Restaurant Workers’ Associations


Restaurant Workers’ Associations

Behind the Kitchen Door

New Yorkers have a growing awareness of the ways in which their food is grown and distributed to restaurants, but they do not always consider the people who prepare and bring the food from the kitchen to their table. Many restaurants have come to embrace the concepts of sustainable farm-to-table, locally sourced, and organic products advocated by the food movement, a campaign that aims to combat the negative effects of industrialized food production and consumption. At the same time, restaurants are home to some of the least sustainable practices, especially those that affect people working behind the scenes in nonmanagerial positions.

Since the early 2000s, the Manhattan-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) has called into question the true sustainability of the food movement and the restaurant industry. Inspired by the philosophy of fair labor espoused by the Slow Food movement, ROC-United, which sponsors several chapters throughout the United States, actively works to resolve pressing issues for restaurant workers. Such problems, including the lack of medical benefits and paid sick leave, the inability to access tips and fair wages, and racial and gender discrimination, leave many workers suffering from food insecurity—unable to afford and consume nutritional, fresh, and safe food for a mentally and physically healthy lifestyle.

Ultimately, ROC-United aims to tackle this concern about food insecurity by establishing an alternate definition of sustainable food practices in the restaurant industry. This new description not only involves the healthy quality of the food customers eat, but also the health of the people behind the kitchen door who contribute to its preparation and its service to your plate.

Serving up the Issues

Behind the Kitchen Door Trailer,, May 2012, video by Sekou Luke Studio.

Many restaurant workers suffer mistreatment at the hands of their employers. Unfortunately, there are many cases in which businesses frequently fail to give nonmanagerial staff medical benefits and paid sick leave, often forcing them to work while ill. Some restaurant management also supports abuse through racial discrimination and the promotion of harassment based on gender. These inequities contribute to workers having few or unequal opportunities for job advancement, as well as a lack of access to fair wages and tips. People of color rarely get hired in higher-paying jobs, and women often receive much less pay than men. At the same time, subminimum wages build a reliance on tips, yet management can easily steal both wages and tips from their employees. Despite increasing benefits provided by the restaurant industry to the national economy, restaurant workers are among the poorest people in the country as a result of these unfair practices. 

Redefining Sustainable Food

Community Events of Slow Food NYC, New York, NY.

To most people, sustainable food—largely stereotyped as reserved for the wealthy—refers to the healthy, clean produce grown locally without pesticides, as well as to humanely treated, hormone-free livestock. However, proponents of sustainable food often forget the other aspect of food sustainability: the people who grow, distribute, and serve these resources. In the early stages of ROC-United, its co-founder Saru Jayaraman witnessed firsthand the development of “good, clean, and fair” food practices in the Slow Food movement, later drawing inspiration from her experience to redefine what sustainable food really means.

Founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986, the Slow Food movement began as a reaction against growing concerns about the unhealthy effects of the fast-food industry and the growing domination of food corporations. While the movement promotes the sustainability of food, favoring organic, locally sourced, and culturally unique fare, it also advocates for sustainable labor practices that foster reciprocal, humane, and familial relationships. ROC-United’s redefinition of sustainable food includes this concept of both healthy food and healthy labor, and it drives the organization’s effort to fight against food insecurity.

Taking the High Road

COLORS Restaurant, 417 Lafayette Avenue, New York, NY, April 4, 2015, photograph by Lauren Ackerley.

The collaboration of restaurant owners, workers, and members of the ROC-NY chapter in the New York City Industry Roundtable has led to the development of the High Road to Profitability program. This business plan encourages restaurants in the city to follow ethical labor practices as a reasonable and profitable approach toward ending food insecurity. In order to achieve these fair practices, the High Road program offers resources for employers and management through the Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE) initiative, the free job training in COLORS Hospitality Opportunities for Workers (CHOW) Institute, as well as the establishment of the worker-owned restaurants known as COLORS. In return for taking part in this program, restaurants earn the “High Road” status, and thus a good reputation in the industry.

Members of ROC-United propose not only to develop a community of sustainable restaurants throughout the nation, but also—in the words of Saru Jayaraman—to cultivate a community of “responsible diners” who acknowledge and challenge unsustainable practices in restaurants. By fostering this community, ROC-United ultimately aims to create a space where restaurant workers can finally overcome their food insecurity. -L.A.