Watching the Labor: The competing solutions to reform the service industry

By Sam Tarr

December 2019

I ladle some of the pasta water into the browning butter for the last butternut squash mezzaluna I’ll ever make at Rustic Kitchen. I’ve worked with the company for ten and a half years, and in a couple of hours the Derby Street location in Hingham, MA will close for the final time. 

There will be drinks and goodbyes. There will be handshakes and hugs. Later in the week, there will be an auction where everything from tables, chairs, to the intricate lighting fixtures will be up for grabs. Everything must go.

As the sauce and sage infuse with a sizzle in the hot cast iron pan, I get another sentimental twinge about it all. It’s slower today than it has been since the owners formally announced the closure on social media, so there’s been ample time for reflection. My career in the culinary arts, the business as a whole, is something I’ve been thinking a lot about these past months.

When I went back to finish my degree, the only thing that I knew was that I needed to get out of the business. Kitchen work can be brutal. Sixty-hour work weeks, extreme and sometimes hazardous conditions, slips and cuts and burns. It takes a toll. There are those who have the passion needed to look past all drawbacks, but as the industry continues to suffer from a labor shortage, they’re increasingly hard to find.

It seems that the unsustainability of restaurant work is not a contested point these days. As I look to exit the industry while I still have the legs to carry me, I wonder if my timing’s poor. There are signs of hope. While assessing the state of restaurant labor this past semester, I found several different efforts to reform labor standards in restaurant kitchens.

From traditional, grassroots organizing efforts of groups like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, to Department of Labor actions to change tipping rules, to smaller restaurants like Juliet in Somerville tackling the issues head-on, it appears that change is coming. The question is, what form is that change going to come? At the same time, there’s also an effort to gigify kitchen labor with apps like Pared and Instawork

With the gig economy’s promise of increased agency and higher earning potential, I wondered how it would impact the efforts for more comprehensive benefits fought for by more traditional labor organizing groups.

 Unite Here!, the hospitality union focused on hotels and institutional food service workers, won a major victory in 2018 after a record-breaking strike at Marriott hotels across eight cities.

Boston’s Local 26, was at it again as I began this project, this time at the Battery Wharf Hotel in the North End. 

Martin Glynn, a banquet cook with a grey-speckled goatee, stood at attention at the delivery entrance of the hotel. His sign, reading “On Strike @ Battery Wharf, was crumpled at the corners. It wasn’t just any of the signs stacked up for picketers, but his, sign.

He customized it with his own contributions, like a “no scabs” symbol. As a temporary worker squatted down to smoke a cigarette on the other side of the entrance, Glynn angled his sign to face directly towards him.

Jose Piñeda, another striking worker, also manned the delivery entrance post. Some union delivery companies would turn around in solidarity, others would go right through. He said that the hotel was arranging late-night deliveries to avoid picketing workers. 

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1. A member of Unite Here Local 26, the hospitality worker’s union, glares at a new guest valeting her car. On strike for nearly a month, workers from the Battery Wharf Hotel chant and make their presence felt as several vehicles cross the picket line. 2. The Battery Wharf is the sole holdout from Local 26’s campaign to renew all their Boston hotel contracts. The union’s demands include better healthcare options, yearly wage increases, and new language in the contract to address sexual harassment on the job. 3. With a large rally scheduled for Friday, featuring English singer/songwriter and activist @billybraggofficial, the picket line is thin but vocal, doing their best to deter afternoon check-ins. Several cars pull three-point turns as they see the strikers. 4.Martin Glynn, a banquet cook, stands at his post by the delivery entrance. Garbage trucks, produce drivers, and beverage distributors with union contracts will refuse to cross the line. Non-union companies will head right in or return later, sometimes in the middle of the night, Glynn says. Clouds roll in with rain in the forecast all afternoon. “We can handle it. You do what you got to do,” he said. 5. Signs sit out at the entrance alerting cars before they even turn the corner that the hotel is on strike, many head that warning. 6. “The least they could do is treat us nice,” Jose Pineda said as he stood on Commercial Street. “I mean we take care of the guest…We make them look good.” He cited healthcare as his major concern, worried about the prospect of costs multiplying without a new contract. #boston #labor #hotel #hospitality #work #strike @unitehere #northend @batterywharfhotel

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This type of organizing: picket lines, bullhorns, chanting, and marching has been very effective in unionizing Boston’s hotels. Unite Here has successfully organized dozens of hotels in Boston and nearby Providence, Rhode Island. 

Unite Here’s efforts have expanded from hotels and casinos to airport and university foodservice operations but haven’t worked their way into standalone restaurants, leaving the vast majority of the 15 million restaurant workers in the country unrepresented. 

Restaurants pose several challenges for traditional unions. One is a numbers problem, with nine out of ten restaurants employing less than 50 people, according to National Restaurant Data. With thousands of restaurants in the city alone, the efforts at large operations that employ hundreds of people don’t translate as well to smaller, independently-owned businesses. 

Instead, what you see groups lobbying for improvements in labor standards across the industry. Yamila Ruiz, the National High Road Director for Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE), oversees ROC’s national restaurant employer association. 

“One in ten Americans is currently working in the restaurant industry, and one in two will work in the restaurant industry or has worked in the restaurant industry in their lifetime,” Ruiz said. 

“It’s a huge segment of our population but at the same time on the other end of it continues to be the lowest paying job. You know every year the DOL puts out a report for the lowest paying jobs across all sectors and seven out of ten are typically in the restaurant industry. So, we have a lot of work to do.”

Ruiz represents nearly 800 restaurants that have been assigned “high road” status, meaning they adhere to the ROC’s standards for compensation, conditions, and benefits like health insurance. She describes her process starting from the ground up. Working with both the workers and management and also lobbying for legislation both locally and nationally, Ruiz and ROC look to transform the entire industry. 

“In order for things to really change,” Ruiz said, “specifically around the restaurant industry or ethical eating or anything in food justice, it really takes kind of a holistic approach of not just the workers but the consumers who care about the workers’ rights.”

One issue that RAISE has been working hard on is the tipped minimum wage. 

Most of the troubling aspects of working in the restaurant business, for servers and other front-of-house (FOH) employees, can be solved with an envelope at the end of the night. These last few weeks as Rustic Kitchen has been winding down have been particularly good for the servers and bartenders here. Thankfully so, as many are soon to be unemployed in an hour, just two weeks before the holidays.

The tips on one side and hourly pay on the other can be a source of tension between the FOH and kitchen staff. One of the great faux pas, from a cook’s perspective, is when a server or busser counts their tips on the expo line in front of the cooks. I’ve watched several times as someone started stacking up bills on the stainless steel counter as a red-faced, sweaty, exhausted line cook looked on with contempt.

For the most part, though, many see it as just the way it is.

Most will dismiss the racist history of tipping, how it was implemented during reconstruction to allow employers to avoid paying former slaves. The imbalance in salaries between FOH and BOH can be rationalized in all kinds of ways as well. And the only group more pleased with the tipped minimum wage, and the tipping system overall that the ones getting the tips, are the owners, who can pay their employees less than half the on-the-books minimum wage.                          

In most states, restaurant owners are allowed to take a tip credit, the maximum being $5.12 per hour. This means that as long as servers earn $7.25 per hour, combining tips and wages, restaurants can pay their servers just $2.13 an hour.

The One Fair Wage (OFW) has been working to abolish the subminimum wage. There’s been movement on this issue in places like California, but it has been a struggle. A bill that would guarantee a standardized minimum wage to tipped employees in Washington D.C. was overturned by the D.C. council months after it passed as a ballot measure in 2017.

Servers and bartenders who make nearly all their salary from tips have been reluctant to take the increase in the minimum wage, fearing it will hurt them, overall, by reducing their tips. That fear, the fact that owners of all kinds of restaurant depend on the tipping system as is to subsidize their FOH labor, means any comprehensive national shift in policy will be a heavy lift.

The Trump administration’s Department of Labor is actually proposing to relax regulations that restrict how management divides up tips. Now, only those who perform tip-earning work, like bussers, runners, servers, bartenders, can collect tips and therefore paid the subminimum wage.

This proposal is seen in a much more favorable light by owners, especially of larger restaurant groups and chains. Steve Clark, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association said  the “regulation does provide some clarity to restaurant owners and employees.”

Angelo Amador, executive director of the Restaurant Law Center, called the proposal a “victory.” The Restaurant Law Center is a legal apparatus of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), a powerful lobbying group, which has spent millions on lobbying and campaign contributions since 2016, 80% of which goes to Republican Super PACs and candidates.

In the first two weeks since the public comments on have been open, 38 of the 47 comments opposed the plan. These commenters used terms like “wage theft,” “grotesque,” and “absurd.” One comment simply said, “quit shafting workers.”

In Boston, there’s a growing trend starting in several smaller, independently-owned restaurants, looking to tackle the problem of industry misery on their own.

Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain, and Sweets Cheeks on Boylston Street, and Veggie Galaxy in Cambridge have all instituted some form of dining fee that gets distributed to the back of the house. The Table, a fine dining restaurant in Cambridge, has done away with tipping altogether.

Juliet, “home of Somerville’s most unique dining experience,” is a small cafe that celebrates its mission to create a positive environment that rejects industry cliches. 

Years ago, when our team at the Rustic Kitchen was still shattering the yearly Mother’s Day sales record, I could have never imagined a scene like this one tonight. The empty shelves, the echo in the walk-in refrigerator, the cobbling together of the last limited menu.

Back then, chaos and success were one in the same. As the number on the end-of-day sales report climbed so did the violent rhetoric, the slamming pans, the FOH/BOH hostility, the varying degrees of inappropriate discourse. All in the moment, to be forgotten about later over a cold beer.  

I thought about those good, bad ol’ days as I sat in Juliet, one of two diners on a Thursday lunch.

It was slow, but as I spied in the open kitchen, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I could imagine that team ever devolving to knife-brandishing or cruel mockery. Maybe it was the way the sun bounced off the fresh snow, shining through the spotless windows. But they looked…happy.

Then it came time to settle up for my coffee, brussel sprout salad, and breakfast tacos. The server informed me that they were a gratuity free establishment and that there’d be nothing to sign. She said it with a smile. I couldn’t imagine any server that I’ve worked with being happy with such an arrangement.

Juliet offers a profit-sharing program and pays a living wage to all its staff, both front and back of the house as part of their philosophy to build “good jobs in a supportive and career-oriented workplace.” 

Owners Chef Josh Lewin and Katrina Jazayeri have maintained this uniquely progressive approach and are bringing it to their new venture, Peregrine at the Whitney Hotel on Beacon Hill. 

It’s a fascinating model, and only time will tell if it will be anything more than a niche endeavor to advertise on your mission to create a just compensation system against all industry standards. There are only so many Juliets out there, not nearly enough to cover the 15 million restaurant workers out there. Which brings me to the other agent of change in the business.

Earlier in the day, while sorting out the sad remains of the walk-in, I took a break to look for some jobs online. Every day, job sites keep a rolling list of the new ads for kitchen help, some that are seemingly never taken down. A text message comes through, with an engaging pitch.

“Do you want to make $250 today.” The proposal felt indecent. I deleted it. While researching I stumbled on these new apps like Pared and Instawork and signed up for the latter. Every day there’s new postings for everything from server to line cook to dishwasher. One post was offering $20 an hour to wash dishes in East Boston, a tidy sum, well above the national average of $8.20. 

Like it seems with most gig-economy platforms, the money is the big sell. Pared says that their workers make an average of “19.66 per hour at an annualized income of $40,890.”

Dave Lu, Co-founder and President of Pared, In a Medium post, asked: “If technology had transformed the age-old taxi and transportation industry with Uber and Lyft, why can’t technology change the way the restaurant industry works?”

Pared discusses industry issues like burnout, mental health, and the overall quality of life in blog posts positioning the company as a solution for these long-standing drawbacks of kitchen life. The company operates in San Francisco and New York, but is gradually expanding to Boston, Philadelphia, and beyond.

The hourly figure looks enticing, but critics are quick to point out the lack of job security, health care, overtime pay, and other benefits of having traditional employment. I couldn’t imagine dropping into an unfamiliar line on short notice, executing dishes for a menu I’ve never seen, with cooks I’ve never met. My initial response was skepticism if not dismissal. 

But then again, every day in the city I pass by the line of parked Taxi cabs out in front of South Station while passengers load into Uber and Lyft ride-sharers all around. 

The timing of closing a restaurant is never good, but with the Christmas music on Derby Street, it’s particularly bad right this moment. Most industry pros aren’t given the benefit of advanced notice. Friendly’s workers showed up to locked doors when the company shuttered 23 stores earlier this year.

For those like myself, the event is a somber occasion. After I’m done shutting the line down for the last time, there will be drinks and we’ll tell some old stories, and maybe one or two final ones. 

As I walk away from the company that has been a part of my life for the last decade, and I finish up the journalism program I started nearly three years ago, I think about my next move.

The nature of restaurant work is about to change. But which method will gain a foothold in the effort to bring talent back into the business? I wonder if I’m going to be just another one of the many who won’t be sticking around to find out.

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