Behind the Kitchen Door

Saru Jayaraman is co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also the author of Behind the Kitchen Door.


BARSAMIAN: Please read from “The Hands on your Plate,” the opening of Behind the Kitchen Door.


JAYARAMAN: This is from Fekkak Mamdouh, a Moroccan immigrant who worked 17 years in the industry and co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers with me: “When you work in restaurants, you think the industry is everything. It’s being outside, talking to people, serving people. You feel like you’re part of something good. People mostly go to eat out for good stuff—proposals, weddings, birthdays—not to fight. You’re part of someone’s proposal, you’re part of bringing the ring to an ice cream cake. You watch her reaction. You feel like you’re part of the experience, their special moment, even if the people don’t care who you are, you’re just the server. Everywhere I go, I find restaurant workers are the same. They may move from restaurant to restaurant, maybe they don’t earn enough money or they don’t like the way they’re being treated, but they always come back. They have a hospitality mentality…. All over the world, they have it in them.”


I’m interested in your background. You’re kind of an inadvertent activist and organizer. It’s curious how the events of 9/11 crucially intersected with your becoming an activist and an organizer.


I was a labor organizer prior to 9/11, but I definitely hadn’t focused on the restaurant industry—I had been organizing factory workers and domestic workers, day laborers. I was living in New York, working on Long Island, organizing these workers, and I would come back home every evening and, like every other American, I would enjoy these wonderful meals that New York City’s restaurants have to offer and never think about the people touching my food. I was a labor organizer and I just didn’t know what was happening behind the kitchen door. I think most of us in America, we celebrate American culture—weddings, birthdays, anniversaries—almost more than anybody else anywhere in the world—and yet we don’t think about what’s happening behind the kitchen door.


September 11 changed all of that for me. On 9/11 there was a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, Tower 1, called Windows on the World and 73 restaurant workers died and 250 workers lost their jobs, including Mamdouh. In the weeks and months following, Mamdouh and I set up ROC, initially to provide support to all these workers and to the families of the victims as well.


Shortly after that, we were overwhelmed with cries for help from workers, first all over New York City and then from all over the country. We had no idea why we were being overwhelmed with a demand for help, until we studied the industry and discovered that it is neck and neck with retail as the largest and fastest growing sector of the economy. There are over 10 million workers in America working in restaurants and one in ten American workers works in restaurants. Yet, seven of the ten lowest-paying jobs and the two absolute lowest-paying jobs are restaurant jobs—lower than every other kind of occupation.


You write in your book that the first priority of ROC was to advocate for the displaced workers from the Windows on the World restaurant, a struggle that ended in a victory. Tell that story.


Right after 9/11, the owner of Windows on the World told the workers and the families of the victims that the best he could do for them would be to open up a new restaurant and hire them there. But, of course, that didn’t happen. A few months after the tragedy, the owner got millions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government for the loss of his restaurant and the workers got nothing. With that money he opened a new restaurant in Times Square and refused to hire any of the workers from Windows on the World. He said they didn’t have experience to work in his new restaurant, even though some of these workers had worked with him for two decades, so they knew it was because the owner didn’t want them to form a union in his new restaurant.


So we organized the workers. We ended up protesting in front of the restaurant the night before the opening. We were on the cover of the Metro section of the New York Times and the owner ended up hiring everybody who wanted to work there. That was our first victory. We got a ton of exposure. Mamdouh likes to say workers never stopped calling from that moment, the phone never stopped ringing. Once restaurant workers found that there was a place for them—this is a huge industry with less than .001 percent unionization rate—they started coming in the hundreds.


Why is that unionization rate so low?


The restaurant industry has just exploded over the last 30 years, in particular, just as unions have declined. Unite Here, the union that was focused on restaurants has turned its attention to hotels, casinos, and institutional food service. Americans eat out much more than people in other countries, so the industry has grown tremendously. As that’s happened, workers’ wages have pretty much stagnated. It’s because of the power of the industry lobby, the National Restaurant Association, which we call “the other NRA.” In 1996, under the leadership of Herman Cain, the NRA struck a deal with the Democrats in Congress saying that they would not oppose an overall minimum wage increase as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stayed frozen at $2.13 an hour—and it’s been stuck at $2.13 since then.


So post 9/11, we decided to create this is tri-pronged model to really build power for workers and lift working conditions and wages in the industry. Over the last 12 years we have organized large campaigns against exploitation in high-profile fine-dining restaurants. We’ve won about 13 of these campaigns, totaling about $7 million in stolen tips and wages.


At the same time, we’ve organized and promoted good employers who are trying to do the right thing and provide good working conditions. Some of them are profiled in the book. They’ve ranged from small mom-and-pop restaurants all the way to star chefs like Tom Colicchio, who appears on “Top Chef” and is a great employer. We’ve opened our own worker-owned restaurants called Colors. We’ve done a ton of research and policy work and we’ve had some victories. We’ve raised the tipped minimum wage in New York State from $3 to $5 and we won a tip protection bill in Philadelphia. But our big fight right now is to raise that absurdly low minimum wage of $2.13 an hour.


What about the decline of unions in the U.S. In late January 2013, the New York Times reported that the long decline in the number of workers belonging to labor unions accelerated sharply in 2012, sending the unionization rate to its lowest level in close to a century. People who are active in the labor movement say that the society and workers in general, even if they don’t belong to a union, benefit by the existence of unions.


I think they definitely do. But we all need to think a bit more expansively about what is the labor movement. We certainly consider ROC to be part of the labor movement. If you look at the number of workers who are in unions, yes, that’s obviously been in decline. But there is tremendous growth in worker organization and worker associations like ROC all around the country. There’s the National Domestic Workers Alliance that’s growing, there’s the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Workers are organizing. Workers are standing up and saying we need change in our industry. We now have 10,000 members across the country in 26 states.


So we need to think a little bit broader about how we’re going to give workers the things that unions have given workers—better wages, better working conditions, a voice on the job, power—and think creatively also about how it can be an inclusive movement. In our case, we organize not only workers, but good employers and consumers, which is why we wrote the book. The book is part of a multi-year consumer engagement campaign to let consumers know how they can organize and get involved in these issues.


The economist Richard Wolff has discussed in detail and convincingly the importance of raising the minimum wage. Many workers that you’re dealing with are subjected to something called stolen wages. What’s that?


As I mentioned, in 1996, Herman Cain struck this deal so it’s been stuck for years at $2.13 an hour. The law technically says that the employer is supposed to ensure that tips make up the difference between $2.13 and the regular minimum wage of $7.25. Unfortunately, that rarely, if ever, happens.


I tell a story in the book of Claudia. She was a server at an IHOP in Texas and worked for $2.13 an hour. The tips never made up the difference between $2.13 and the regular minimum wage. IHOP told her that they didn’t want to be held liable for having to pay the difference, so they reported that she was earning $7.25 even though she was earning more like $2.13. She often worked graveyard shifts, where she earned nothing at all. Because when you get a wage of $2.13 an hour, you literally get a paycheck that says, “This is not a paycheck.” You get no money because your wages go entirely to taxes, they’re so small. So you live on your tips. Many of these graveyard shift workers are women—in places like IHOP, Denny’s, and Apple- by’s—they sometimes earn nothing.


In Claudia’s case, she was so poor she couldn’t feed herself. She had to wait till she got to the restaurant to eat pancakes. One night she worked the whole night. At the end of the night a couple walked out without paying for their meal. The restaurant forced her to pay their bill and she ended up paying $20 for the luxury of having worked ten hours overnight. And she says, “Maybe that was okay for me, maybe”—I can’t see how it was—but most of her co-workers were women in their 40s with children. This is how they were supporting their families. This is the reason that servers in America have three times the poverty rate of the rest of the work force and are using food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the workforce.


Fortunately, we actually have a chance at changing this right now. We’ve been fighting for the last several years to get Congress to change this. We had a big victory after President Obama mentioned that it should go up in his State of the Union address. Just a week later, George Miller in the House and Senator Harkin in the Senate introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 that will, for the first time in two decades, raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. But we realize it’s just the introduction of a bill.


We need everybody who eats out in America to speak up, to let legislators know we need this changed. There are three things we would like to ask of everybody who eats out. First, read the book. Get informed. Find out what’s happening behind the kitchen door and let others know. The people who touch your food need to be treated and paid well.


The second thing is we’ve created an online organization for everybody who eats out to voice their opinion called The Welcome Table ( We’re asking everybody to become an online member and send a petition to Congress saying we need to raise the tipped minimum wage and we need things like paid sick days. The last thing we’re asking of everybody is to speak up every time you eat out.


Ten years ago, nobody spoke up around local and organic. And when they did, we saw dramatic change—restaurants jumping over themselves to say, “We provide local, we provide organic.” So we think that if at the end of every meal customers said, “Love the food, love the service, I would love to see you paid more than $2.13,” or “I would love to see you paid for sick days.” That would have an impact.


One of your chapters is titled “Serving While Sick.” You write about a woman who has been working in Detroit for ten years.


It’s a sad story. This is what she told me. “I had a really bad cold. My nose was running, I was sneezing, and I had a cough and a fever. I could not call in sick because no work means no money and I couldn’t afford it at that time. My kids were very young, so I went to work to see if I could make it through the day. Halfway through the day, the sneezing, coughing, and runny nose got worse. I said to the manager, ‘I am really sick and I need to go because I could make others sick and I’m dealing with food.’ The manager laughed and told me, ‘Try not to cough, then.’ So I had to work that day sick. And who knows how many customers I got sick because I couldn’t go to the back and leave the counter to wash my hands after every sneeze or nose wipe? Later on, all of us got sick, one by one.”


This is all too common. Ninety percent of restaurant workers in America don’t have paid sick days, which means that two-thirds report cooking, preparing, and serving food with illnesses like the flu and pinkeye. I have so many stories in the book of workers with these communicable diseases, having to show up for work in order to get paid.


Upton Sinclair wrote a novel in 1906 called The Jungle. It was an exposé of the meat-packing industry in Chicago. In the book you quote someone who compares conditions in the restaurant industry today to scenes in The Jungle. How accurate is that?


It’s so accurate. The restaurant is the new sweatshop of the 21st century—horrible health and safety conditions, no paid sick days, no healthcare. I can tell you stories of workers cutting their fingers and the piece of finger falls into the food. There was a case in New York of a woman biting into a worker’s finger in the salad. There’s the story of a chef who was not paid for months and months, lost his home, ended up living in the restaurant’s attic. He had to wash his clothes with the hose out back. And workers get severely burned and the burnt skin and flesh falls into the food. More than half of workers in this industry experience pretty severe injuries on the job.


So where is OSHA, the federal agency that is supposed to monitor these kinds of practices?


OSHA has been defunded and doesn’t have the inspection capability to check up on all these restaurants. I believe what’s needed is worker organizations that can stand up and say, “We’re not going to put up with this anymore.”


Who is behind the kitchen door in terms of race, class, and gender?


There’s incredible occupational segregation. There is a $4 wage gap between white workers and workers of color. Behind the kitchen door is kind of a metaphor for everything that you don’t see in the restaurant. There’s segregation in a fine-dining restaurant. The server and bartender positions tend to be white, the busser, runner positions tend to be people of color. There are many cities where the color of the skin literally gets darker the farther back you go into the kitchen. So, for example, in Miami, something that we’ve seen very regularly in upscale restaurants is that the servers will be either white or very light-skinned Cuban workers; the bussers and runners will be Mexican or Central American, as will the cooks; and the dishwashers are almost always Haitian. Workers across the board report to us that there are no opportunities to move up the ladder. In ROC, we provide training programs to about 1,000 low-wage workers of color a year to help them move up the ladder to better jobs in the industry.


One myth I want to correct; it’s not that anybody in the industry is really paid well. Servers across the board, as I mentioned, are at minimum wage. They’re earning poverty wages. But it is true that in fine-dining restaurants there could be the opportunity to move up to livable-wage jobs. Server and bartender jobs in those restaurants are held almost exclusively by white workers.


What percentage of workers are immigrants?


In big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, 70 percent of the restaurant workforce is foreign-born and we estimate about 40 percent are undocumented. Nationally, the industry is everybody: it’s white, it’s black, it’s immigrants from all over the world. So it’s not a marginal industry. It’s not even an industry just for immigrants. Literally every American probably knows somebody who has worked in this industry. There’s this myth, and the industry promotes it, that most of the people in this industry just go through it to move on to “something better,” when, in fact, most workers are adults who stay in it for a lifetime, who, like the worker I described at the beginning, really take great pride in hospitality, have it in their DNA, love the work, and want to stay.


How many women are in the work force?


Seventy percent of workers in that lower tipped minimum wage are women. So here is the irony. The industry as a whole is 50-50. Most of the people in what we call the back of the house, in the kitchen, are actually men. But if you look only to the workers who are earning that sub-minimum wage of $2.13, 70 percent of those are women. The restaurant industry is the only industry where by law they can pay women less and get away with it.


Tips were never intended to be workers’ wages. But this industry has won an exemption, saying, we should not have to pay our workers’ wages. We should be able to pay them as little as $2.13 because customers will pay our workers’ wages for us.


What about sexual harassment of women workers?


It’s rampant. In fact, when the Herman Cain scandal broke and he dropped out of the presidential race in 2012 because he had harassed women—even at the National Restaurant Association’s offices—MSNBC did a quick study and found that 7 percent of American women work in restaurants, but 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges to the EEOC have come from the restaurant industry—the single largest perpetrator of gross sexual harassment. There are plenty of stories in my book of women who grow up in this industry thinking that it’s natural and normal—this is how chefs behave. And one thing that’s horrible is that because so many women enter this industry and either stay in it for their lifetimes or enter as young people and move on to something else, they’re introduced to how the workplace is, that it’s natural and normal for them to be groped and for inappropriate things to be said to them. I was speaking in Chicago and a young woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t understand. You’re talking about all these issues—low wages, sexual harassment—and you’re talking about them as if they’re so outrageous. But that’s how the industry is.” And I said, “It’s outrageous that you don’t think it’s outrageous. It’s outrageous that you think that it’s normal for people to experience sexual harassment on the job or to be paid $2.13 an hour.”


We need to change this. And I think consumers have tremendous power in changing this industry, if they stand by the workers.


Talk about class. You did a campaign at a four-star restaurant in New York. You found some interesting things that happened in that effort.


We’ve had campaigns against several four-star restaurants in New York. Actually, both cases were about Latino and Bangladeshi bussers who came forward and said, “Here we are training less experienced white workers, who immediately get placed above us as wait staff and bartenders.” In the most recent example, the bussers and runners also said there was a very abusive racist chef and their tips were being stolen. So we campaigned with them for over a year and a half. We won over a million dollars in stolen tips and wages for these workers. We got a new promotions policy, paid sick days for all the workers, we got rid of the abusive chef. And the employer, who happens to be celebrity chef Mario Batali, joined us as a partner in promoting a different way of doing business.


It doesn’t have to just be four-star restaurants that do the right thing. We’ve got employer partners that range from small mom-and-pop restaurants all the way up to fine dining. We did a study to find out how much would it cost us as consumers if wages were to go up for all these workers. We found that even if all employers in America passed on the cost of a wage increase, 100 percent passed it on to consumers, it would not cost us more than a dime a day in terms of food bought in restaurants and the home. Pennies in restaurants and pennies in grocery stores. To give restaurant workers and all food workers in the food system a 33 percent to 100 percent wage increase would not cost us more than a dime a day.


In that four-star-restaurant campaign you said you were surprised at the angry phone calls you got from some affluent New Yorkers. Why were they angry?


I think they felt threatened. We had very affluent people throw things at us or yell at us that they didn’t want their dinner disturbed. Some people were more polite about it. They said, “You shouldn’t be disturbing my dinner. You should be doing this in court.” Actually, we were doing it in court as well. We had litigation going on. But we found that restaurants get sued left and right and litigation alone would never resolve the real problems that are happening in this industry. Workers need to stand up and take a stand and consumers need to stand by them.


We found lots of other people, though, who may be affluent, but care about good food and locally sourced and organic, who said to us, “I had thought about the pigs and the cows, I may even have thought about the farm workers. But I had never thought about the people who are actually touching my food, serving it, cooking it in the kitchen. So you’ve opened my eyes.” So I wouldn’t make a generalization about affluent New Yorkers.


You talk about Diep in your book and something called “the sustainable restaurant.” What is that?


Diep is a Vietnamese immigrant. She owns her own restaurant, which is very popular in Los Angeles. She grew up in the industry because her family owned Vietnamese restaurants. She ended up opening her own restaurant and decided she wanted to do things differently. She wanted to source local and organic, but she wanted it to be a sustainable restaurant. And to her a sustainable restaurant is one in which the workers grow with the restaurant, have the opportunity to do better, maybe to open their own restaurant. So to her, treating her workers well, giving them opportunities to advance has been an important part of what she calls sustainable food. So she’s somebody who sources always from local farmers, she always tries to provide organic produce, but she also always tries to do right by her workers.


There are worker-run bakeries and cafes in the San Francisco Bay Area. You alluded to restaurants that are worker-owned and -operated. How many of them are there and where are they located?


There are not too many. The ROC actually owns two of them. We started Colors in New York, which is worker-owned. And then we started a second Colors in Detroit that’s spawning worker-owned cooperatives like catering businesses and other food enterprises. There are a handful of other worker-owned restaurants in the country, but we are growing Colors. We’re opening a third one in New Orleans and there are more to come.


How have workers been able to do these things given the extent of the economic crash of 2007-2008?


Workers have come together and pursued a dream pretty persistently. In New York, workers ended up getting a major first investment from an Italian cooperative and then other faith groups and supporters ended up helping us put the restaurant together. But I do want to say that I don’t think worker-owned restaurants are the solution to solving problems in this industry. We’ve got to create the alternatives, like cooperatives, at the same time that we’re organizing to change the conditions and fighting against the corporate lobbying power of the National Restaurant Association.


Talk more about economic justice and why it is a human rights issue.


This is a human rights issue in that this is the industry that sets the wage floor for the entire economy and leaves millions of people in extreme poverty. There are too many people in our industry that are living in those conditions, who can’t put food on their tables, who use food stamps, many of whom are homeless. So it’s an issue that impacts not just them, but every other worker.


Has the United Nations weighed in on this issue?


No, they have not. Meanwhile, the industry has been expanding globally. The National Restaurant Association set up something called the Multinational Hospitality and Restaurant Association and has been trying to get other governments in other parts of the world to follow our horrible example in having a much lower minimum wage for tipped workers. Just across the border in Toronto, the minimum wage for tipped workers is $9.50. The same global restaurant chains, like Red Lobster, that say they can’t pay more than $2.13, pay $9.50 in Toronto and are doing great.


That’s more than four times the U.S. wage of $2.13.


And they’re growing and expanding. But they’re greedy. So they go to other countries and try to convince the government of Ontario and other places that you should roll back your wage to $2.13 to emulate us. So we need to change this here, for the good not just of our own population, but for people all over the world.


What about advancing a social justice agenda, that is, of going to the Democratic Party?


For us, everything new and progressive that’s happening is because there is a groundswell of working people saying enough is enough. By working people I don’t just mean workers. I mean consumers as well. People together, as workers and consumers, saying we’re just not going to put up with this anymore. So for us it’s not about the Democratic Party. It’s the issue. The minimum wage needs to go up regardless of who’s in power, and we’re going to make it so. And I think we have this wonderful moment right now where this is catching on, where people from different political backgrounds are understanding that this needs to change.


We think that it will be an easy leap for people who care about good food, which is an exploding movement, to also say, “Enough is enough, workers need to be treated well.”


David Barsamian is the award-winning founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent weekly audio series based in Boulder, Colorado. He is the winner of the Media Education Award, the ACLU’s Upton Sinclair Award for independent journalism, and the Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. The Institute for Alternative Journalism named him one of its Top Ten Media Heroes