Four days into the new year, the U.S Department of Labor reported that a record number of Americans had quit their jobs—again. Restaurants and bars lost the most employees; close to 7 percent of industry workers quit or changed jobs in November, according to the most recent data available.
It’s not hard to see why. Restaurant work has always been tough, but the pandemic has made it worse. It can be grueling and thankless work on a good day; abusive and exploitative at its worst. For years, we’ve heard story after story of toxic and abusive behavior in the industry. Chefs and restaurateurs once celebrated have left the industry in disgrace. During two years of COVID, restaurant workers have dealt with layoffs, furloughs, lost wages, unpredictable schedules, and evolving safety rules and regulations. They’ve often borne the brunt of people’s collective anger over masking and vaccination mandates. And they’ve put their own well-being on the line in service of serving others.
It may have taken a devastating global pandemic to expose some of the absolute worst aspects of the job, but industry experts say there are plenty of longstanding problems that simmered below the surface, leading to today’s so-called hiring crisis. And we all—industry workers and diners alike—have played a part in holding up a system that’s simply not working for many of the people working within it. The future of restaurants might depend on rethinking the work that’s done inside of them.
“Think about the attitude and the philosophy that the customer is always right,” said Corey Mintz, a former restaurant cook and author of the recent book, The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them and What Comes After. “What that means for you, what that means for the restaurant, the workers, other diners, how it compromises everybody else, and how reconsidering that can change the dining experience.”
Mintz says some of the biggest problems come from the cultural and economic divide between front-of-house and back-of-house. That is, between guest-facing employees like hosts, servers, and bartenders and those who work in the back: chefs, line cooks, dishwashers. Front-of-house positions often earn most of their compensation through tips, while those in back are more likely to be paid a set hourly wage. Tipped employees can make significantly more money than their non-tipped colleagues, or certain tipped employees can out-earn other tipped employees. This can lead to stress, resentment, and the kind of workplace hierarchies that can quickly turn toxic.
It’s not just the cash. Tipping critics say the behavior promotes racist, classist, and sexist behavior and perpetuates abuse. “I can't really think of other fields where workers are so subjected to danger from clientele,” Mintz added.
At its heart, the challenge of reimagining working in restaurants is dependent on how diners value the food, service, and experience, and how they value the people who provide these things. In a small bit of good news, Mintz also said the pandemic has caused plenty of people to examine their relationships with local restaurants. Diners are more interested in understanding how restaurants work, where their money goes, and how their business helps. With so much attention on the industry, now could be a time for the sort of big change that’s necessary to move the industry forward.
And—more good news!—plenty of people are working to reimagine the future of restaurant work, changing it into something healthy, sustainable, and fair. Here are a few of their strategies.
Stop making restaurants the exception to all the rules.
It’s easy to understand how restaurants somehow became the exception to most employment norms: The hours are outside of the traditional workday; the industry attracts younger workers on their way to a different career; the pay structure is completely different from most other industries. But it’s time to stop making excuses, said Eric Rivera, chef and owner of Addo, an acclaimed Seattle restaurant that closed in December. Rivera is an outspoken industry critic, consistently vocal about ways it needs to change.
“I basically tell everybody I run a real business, I don't run a restaurant. Because I want people to understand that the idea of restaurant concept is still very exploitative of people,” Rivera said. “It’s a good talking point for a lot of the people who are in it to just say, ‘well, that's just the industry,’ without really trying to make a difference or change anything.”
That reasoning doesn’t cut it with Rivera. In fact, that sentiment—that the restaurant industry simply is what it is—doesn’t cut it with most restaurant owners and operators who have made big and employee-friendly changes to their business models. (More about that in a minute.) Restaurants choose to perpetuate inequality or unhealthy working conditions for employees when they don’t actively work against it. In turn, this disenfranchises workers who leave the industry.
“We have a generation now of people who have seen the worst things happen in restaurants,” Rivera said. He thinks it will take a long time for the industry to recover, perhaps another full generation.
“That’s a big loss,” he said.
Eliminate the disparities.
Cassava, a small restaurant in San Francisco, opened in 2012 with a no-pay gap policy between front-of-house and back-of-house workers. Instead, tips are pooled and divided equally amongst staff. Every restaurant employee is responsible for running food and drinks to tables during service. The goal is an equitable restaurant, where employees feel like a team.
Yuka Ioroi and Kris Toliao, the restaurant’s owners, are a husband and wife team who met working in a restaurant. Ioroi worked in the front, Toliao as a chef in the back. At the heart of Cassava’s model is a question, inspired by its owners’ lived experience: Why should the sale of food be valued more than its creation?
“No matter how nice the service is and how righteous the policies are, if the food is not excellent, the business doesn't work,” Ioroi said. “So I've always thought that everybody in the restaurant should get paid equally.”
It’s a laudable position, but not one that will work for every restaurant. Laws—and wages—vary greatly from state to state, so some restaurants may have more trouble than others when trying to implement similar systems. For example, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees in the U.S. is just $2.13 per hour. It hasn’t changed since 1991.
Cassava benefits from its location; favorable laws in California and San Francisco dictate a higher minimum wage for all employees and benefits like health care and sick leave, requirements that Ioroi admits help her to run an equitable business. “Because we have it as a framework, we don’t question it, we try to build businesses around it. It’s hard, but we’re not exploiting anybody,” she said. “Everyone should have this.”
Offer expanded benefits.
Clearly, the hospitality industry can be inhospitable to plenty of workers, something that Elizabeth Tilton, founder and CEO of Oyster Sunday, hopes to change. Her company acts as a back office of sorts for independent restaurants, helping with branding, marketing, operations, and, critically, employee benefits.
“As an employer, you have three things to offer, time, compensation, and respect to your employees,” Tilton said. “And respect, to me, encompasses continuing education, professional development, benefits, health care, all of that.”
Tilton suggests restaurant employers double down on respect: being transparent with staff about finances, explaining where certain products are sourced and why they’re chosen, why they cost what they do and how that translates to what’s actually on the menu. This honestly attracts staff looking for stability, offering opportunities to people who can’t—or just don’t want to—work under an outdated and opaque system.
Support alternate models.
A small but growing number of worker-owned cooperative restaurants have popped up in recent years. Some, like Joe Squared in Baltimore and Proof Bakery in Los Angeles made the change during the pandemic. In the co-op model, employees split ownership of the business and share decision-making responsibilities. Profits are shared among employees instead of going to institutional investors or a parent company hungry for large returns.
Restaurants are also turning to crowdfunding to get off the ground. New platforms have emerged as a sort of “grown up” Kickstarter that allow average neighborhood customers to fund a restaurant’s growth. It’s not a donation—restaurants are expected to return the investment. But it alleviates some of the pressure to put up big numbers, especially in the early days of operation.
It’s all in service of creating the type of business that can focus on great hospitality and great food, which is what we all love about restaurants in the first place.
The hard work of leading the restaurant industry into a more sustainable future is important, not only for future employees, but for the future of the restaurant business itself. The National Restaurant Association, the U.S.-based trade organization, estimates that over 90,000 restaurants and bars have closed since the start of the pandemic.
The recent surge of the Omicron variant has made things even worse. According to new survey data from the Independent Restaurant Coalition, launched in 2020 to organize independent restaurants during the pandemic, 46% of businesses reported that their operating hours were impacted for more than 10 days in December, and 58% of businesses reported that their sales decreased by more than half in December 2021.
“Independent restaurants are such a vital element in our ecosystem, because if they don't exist, that void will be filled by big box, high-funded restaurants,” Tilton said.
That’s the same threat that keeps people like Eric Rivera pushing for widespread and systemic change.
“There's no national standard. There's no labor unions that are really pushing things out here. There's no organization on that level,” he said. “It's just basically like, well, you know, we need to keep this Cheesecake Factory going. And that seems more important than anything else.”