pay 100% for everyone’s health insurance is a foolhardy proposition, and one that is borne out of the HAVES trying to assuage their guilty consciences about the service industry, which is mostly employed by the HAVE NOTS.

    We provide jobs for about 60 people, and all make more than minimum wage. When someone is injured on the job we send them to the hospital because we pay workman’s compensation insurance. When someone needs to miss work because of health reasons, we make sure they receive disability payments. We take care of our employees because we care about them on a human level, not because we feel pressure to do so from our customers, overly PC San Francisco morals, or anyone else.

    Restaurants are a business, and well, they are run like a business. Making a profit is part of a business, and is especially difficult in the restaurant industry. Making a profit is how you expand, grow, innovate, inspire and improve your community. By forcing restaurants in San Francisco to pay for health insurance, choices will be made to cut costs other ways: cutting staff, cutting hours, buying lesser-quality ingredients, raising menu prices. Those are some of the short-term impacts. What happens when it gets too expensive for an independently owned business to survive? Will Starbucks replace Ritual and Bluebottle coffee? If I want a burrito will I have to go to Chevy’s? Would people object if a Boudin Bakery replaced Tartine? But then again, the deep-pocket corporations are probably far too savvy to set up shop in a city where all their profits go to “taking care” of their employees. In ten years, there may not be ANY restaurants left in the city.

    I worked my ass off to get where I am, and the bottom line is I am going to continue to do so because I believe in putting out the best food I can possibly cook & eat. I want to continue to use the best and freshest ingredients. I want to be able to make new dishes and have customers return time and time again for a unique and soulful experience. Eventually, I want to own my own restaurant. Would I do it in San Francisco? That’s questionable.

  • the pauper

    mingerspice

    wait hold one.

    *flame on*

    The whole point of the original post seems to be that health care is a good thing and more restaurants should have it. Now the thing that keeps restaurants from doing this overnight is the cost. If they do it, they have to pass on the cost somehow (either to their own bottomline or to the customers). Sure, some restaurants make so much money that they can swallow the cost at the expense of a new yacht or something, but we can all assume that not every restaurant has that option.

    So we all agree that health care is wonderful, but then we have to ask… why are we even raising this question? Does it make us feel better about ourselves? Is it just more humane if everyone had healthcare? Of course you get no where if you jump down a slippery slope, but the point is that why do we choose what we want to care about? You just need to feel good about the contributions you’re making to the world.

    Look, if you want to live a life full of purpose, that’s fine and great. If you want to eat sour grapes and tell me to go back to school when all I’m doing is explaining your motives? Well hey, get a doctor and remove that protruding stick that’s bothering you so much.

    *flame off*

  • Wage to Live

    I work with this new organization, Wage to Live (http://www.wagetolive.org/) that aims to raise wages of restaurant workers through conscientious consumption. We’re starting in NY, but we are dealing with these same issues. You should join the mailing list to hear how we’re coming along: http://www.wagetolive.org/get-involved.html. It’s so great to see people talking about this. ~Belkys

  • Anonymous

    “But I cannot say that my sadness is not also mixed with anger. How could a restaurant conscionably hire a chef and not offer her/him health insurance?”

    Most restaurant owners are not bad people. They would like to offer health insurance to their employees if they could afford to.

    Look at Bar Crudo. The 40-yer-old twin brothers are not able to afford to insure themselves, let alone their employees. The chef you spoke of in the lines I quoted above was not hired. He is one of the owners. He had his jaw broken in the accident and now has it wired shut. He’s incredibly lucky that the restaurant community came out in force to support him (and his employees and the surviving family member of the waiter who was killed in the accident).

    I feel that the restaurant owners are being demonized here in your post and in some of the comments (such as Amy Sherman’s “it always disturbs me to see restaurant owners driving luxury cars.” If a restaurant owner could afford to drive a luxury car, it is most likely not because of their restaurant, but despite the restaurant. In other words, they were already wealthy. The average profit margin of a restaurant in SF is under 3%).

    Danny Meyer, who you mentioned above, offers his employees benefits. But bear these 2 bits of info in mind. He pays his waiters $4.35/hr, about half of what SF voters (who are also diners) require restaurant owners to pay waiters in SF (going up to $9+ next year). And his entree prices average just under $30.

    On the one hand, my point is that if diners care about restaurant workers, they need to be willing to pay more for their food. They need to support those restaurants who are paying their employees fairly and offering benefits. In a free market system, restauranteurs who choose to take care of their employees by raising their prices are punished because customers claim that their prices are too high. So they go elsewhere.

    I also firmly believe that restaurants should not be required to pay tipped employees minimum wage (esp. the higher min. wage in SF). Waiters make far more than cooks. Very often, full-time waiters make more money than the restaurant owner! Legally, restaurant owners cannot share their tips with the back of the house (although a few restaurants do illegally with great risk).

    Unfortunately, there is almost no chance that the laws will be changed. Therefore, the only legal way around these tip-related laws is to add a fixed “service charge” (such as the 18% that Chez Panisse and Coi add to their checks — and most restaurants add for large parties). Restaurant owners are allowed to then allocate those funds more equitably so that a portion can be shared with the cooks and dishwashers. And those funds can be used to help cover the cost of health insurance benefits.

    Again, though, diners cry that service will not be as good. And they go elsewhere. And waiters cry that they can make more at another restaurant where they get to keep all the tips.

    It is a huge risk in this competetive market for a restaurant owner to charge higher prices and tack on a service charge so that they can take care of their employees. Those restaurants that are willing to take that risk should be supported, just as you support those farmers who farm organically. They are very brave.

    It would lower the competetive risks if all restaurants were required to pay the same benefits. Then prices will have to rise across the board. Unfortunately, that legislation (referenced by mingerspice above) probably won’t pass. Better still would be universal health care for all paid for by the state. But that’s a whole other topic.

    Thanks for raising this important topic, Shuna.

  • Katherine Graham Cracker

    Some members of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association have refused service to members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors over health care issue. Imagine you’ve come in and are sitting at the bar and with no explanation the owner comes flying out and says you are not welcome here please leave. The supervisor had no idea what had happened. A similar event took place at another restaurant with a different supervisor same kind of issue. At first both thought it might be an anti gay issue but no it’s just antiworker

  • shuna fish lydon

    Hello commenters,

    Thank you for continuing a lively discussion.

    I think it’s impossible to talk about heated topics without getting hot. But I tried hard, while writing the above words, to insert myself into the overall picture. These are incredibly complicated issues, a ball of knotted yarn with seemingly no visible end or beginning.

    I’m not saying “I know the answers.” I’m attempting to bring to light some of the factors a person not working in a professional kitchen would know about.

    I had to make an answer for myself when I figured out, (or finally listened to my mother), my industry was not going to care for me– I choose to have and pay for health insurance no matter what. Because my field is dangerous, and my body is worn out from doing it for so long. (I pay over $200 per mos.)

    Here here for a discussion, a debate, without answers and demonizing those who do not agree with us. I never said restaurant owners who do not give their employees health insurance are bad people. I asked whether the public was ready for seeing all of the truth, not just the “truth” that makes them most comfortable.

    I continue to work for individually owned restaurants because I do not, even with all the lovely benefits, see myself in a corporate food service environment. I’ve worked in a factory before, it’s not for me, if I can help it.

    The unfortunate truth is that people have to die on the page of a newspaper before we become aware that there are problems in a system.

    And I work in the system I’m critiquing.