Tonight at the Carter Library, author goes ‘Behind the Kitchen Door’

Saru Jayaraman says a sustainable restaurant must be sustainable for its workers
Saru Jayaraman

Here’s a number to consider: Ten million people work in the United States restaurant industry. That’s one in ten of us. Now, more than ever, Americans are dining out, usually without knowing tipped workers earn a minimum wage of only $2.13 per hour in most states, including Georgia. Author and activist Saru Jayaraman wants diners to know the real cost of such low wages.

Tonight at the Carter Presidential Library, Jayaraman discusses her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, an exploration into the labor practices of America’s restaurant industry. Following workers throughout major US cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and others, Jayaraman uncovers reports of poor working conditions, barely livable wages, sick employees handling food, and high claims of harassment along the way.

Jayaraman, who co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and directs UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center, is committed to showing the relationship between the quality of food that arrives on the table with not just ingredients on our plates, but the people, seen and unseen who help get it there.

Your history of organizing goes back a ways. What has rallying people on this subject been like for you? This is has been the most incredible experience of my life, getting to know the stories of thousands of restaurant workers around the country. This is probably one of the most critical issues in our economy right now. The restaurant industry is one of the two largest industries in the country and employs the most workers, and basically lobbies to set the minimum wage for all workers, not just those in restaurants.

Behind the Kitchen Door

The federal minimum wage has stayed at $2.13 for two decades now. Are we just locked in the trappings of tradition? I was asked by a German newspaper why Americans tolerate such low-wage jobs, and I think it’s because the restaurant industry, the National Restaurant Association has set the standard. Everybody accepts as the norm that it’s such a low paying industry. They’ve perpetuated this myth that they have to pay people so little to survive, which is so completely false and untrue.

Do you find that as a result of your work, people are starting to inquire about labor practices the way they ask if the cow was grass-fed? I’ve definitely seen that. One huge example is the diners guide app that we’ve put out over the last couple of years, which Mark Bittman wrote about in the New York Times. A lot of it is lack of information and education, and also lack of understanding about how these issues impact our health and well-being. There are tremendous public health risks when people are too poor or too sick to take care of themselves, and are forced to come to work [and handle our food] anyway.

In the book, you talk about how racial segregation in the restaurant is evident, but still surprised you, even as a person of color. In addition to wages, we’ve also normalized racial segregation in the restaurant space. We don’t even notice when we eat out or have a fancy meal that the server is generally white, and the further back you go, the darker workers’ skin color gets. I consider myself someone very attuned to racial justice issues, but didn’t think about it until I saw the data. There’s a $4 per hour wage gap between white workers and workers of color.

Do you get any resistance from restaurant workers on organizing around better wages and working conditions in their jobs? It’s a challenge to organize workers regardless of what demographic they come from, but we have to fight to make these jobs better because this industry impacts the whole economy. I sometimes get into arguments with waiters who make a lot of tips in big cities because even they don’t know the majority of tipped, minimum-wage workers are not fancy fine-dining servers. Seventy percent are women working at Applebee’s, IHOP, and Olive Garden. They’re working graveyard shifts and not making enough to make ends meet. The median wage for servers is $8.81 including tips. That’s only about 30 cents more than dishwashers. Across the country, workers in this industry are living in poverty.

Some chefs don’t see how it’s feasible to run a restaurant where they can significantly increase low wages. How do you address claims that a new business model is unsustainable? Many restaurant owners come from the industry and they’re trained in a particular way, or they come with no management experience whatsoever. So they run the business the same way as they’re doing it next door. Those who are doing it see less turnover, better productivity, better profitability. When people started asking about local and organic produce, the chefs said the same thing: it’s too expensive, it’ll never work, we won’t survive. But somehow they made it a priority and it’s the hottest trend in the industry right now. There’s no inherent reason for restaurants to operate the way they do. Consumers have a big role in making this a priority.

Saru Jayaraman, Behind the Kitchen Door reading and book signing, tonight at 7 p.m., Carter Presidential Library. This event is free and open to the public.