Does your favorite restaurant take the high road with its workers?
February 7th, 2012
01:30 PM ET
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Would you eat at a restaurant without knowing if the food has gotten a good review? How about basing the night's dining destination on how well its employees are treated?

A new guide has been released rating restaurants not on the quality of their cuisine, but rather on fairness.

"Diners' Guide 2012: A Consumer’s Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants" evaluates establishments nationwide, from fast food to fine dining, ranking them on their labor practices.

“It’s the first national guide of its kind ever released,” says Saru Jayaraman, Executive Director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) which commissioned the endeavor.

“It’s not asking people not to eat anywhere,” says Jayaraman, “It’s just asking people to engage in a conversation every time they eat out. The same way consumers have gotten into a conversation about organic food or [asking] ‘Is this locally sourced?’”

The guide’s ranking system mimics the popular Zagat guide, with symbols representing whether the restaurant has paid sick leave and if workers receive less than $5 in hourly wages.

Food service workers have the dubious distinction of being the lowest paid workers in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum wage for tipped wage earners is $2.13, the same it’s been for the past 20 years.

In the opening pages of the guide, author of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser is quoted as saying, "How the food tastes at a restaurant really doesn’t matter, if the people who work there are being mistreated."

It’s a sentiment echoed throughout the food and beverage service industry.

“Why shouldn’t I receive the same benefits as any other professional in America today?” said Jared Cropps, a former bartender at The Capital Grille, who says he studies his craft outside of work, researching wines and food so he can offer the best pairings.

Like most tipped-wage earners in the service industry he did not receive paid days off, and a sick day or a vacation meant days of not being paid. Now, Cropps is among a group of 26 former Capital Grille employees who have filed a lawsuit against the restaurant’s parent company, the Darden Corporation, alleging racial discrimination, failure to provide equal opportunity and some forms of wage theft.

He says after returning from a scheduled vacation he lost his job, never having been written up. He wasn't alone; in the same week, two other African-American male employees were also let go, they say without a history of infractions.

“Racial and gender discrimination are quite prevalent in the restaurant industry,” says Nikki Lewis, Lead Organizer for ROC in its Washington, D.C. office.

The Darden Corporation, the world's largest full-service restaurant company, which owns The Capital Grille, along with other well-known chain restaurants including: Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse, has been named for a second year in a row to Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.

In response to Darden’s industrial accolades, Jayaraman says “We need to make sure that the company, regardless of what awards and things they want to say about themselves, that there’s dignity and respect on the job, there’s basic unified treatment of the workers, there’s no discrimination on the basis of race or gender; that they’re complying with basic wage and hour laws.”

Rich Jeffers, Director of Media Relations for Darden, says until the lawsuit, the company had no record of the employee’s complaints being filed through their “dispute resolution process” which offers workers the chance to air grievances in a variety of ways.

“By no means do we say we’re perfect,” said Jeffers in an interview with CNN, before the class suit was filed. “We absolutely want to look into if anybody feels they are not being treated fairly.”

A major complaint among restaurant workers is the lack of promotions and advancement opportunities. It's an issue that affects many among the 11 million people who work in the service industry across the country.

“People get pigeonholed, no matter how many years of experience they have,” says Lewis, who continues to work as a bartender and server, while operating the growing D.C. office.

“The big issue is that the livable wage jobs among hourly workers are wait staff and bartending positions in fine-dining restaurants. You can have lots of people of color, you can have people of color managers at a Red Lobster but that’s not who you see working in the most livable wage jobs,” adds Jamarayan.

Since 9/11, when workers from the famed Windows on the World restaurant (which was located in the World Trade Center's North Tower) lost some of their colleagues and their livelihoods, ROC’s mission has been to improve the wages and working conditions of the nation’s low-wage workforce.

The guide is a call to action for both diners and restaurant employees. While restaurant workers, and consumers alike, provide data on the working conditions at eateries, local ROC offices organize demonstrations in hopes of provoking change among the worst offenders. Their actions have even caught the attention of an Emmy-award winning director Robert Bahar who is following ROC-DC’s protest against The Capital Grille.

But what does fairness cost restaurants? Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local Washington D.C. staple, is touted in the guide as a “High-Road Restaurant” because the eatery takes part in roundtable discussions that educate restaurant owners on fair labor practices, while not compromising profitability.

High marks are handed out to outfits small and casual to high-end, like gold medal winners Crema and Craft, fine dining eateries, in New York City, and José Andrés’ multiple restaurants in Washington, D.C. Head of Human Resources, Eduardo Sanabia, of Think Food Group which manages famed Chef Andrés’ restaurants believes employees are the backbone of the business.

“We provide them with a lot training, training for their careers, we’re producing the food industry professionals of tomorrow,” says Sanabia. “We focus on quality and service, the profits will come.”

More on the restaurant service industry

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Filed under: Business and Farming News • Food Politics • Human Rights • News • Restaurants • Service


soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Sam @number1beerblog

    I've always considered the working conditions of employees when choosing which restaurant to eat at, but I've never seen a report about it unless it's exceptional like at Per Se. I will use this guide because I've always wondered about the conditions of employees at a lot of restaurants, even though I've become particular about the places I go to eat, since I can't stomach fast food or chain food anymore.

    February 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  2. Stephen with a "ph"

    20 years ago the minimum wage was $4.25/hr. tipped servers received half at $2.13/hr. Restaurants should be paying half of minimum wage. Cost of living keeps going up but a servers wage stays the same?? Doesn't make sense, anyone can see that. Minimum wage is now at $7.25 an hour and a servers wage should be $3.65 an hour. Why is this so hard??? I'll tell you why and try to stay with here
    1) Most corporations pay their "higher ups" in stock incentives along with their salary therefore their company's stock is their main concern and figuring a way to make the stock rise becomes the ultimate goal. How can we make the stock rise becomes the secret corporate battle cry and coming up with ways to do it inevitable will earn you more stocks from that corporation. Also, rewarding with stock incentives also makes the stock more handsome looking to the American consumer merely interested in investing into a safe Share or stock. Once that consumer has purchased that stock, they also get folded into mix wondering if their investments going to pay off or if they should sell it and move on to the next biggest thing.
    Large Corporations are terrified of such consumer thoughts because it has a direct effect on there own stock and will do whatever they can to keep the public from panicking and selling their stock which inevitably would cause their own stock to tumble.
    Raising minimum wage of a server would affect these stocks. So here we have the consumer and the Corporation lobbying against any such pay raise in fears that their stocks will tumble. Quite the dilemma.
    I work for a restaurant. Same one for 8 years. This restaurant gives me annual reviews on which I can better myself but not one raise.Not even a nickel! Instead they push the burden on you the consumer to makeup for stickscared

    February 9, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • SixDegrees

      20 years ago, recommended restaurant tipping rates were 10% – 12%; now, 18% is commonly added for catering services, and a leaving less than a 20% tip elsewhere is frowned upon. Just sayin'.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:47 am |
      • Lowell

        Six Degrees,
        20 years ago It was 18% , u do realize sir, that was 1990, and late 80's not 1950

        February 9, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  3. IHEG

    In college, I worked for a very large family owned place in Scarborough Maine, and I would come home and work during my vacations, they were short staffed one Easter and pretty much begged me to work, I worked a triple, as in open to close 6 am to 10 pm, I had a good day and had $300 in my pocket after tipping out. As I was leaving, I was called back by the owner who was counting slips, turns out I had been pressing the incorrect Key on the register, there was a new special key simply labeled "E" for this holiday Buffet and as a result, I had undercharged each adult $1.50.... when I tried to tell him that was the key the manager told me to use, and I had been cashing out slips all day and how come no one said a word!? He didn't care, he made me repay him the difference. I worked 16 hours and left there with less than $20....It was an honest mistake, I had worked there for years. That was my last shift there ever.

    And don't think waitstaff ever actually see a paycheck, my highest while working 60 hours a week was .11 yes, ELEVEN CENTS lol.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      So why did you give him the money? It was already in your pocket.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  4. JaKe Hao

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    February 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  5. Josie

    I work at a fast food resturant...have for almost three years at this one, not including other places I have worked. Yes fast food makes minimum wage (typically), but we don't get vacation days unless your managment (and not always) or get health insurance (same as the vacation days). So I get sick and miss work, I miss out on pay that other wise I can't get...same with taking time off to go and relaxe. I'm a full time college student (as is most of the shift I work on at the moment), so we go to school and then turn around and work evenings. People talk down to us, we are allowed to accept tips, and have some good nights and some not so good. But with our tips we have to split them, so those that throw in 50 cents and that's all we get...that's 25 cents per person working. I understand that it's hard work, it's long hours on your feet...oh and it making sure you get your food the way you like it quickly and with good service. But people, really how many can live on minimum wage or lower, and be comfortable!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  6. emilio

    Paying a fair wage shouldn't even be a question! States that don't allow tip credits prove that restaurants WILL NOT go out of business if they have to pay employees. Isn't it enough that the National Restaurant Assn.lobbied for a tax break on these employee's FICA tax and that they rent thier own buildings out to them self in order to get tax breaks there too. Why aren't we holding them to the sane standards as other big companies like G.M. and G.E.? How is it that they claim divirsity awards that they give to themselves? This is the largest restaurant group in the world, and they were granted a wavier so they won't be required to offer descent health insurance because they say it would cause them to loose too much money while the ceo makes 8 mill a year plus 22 mil in stock and other perks.? Yep they are really hurting, wish I could feel that kind of pain, lol!

    February 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  7. Voltairine

    There should be a means to determine how well every employer treats employees so that people/customers can make those decisions. There are far too many employers that know they can get away with being unfair, draconian, tyrannical, exploitative, flat-out mean spirited, etc., as it's most often under the radar and many of the other employers in the same industry misbehave in the same ways.

    February 8, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • SherwoodOR

      There is a way to tell. If you frequent to a restaurant and notice that the staff is different each time, then chances are that the owner is not treating the staff well. If you observe low staff turnover, then chances are the owner treats his staff well.

      And if the owner treats his staff well, chances are that he can attract good-quality people which will mean a better experience for his customers. And if the owner treats those people well, then he can retain that quality staff which means smoother service and a better experience for everyone, but it also is the key to attracting and retaining regular, quality customers too.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  8. BFG

    I would agree to paying more per meal if it meant the wait staff, kitchen staff and support staff were being paid "livable wages" and thus were not being tipped. I'm not against tipping, not at all, especially when they are receiving below poverty level wages. The people preparing, cooking, serving and bussing your meal work as hard as you do and are professionals in their field. How many other "professionals" would accept being woefully underpaid with the expectation that their clients would make up the difference? How many clients of lawyers, doctors. engineers would go along with that scenario? Yet we do it on a daily basis for the people who handle our food. Senseless.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  9. Lance

    I used to hear a manager yelling at her employees at this one Burger King. Even though it was closer, I used to go to another Burger King a litttle further where I could hear the manager speaking respectfully to her employees. However, outside of fast food, how employees are treated is often hard to ascertain.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:18 am |
  10. Cassandra

    Among other things, we are completely expendable. I was fired from my last job because I got pneumonia, for example. There are no benefits and if there are, they're bottom of the barrel. There's no pay checks. No 401k's. No vacations or sick leave. You might ask, why keep working in that industry? What he it's the only option I have? Even so, it still doesn't mean I should be treated like I'm invisible, like I don't matter. I do matter. I'm just trying to make it, to live, and prosper like everyone else. We're in the same boat. I care about you and your life. Please give me the same courtesy. Both employer and patron.

    February 8, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  11. Cassandra

    I'm a bartender and server and have been for close to 10 years. I work very hard and only make $2.13/hr plus tips. If I make any money at all is completely and solely based on the kindness of others. I can attest that after working at a handful of places in the duration of my career, that being treated fairly and equitably, is extremely few and far between. I often feel like an endentured servant, or a dog. I do my job extremely well, which mostly means I spend my time adhering to your every whim, desire, food allergies, and sometimes just plain ridiculous demands. At the end, it's a gamble, a hope that the person I'm taking care of will at least tip me 20%, and if the bill is discounted, 9 times out of 10, i'll be tipped on based on the $20bill which was originally $50. You don't realise how hard we work, what we put up with, and how disinheartening it is to spend 12 hours at work with a 30min break just to make $100and be treated like crap by both my employer and my patrons. Think about it. Have a heart.

    February 8, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  12. Zeke

    Paying well, treating employees well is good business. Starbucks is good example of this. When they first started expanding across the USA lots of stories on the benefits provided to their workers (health care in particular). Over a decade later and I still think well about Starbucks.

    February 7, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  13. Gian

    The whole notion of not paying a living wage and relying on tips seems like a hangover from the days certain workers weren't paid at all for thier labour, or relied on the whim of their owner for a few pennies. It is rare in the rest of the developed world to need to tip to make up for below poverty level wages and conditions. In most places you only tip for exceptional, above and beyond service because waitstaff are paid proper wages and have decent conditions. The best customer service I've experienced consistently has been Japan, where to tip is an insult. I'm happy to pay the honest price for my meal, rather than go through the pretense of lower prices and the 'choice' to tip.

    February 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  14. Dezi

    I actually stopped going to some local restaurants after I learned how the staff was being treated. One restaurant fined there waitstaff if they had a mistake on a ticket. So if a customer happened to change their mind the waitress had to re-write the entire ticket to not get fined by the management. That is just sickening to me.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  15. zoey

    if the way that waitstaff is being treated isnt something youre thinking about, then youve never worked in a restaurant. the same goes if youre a garbage tipper.

    February 7, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  16. Brett

    Speaking as an ex bartender/server of 20 years , I know what it is like to TRY and earn a living in the restaurant business. I am so glad i left that horrible industry. Bartenders and servers are usually worked long hours for very little pay. What meager earnings can be taken home are taxed , and TIP OUT takes its toll. Tip out is where servers and bartenders have to subsidize others pay (ie. bussboys , food runners , ect.) by giving up a percentage of tips. This THEFT is calculated by the servers sales , not tips! So if a server has a big table with a high check and they get hosed ( happens ALL THE TIME) they can actually lose money to wait on someone! This is all so the restaurant owner doesn't have to pay his staff. If the staff complains , its usually time to find another job. Unemployment is really high and there is a stack of resumes in the office , after all.......... this is how about 75% of servers/bartenders are treated. tip well people.

    February 7, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  17. Jim

    Simple supply and demand here folks. If people are willing to work for low wages, then low wages is what they should be paid. If there was a shortage of supply of waiter / waitress jobs, then their wage would increase accordingly. If people dont want to work for low wages, they certainly arent forced to, and they should make efforts to find another job (relocate, educate themselves, network etc.).

    February 7, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Steve

      I agree with Jim. however i would be in favor of paying house staff more if we werent expected to tip. Wage goes up for employee, but it would be the same dollar cost for me. win win in my books

      February 7, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
      • KLF

        Stupid!

        February 7, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • t3chsupport

      Of course, it sounds so easy when you put it that way. It's always easy when you don't take into consideration that those things simply aren't options for some people. You fail to realize that it costs money to reeducate, relocate, networking, etc, cost money that they... oh, that's right, they don't have any money! Not to mention the fact that once someone has a family, they can't exactly go back to not having a family. 'Well they shouldn't have blah blah' does not work. Hindsight is useless, as are suggestions like yours. It shows a terrible level of naivete and shortsightedness.

      February 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • KLF

      Restaurants work on formulas. The formulas are based on food costs and operations. This can amount to 85% of the restaurants income. Restaurants simply cannot afford hourly wages above those that are in place. The only way a server is going to make a wage upon which they'll be able to live, is to work in a very busy restaurant that has high check averages. Then, they'll have to provide professional service that's sincere, caring and hope for tips averaging 20%. It can work. There are many examples nationwide proving this true.

      February 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • JOE

      I EAT AT THE FOOD KITCHEN, I'TS GOOD AND FREE

      February 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Bruce

      OF course they are forced. If the only jobs available are low-wage, then they have no choice. $2.13 an hour is insane. TIps are only a significant source of income in mid to higher-end restaurants. THe people that work these jobs should at least make the standard minimum wage.

      February 7, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Michael

      Jim, I love how your perception of servers is that we are all a bunch of uneducated low lifes. Trust me, most of the servers working in high end restaurants do have their 4 year college degrees.

      February 7, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Kathy

      Jim, you are are the ignorant one. I have two college degrees and have been laid off from 3 jobs in the past two years. The only job I was able to acquire was a a bartending position. The working conditions are terrible, but I am not on welfare taking your tax dollars! At least we, in the service industry, work hard to make ends meet. And then we have to put up with fools like you...

      February 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  18. Hypocrisy and delusion

    One of the groups cited in this report, the Restaurant Opportunities Center's own restaurant, COLORS, has failed multiple health inspections for exposed food, evidence of rats, etc. and it's own employees sued the restaurant over wages and benefits. Why would anyone buy into these utopian fairy tales when the groups propagating them can't make these policies work and keep their business operational. The real reason their promoting these union-backed policies is because labor unions found and fund them. See American Spectator, The Non-Union for Restaurant Workers.

    February 7, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Lowell

      So then according to your logic, because they haven't been 100% successful in their restaurant.... No one else deserves to make a living wage? It not about the ROC it's about treating people who work in restaurant descently including sick days so we don't spread illness and paying a fair wage and not discriminating. God forbid these workers join the rest of the us in the new millineum, we can be like u a toss back their rights into the 1920's . Better yet, maybe we can find some children to operate some heavy machinery ....in case u don't believe paying fairly works check out the states that don't allow tip credits. They are solid my friend.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  19. dtcpr

    I've been a dinner hostess at a Charlie Brown's steakhouse. This was suring college. I was specifically told that I received the job because I was attractive (I'm female). I received minimum wage (hourly) I did not receive any of the tips which many dinner hostess' do. I was not paid if I was not there. I worked for a summer, winter break and spring break, told them I woudl be back the next summer and I was fired, no reason no warning. They just didn't return my phone calls, like a bad boyfriend. ANd that was a chain restaurant people would consider clean and would assume is okay to work at. But the cooks couldn't talk to the bus staff or the servers because everyone spoke a differnet language (I live in NY).

    February 7, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  20. Wonderful

    This is a good thing. So many people want you to believe that paying waiters and waitresses a decent wage, giving them benefits or vacation would skyrocket the food prices to unbelievable heights.

    We should all know by now this is not true. Many restaurants use quality ingredients, pay and treat their staff well, and still manage to turn out food at reasonable prices.

    If we all had a guide as to which local restaurants did this, and frequented them instead of the ones paying their staff $2.50/hour, we could finally change this practice.

    February 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • KWDragon

      If you are talking an extra $5 per hour, for each person in a restaurant, you are talking about $200/person/week. At an upscale restaurant, that is, what, like 1-2 tables/person/week? That seems very reasonable. I agree with Wonderful: this isn't the financial devastation restaurant owners portray it to be. Just like the people who say raising the minimum wage will kill their businesses – if they are that close to the line, you should probably close up shop already.

      February 7, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
      • Out of business

        The majority of restaurant operating in the US make $3000 profit per employee per year. You just put them all out of business.

        February 7, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  21. Jack Wagon

    You can tell a little from the quality, cleanliness of a place whether or not the people are treated fairly. How servers are treated is usually reflected in their att itude . If the place is a hole (furnishings in disrepair, poor service, sloppily served food), odds are the owner or manager doesn't treat his/her people well.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • emilio

      One can not assume a restaurant treats it's staff well by the condition of the establishment alone. In case you missed it, the artical mentions the high end staek house,Capital Grille. If you have ever been, you would see a sparkeling restaurant with professional staff on it's face and in the back you will find management threatening a skeleton crew for not working harder and faster , and management consistantly taking away the tools and support staff form the front that enabled them to become a sucessful restaurant under the direction of the Rare group.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Jack Wagon@emilio

      I saw the reference in the article, I have been to Capital Grille and I what I said was "You can tell a little ..." No one can tell 100% of anything on any topic based on what is seen on the surface. We haven't gone back to C.G. because the servers weren't particularly warm and inviting. That indicates, there's something wrong in the grand scheme of their business. My comment was based on the myriad number of restaurants I have frequented – not just C.G..

      February 9, 2012 at 11:13 am |
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