Food & Wine | Tracie McMillan | March 18, 2019

Meet the chefs and restaurateurs who are making restaurant jobs better.

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.

Today, an increasing number of restaurateurs have set out to improve restaurant jobs. Some have done this for decades; others are new to the effort. Either way, they are boosting wages and expanding benefits. This is happening in the liberal enclaves of Brooklyn and Seattle, but it’s also bubbling up in conservative bastions, like Boulder, Utah, population 200, and Indianapolis, too. (And it is happening even as the federal government has ignored calls to raise wages for the past decade.)

Some of the improvements are happening for practical reasons. America’s tight labor market is tighter still in restaurants, the country’s third-largest industry, and kitchens have been particularly hard-hit by immigration restrictions. Restaurants now work harder to attract and keep good workers. They cast wider nets in hiring, and some restaurateurs now seek out returning citizens (people coming home from prison), for both kitchen work and the well-paid front of the house. And they seek to reduce turnover, a goal that many who’ve dropped the traditional tip model—by pooling tips across workers or by replacing tips with a living wage—say they’ve achieved.

But there is passion, too, some of it long-standing. “You are not allowed to pick up a baguette and pretend it’s a dick in my restaurant,” says Martha Hoover, who helms Indianapolis’ 13-outlet Patachou Inc., now in its thirtieth year, which runs employees through implicit bias training and has a zero-tolerance policy on harassment and discrimination. And for chefs who came up in rough-and-tumble kitchens, there can be a drive to make it better for the next generation. “I’ve worked in places you dreaded to be,” says F&W Best New Chef 2016 Edouardo Jordan, of Seattle’s JuneBaby, Salare, and Lucinda Grain Bar restaurants, who starts workers well above the state’s $12 minimum wage; he also pays 50 percent of health insurance premiums and covers paid vacation for anyone working 30 hours a week. “I was never able to have insurance as a young cook; I think only one time I had vacation pay,” he says. “And I don’t want to put anyone through that life.”

In the profiles that follow, you’ll learn about 19 American restaurants that are creating better workplaces for staff. So what does a great restaurant to work for look like? It may have an open kitchen, which operators say promotes better professional conduct, and open books, which helps workers learn the business. It may have set schedules and pooled tips, which take guesswork out of the job and promote stability. And there is almost assuredly a dedication to treating restaurant workers as something they have rarely been given credit for: professionals.

  • AC Restaurants | Ashley Christensen | Raleigh, NC | 200 employees
  • Ardent | Justin Carlisle | Milwaukee, WI | 9 employees
  • Barrio Café and Barrio Café Gran Reserva | Silvana Salcido Esparza | Phoenix, AZ | 32 employees
  • Bini’s Kitchen | Binita Pradhan | San Francisco, CA | 14 employees
  • Biscuit Love | Karl and Sarah Worley | Nashville, TN | 130 employees
  • Cala | Gabriela Cámara | San Francisco, CA | 45 employees
  • Dinette | Sonja Finn | Pittsburgh, PA | 12 employees
  • Egg | George Weld and Evan Hanczor | Brooklyn, NY | 26 employees
  • Folk and The Farmer’s Hand | Rohani Foulkes and Kiki Louya | Detroit, MI | 19 employees
  • Giant | Jason Vincent | Chicago, IL | 25 employees
  • Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm | Jen Castle and Blake Spalding | Boulder, UT | 50 employees
  • JuneBaby, Salare, and Lucinda Grain Bar | Edouardo Jordan | Seattle, WA | 52 employees
  • Mama J’s | Velma and Lester Johnson | Richmond, VA | 60 employees
  • Mei Mei | Irene, Margaret, and Andrew Li | Boston, MA | 25 employees
  • Mondo and Rosedale | Susan Spicer | New Orleans, LA | 57 employees
  • Patachou Inc. | Martha Hoover | Indianapolis, IN | 350 employees
  • Thai Fresh | Jam Sanitchat and Bruce Barnes | Austin, TX | 48 employees
  • Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe | Vimala Rajendran | Chapel Hill, NC | 27 employees
  • Zingerman’s Community of Businesses | Ari Weinzweig | Ann Arbor, MI | 700 employees