By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • Feb. 2, 2016
The eggs and flour at Rose’s Fine Food, a diner on Detroit’s deep east side, are local. The bread and mustard, the donuts and pickles and beets, are all made in-house. The lunch menu offers a $13.75 rabbit sandwich; the chef apprenticed at San Francisco’s famed Tartine bakery; and there is a well-worn Ottolenghi book among the stack of cookbooks displayed on a kitchen shelf. In this, Rose’s is unmistakably a trendy kind of place.
But Rose’s is also becoming known for a new kind of trend: Paying restaurant workers a decent wage and offering opportunity for advancement.
While fast food workers’ efforts to win better wages have made headlines, observers say that sit-down eateries—from diners to white-tablecloth establishments, and everywhere in between—are beginning to reconsider the notion that restaurant work is a low-wage job. “Some of the biggest food luminaries are talking about wages as a core pillar of sustainable food,” says Saru Jayaraman, executive director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national advocacy group for restaurant workers. “It’s suddenly becoming a real trend.”
Jayarman should know: Last week, she published Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, which profiles restaurants across the country. Half the profiles are devoted to “low-road” employers—Those who keep servers at the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, for example, or don’t crack down on sexual harassment in the workplace. The other half are devoted to places that are giving workers decent jobs—what Jayaraman calls a “high road” approach.
To earn that distinction requires more than just offering good wages. There are paid sick days, which both help workers and prevent the spread of illness— shockingly rare in service occupations like restaurants where people handle food. And there’s also the question of mobility: Can bussers move up the ranks to highly paid servers, or dishwashers up to sous chef?
Nonetheless, wages often come front and center, and it has been celebrity restaurateurs like Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer who’ve helped push the issue into broader debate. Last September, Colicchio banned the tipped minimum wage during lunch service at his restaurant Craft in Manhattan. A month later, Meyer followed suit in his 13 restaurants.
The best practices today, though, are most likely to be found at even smaller operators. Indeed, most of the “high road” employers Jayaraman celebrates in her book are modestly-scaled, independent restaurateurs—places like Russell Street Deli, a low-key Detroit sandwich place where wages start at $10 and internal promotion is the rule of thumb; and Moo Cluck Moo, a fledgling fast food chain paying $15 an hour outside the city. Elsewhere in the country, there’s the Florida Avenue Grill, a Washington, D.C. soul food institution offering paid sick days, and Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill, N.C., which starts workers at $10 an hour.
At Rose’s in Detroit, workers also start at $10 an hour. Tips are pooled each week, and apportioned out to the entire staff—front and back of the house alike—based on hours worked. And while many of the staff behind the Formica counters are pale-skinned twenty-somethings, there are also workers “from the neighborhoods”—code, in this contentious and impoverished city, for the African-American residents who make up 83 percent of the population.
“I just thought it was going to be minimum wage pay when I first came” to apply, says Cordell James, 21, who worked his way up from dishwasher to cook. When he learned the starting wage, James, who’d been making ends meet by selling t-shirts and CDs to neighbors, thought: “I can do that.” Once tips are added to wages, says Molly Mitchell, chef and co-owner, most of Rose’s staff earn around $15 an hour.
And that seems to sit well with diners. When Booker Webb, a retired GM worker, wandered into Rose’s expecting a regular Detroit diner, he was “shocked,” he said. But he took the recommendation for that rabbit sandwich, and liked it. “It was real good,” said Webb. And, when asked how he felt about that price tag given that it in part boosted workers wages, Webb shrugged and grinned. “I like that,” he said. “They got to live, too.”