When it comes to working in the average restaurant in America today, there is good news, and there is bad news.
The bad news probably won’t surprise you. As an industry, food preparation and serving post the lowest wages in the countrythis link opens in a new tab, with half of workers earning well under the median living wage. Sexual harassment, brought to center stage with the #MeToo movement, has been more commonly reported by workers in restaurants than any other industry over the past two decadesthis link opens in a new tab. When Just Capital, a survey group dedicated to corporate accountability, ranked 890 publicly traded companiesthis link opens in a new tab in 33 industries based on worker treatment, “restaurants and leisure” as a category ranked second to last.
In America’s more than 640,000 restaurantsthis link opens in a new tab, most workers, whether in award-winning fine-dining kitchens or massive corporate chains, know that it is bad. In 2017, the turnover rate in accommodation and food services was 72.5 percent, compared to a total private employment turnover rate of 47.4 percent—putting restaurant turnover rate at 53 percent higher than the national average. When worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United surveys restaurant workers, they find that “the biggest issues [workers] confront is wages first, benefits like paid sick leave, and mobility—especially on the basis of race, but also gender,” says Saru Jayaraman, the group’s cofounder and president.
Much of this has been par for the course for decades, with an origin story in the brigade system that defined renowned European kitchens. When Anthony Bourdain wrote a tributethis link opens in a new tab to Marco Pierre White’s 1990 genre-defining White Heat for the book’s 25th anniversary, he called the industry’s work conditions “a cycle of abuse that passed as learning one’s trade.” It makes a certain kind of sense that cooks made their work’s lawlessness and cruelty into a badge of honor. And yet, some operators are beginning to suspect that the rock-and-roll kitchen tales may have been something else: a myth that helped make the unbearable, bearable.
And this brings us to the good news.