The Woman Who’s Changing the Definition of ‘Foodie’

ROC’s Saru Jayaraman is doing for ethical eating what Michael Pollan did for slow food.

Michelle Chen

Saru Jayaraman is the author of the new book Behind the Kitchen Door.

As one of the largest low-wage sectors in the country, restaurant work is more than a tough gig — it’s an industrial pressure cooker. Even at the toniest restaurant, the typical server or cook’s shift may be exhausting, thankless, exploitative, unhealthy (many have to work when sick) or even coercive (when the boss threatens to call immigration authorities if they complain about unpaid wages).

ROC has gained media attention by targeting high-profile establishments with their workplace justice campaigns; they recently waged a successful workplace justice campaign against celebrity chef Mario Batali's Italian restaurant Del Posto.

The restaurant industry rests on a base wage that starves workers. Unlike other workplaces, restaurants can pay tipped workers such as servers as little as $2.13 an hour on the assumption that they will earn something comparable to the regular federal minimum wage of 7.25 through tips. The system has gender and racial biases built into it, as many women and workers of color are disproportionately relegated to precarious tip work, like server jobs. Poverty wages and limited opportunities for promotion keep them mired in the industry’s lowest tiers. Meanwhile the federal tipped minimum wage has been flat, without even inflation adjustment, for over two decades. 

For over a decade, the Restaurant Opportunities Center has been developing a new recipe for labor mobilization that infuses grassroots worker empowerment with policy advocacy, adds a dash of media-savvy marketing, and — to generate enduring consciousness in a high-turnover industry — stirs in street-level direct action and a global economic justice vision.

In a recent interview with In These Times, ROC’s co-founder Saru Jayaraman (now Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley) reflected on her experience organizing in a sector that has long remained marginal to the American labor movement. Her recently released book, Behind the Kitchen Door, encapsulates ROC’s journey from a hardscrabble worker center in Lower Manhattan to a national network of activists taking on a massively profitable industry.

Jayaraman, who built the organization from the ground up with a group of displaced workers from the Twin Towers after 9/11, starts her outreach small — with the diner who pauses between bites to think about who prepared her meal and how.

Ten years ago, before we started ROC, before 9/11, I ate out a lot and never thought about the people who touched my food,” says Jayaraman. After ten years of meeting literally thousands of workers in this industry, my own dining experience has changed – and we, as an organization, would like to let consumers know that once they get to know the stories and data of what’s happening really behind the kitchen door, it will change their dining experience too.”

Unlike other low-wage sectors, like factory or farm work, restaurant labor is uniquely situated for a consumer-driven reform. Not only is servers’ work in the public spotlight, but customers interact far more with their server even than in other service professions like retail sales. In our increasingly atomized popular culture, the sumptuous meal remains that rare gut experience linking all of us to our primal sensual core. From the dazzle of five-star ambiance to the warm memories of your favorite pancake joint— we cultivate a deep appreciation of our meals, even if we fail to appreciate those who feed us. 

To bridge the consumer and labor components of food activism, ROC has partnered with foodie initiatives such as the Slow Food movement—an international lifestyle campaign centered on naturalistic and globally conscious gastronomy — in an effort to improve the food and agricultural system holistically.

Taking a page from popular books aimed at bringing food wisdom to everyday life, like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, ROC has realized that merging the messages of fair food and good food requires popular mass education on these issues.” To raise consumer awareness, Jayaraman said, we looked at what made people care about organic and local in the first place, and it was books and films that very recently drove millions of people who didn’t know about those issues, either.”

Though not all natural-foods connoisseurs consider the implications of their epicurean choices for farm workers or restaurant staffers, many of the leading voices in the foodie universe have been incorporating a labor analysis into their political commentaries. Food writer Barry Estabrook, for example, brought the plight of Florida’s exploited tomato harvesters to the pages of Gourmet magazine in 2009, exposing middle-class readers to the labor groups trying to raise migrant workers’ wages in a deeply inequitable farm production chain.

For restaurant workers, ROC has gained media attention by targeting high-profile establishments with their workplace justice campaigns; they recently waged a successful workplace justice campaign against celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Italian restaurant Del Posto.

Workers come to ROC with complaints about a wide range of restaurants, from small eateries to elite white-tablecloth restaurant chains. But given ROC’s limited advocacy resources, the group selects its targets carefully. We could choose to go after small mom-and-pop restaurants, or we could choose to go against restaurants who set standards,” she said. So they focus their workplace justice campaigns on larger, influential establishments, to encourage them to set the right standards.”

To that end, ROC partners strategically with what they call high road” restaurants, which are run by responsible employers who make a point out of paying their staff decently and ensuring high standards in their workplaces. This may involve a waltz of compromise and political pressure on brand-conscious high-end restauranteurs, culminating in a public agreement on workplace standards. In a sector that is less than 1 percent unionized, the payoff of winning over a boss in a restaurant where workers are not organized can make a substantial difference.

Meanwhile, ROC aims to make the high road a good value proposition by steering consumers to invest in workplace justice when they eat out. In cities where diners are showing their values through their spending habits — be it ostentatiously sipping biodynamic wines or swilling Pabst Blue Ribbon — ROC is figuring out ways to corner the market for conscious consumerism that elevates labor ethics to the level of food sourcing ethics.

Last year, ROC published (as a mobile app and booklet) a Diner’s Guide, sort of a Zagat’s for labor oriented foodies, identifying restaurants that score high on criteria like offering paid sick days or good promotion opportunities for staff.

Alongside efforts to challenge unscrupulous employers and encourage decent ones to aim higher, ROC is trying to change the industry culture and public perceptions of the workforce. The industry’s profit structure is entwined with the dangerous misconception that restaurant work is by nature precarious and temporary, not to be taken seriously by bosses, consumers or even workers themselves. The industry likes to say these are workers who move on to something else so it doesn’t really matter how they’re treated,” Jayaraman said, but the truth is that restaurant workers move from restaurant to restaurant, but they stay within the industry because a lot of them take great pride in being restaurant workers, and they enjoy the work.”

One of the reasons ROC doesn’t try to do the work of a conventional union — by organizing one shop at a time — is that veteran restaurant workers move from job to job, often because they have no choice. Jayaraman explains that membership in ROC is portable, so retaining members hasn’t been an issue for us, primarily because contrary to what most people understand, people do stay in this industry often for their whole lifetime.”

One of ROC’s most ambitious ventures setting a good example by essentially becoming the industry. The organization has opened two worker-run restaurants, called Colors, in New York City and Detroit, which operate as full-fledged businesses catering to gourmet tastes and embodying the concept that a good place to eat can be a good place to work. 

The bustle in the kitchen at Colors seems far afield from, say, a picket line outside a crooked employer’s bistro. But the labor-led enterprise perfectly complements ROC’s vision of workplace justice: What we’re trying to do in general is create collective prosperity in the restaurant [industry], for workers, employers, and consumers,” Jayaraman said. So in opening Colors, we are working towards building a community-owned restaurant; one that can be shared by workers, employers, and consumers; one that promotes the model of joint investment in an industry that’s better for everybody.”

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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