By Tracie McMillan
Food & Wine digital
March 15, 2019
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 country, 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 decades. When Just Capital, a survey group dedicated to corporate accountability, ranked 890 publicly traded companies in 33 industries based on worker treatment, “restaurants and leisure” as a category ranked second to last.
In America’s more than 640,000 restaurants 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 tribute 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, North Carolina), 200 employees
Setting high standards from the get-go: When visiting chefs come through Ashley Christensen’s kitchens at any of her five restaurants (or Aux, a commissary kitchen opened in 2015), prep includes an email explaining the careful work the group has done to root out harassment and unprofessional behavior post-#MeToo and setting the standard to which they’ll be held. “It gives us the opportunity to make sure the work we’re doing isn’t wrecked by someone who brings, perhaps, their own bad habits,” says chef-owner Christensen, who now makes discussing the company’s harassment policies an explicit part of training for new hires and a regular topic at staff meetings. “We have this opportunity to talk about this thing and contribute to our industry.” In addition to taking a strong stance on harassment, Christensen offers starting wages for untipped workers at 45 percent above minimum wage, health and dental benefits for all full-time employees, and vacation for all salaried workers.
Ardent —Justin Carlisle (Milwaukee), 9 employees
Regular schedules and maternity leave: With only 20 seats and a tasting menu, Milwaukee’s Ardent, open four days a week, shares plenty of DNA with traditional fine dining. But when chef-owner Justin Carlisle, who came up in brigade-style kitchens, opened the doors in 2013, he was considering quality of life as much as the food. The thinking, he says, was “What’s the minimum I need to be open, and be able to pay the bills, and live without resorting back to the culture that I left?” Carlisle tries to bring that influence to bear on his two other concepts—Red Light Ramen and Laughing Taco—but it’s the policies at Ardent that stand out the most. Staff there get set schedules, living wages and pooled tips (which take guesswork out of the job and promote stability), cross-training between front and back of house, and a month of paid parental leave.
Barrio Café and Barrio Café Gran Reserva —Silvana Salcido Esparza (Phoenix), 32 employees
It’s not just about a paycheck: After a long and dispiriting stint in corporate dining, chef-owner Silvana Salcido Esparza wanted to do better for her employees when she opened her own place, Barrio Café, in 2002. She pays living wages, added a tip option for the kitchen on receipts at eight-table tasting-menu restaurant Gran Reserva, and covers health care and 401(k) plans for her five managers. Benefits for hourly employees are less formal: She’ll loan employees money interest-free to patch a rough spot, she cultivates local talent, she gives set schedules, and she takes “no bullshit; there’s no sexual harassment.” The idea, says Esparza, is that “there are other ways of paying people: by treating people well, giving them the schedules they want, and being accommodating. It’s not just about a paycheck.”
Bini’s Kitchen —Binita Pradhan (San Francisco), 14 employees
Transport subsidy and living wages: This Nepalese eatery got its start in 2012 as a pop-up, operating out of food incubator La Cocina. Today, chef-owner Binita Pradhan, a single mother from Nepal, serves takeout from a kiosk in San Francisco’s financial district. She sees a direct line between the wages she pays and her 14 employees’ transcontinental families. “It’s not one person that’s depending on our wages; they are depending on me from here to Tibet to Nepal to Guatemala,” says Pradhan. That’s why she pays full wages during training—workers, all full-time, start at San Francisco’s $15 minimum—and supplements them with transport assistance, emergency childcare funds, and five days of paid vacation.
Biscuit Love —Karl and Sarah Worley (Nashville), 130 employees
Therapists on staff: This trio of biscuit-forward breakfast places takes employees’ health very seriously—and thinks of it very broadly. In addition to paying living wages, emphasizing cross-training, and covering 80 percent of full-time staff’s health insurance premiums, they hired two therapists—one part-time and bilingual, for Spanish-speaking staff, and one full-time English-speaker—to help employees manage everything from personal challenges to workplace negotiations. And, understanding that not everyone would buy the health insurance they could offer, chef-owners Karl and Sarah Worley built partnerships to offer affordable medication and doctors’ visits and to split the cost of therapy sessions for folks in crisis. “It’s given our leadership team a resource to make sure people are getting the help they need,” says Sarah—and it’s led to an 87 percent retention rate.
Cala—Gabriela Cámara (San Francisco), 45 employees
Affordable health insurance for all: Most restaurant owners take it as a given that offering affordable health care is a financial impossibility. Not so for chef-owner Gabriela Cámara. At her San Francisco restaurant, Cala, which opened in 2015, staff qualify for full medical, dental, and vision insurance at twenty hours a week—with Cala paying the premium thanks in part to a house service fee in lieu of tips. The silver-level coverage also lets employees, some of whom are adjusting to life after prison, access mental health services whenever they need it. (Full disclosure: San Francisco requires all employers of at least 20 workers to spend money on health coveragethis link opens in a new tab but makes no requirements of the quality of coverage.) This hefty benefits package has been particularly valuable during an industry shortage of workers, says managing partner Emma Rosenbush. “[It] allowed us to put together a team of people who want to be there.”
Dinette —Sonja Finn (Pittsburgh), 12 employees
Top-tier wages and strong mentorship: When chef-owner Sonja Finn worked in elite West Coast kitchens, she came to a dismaying understanding: “We are providing luxury for people, [and] that luxury is supplemented by underpaying professionals,” she says. At Dinette, which opened in 2008, Finn tried tip-pooling to boost wages for her kitchen, but the effort ran afoul of labor law in 2017. So she retooled, abolishing tipping and raising prices by about 15 percent instead. Today, in a state with a $7.25 minimum wage—$2.83 for tipped employees—Finn’s kitchen staff start at more than double what’s required, and servers start at five times their minimum. What’s more: Kitchen employees accrue paid time off based on hours worked, and full-time workers get solid zero-deductible health plans, for which Finn pays 80 percent of the premium. She also has a great track record of mentorship: Nine of Dinette’s alumni have gone on to open food businesses in town.
Egg —George Weld and Evan Hanczor (Brooklyn), 26 employees
Inclusive waitstaff and making employees’ lives better: Some restaurants seek to improve work conditions with the use of human resources experts, but restaurateur George Weld, with the help of chef Evan Hanczor, has taken another tack with his 14-year-old breakfast-and-lunch eatery in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. HR’s goal, in Weld’s view, is “to keep [restaurateurs] out of trouble, not to advocate for employees.” Instead of using an internal HR staff, restaurant leadership recommends that employees reach out to Saru Jayaraman’s Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a group that organizes restaurant workers to improve policy and working conditions, if they don’t feel comfortable speaking with Weld directly. Egg also sets schedules as far in advance as possible, sometimes more than a month out, which helps to create stability; feeds workers for free each shift; and lets employees buy ingredients at cost. Those policies, says Weld, “are among the things restaurants can do for no money that make their employees’ lives better.” And in gentrified Brooklyn, Weld’s dining room stands out for having a staff that looks like the entire city—not just its high-end zip code.
Folk and The Farmer’s Hand —Rohani Foulkes and Kiki Louya (Detroit), 19 employees
Sane schedules and cross-training: The Farmer’s Hand, a grocery store and takeout counter, opened in 2016 with help from FoodLab Detroit, an entrepreneurship group. The purpose? “Creating a better quality of life,” says co-founder Kiki Louya, adding that the same ethos shapes sister café Folk, which opened next door last year. At Folk, daytime-only hours (8 or 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) “are a little more conducive to a normal schedule,” says Louya. Located in the city’s gentrifying Corktown neighborhood, both places pay living wages in part through a hospitality charge; encourage employees to cross-train among food prep, baristas, and servers; and offer staff a 20 percent discount on goods at The Farmer’s Hand. If they paid just minimum wage and allowed tips, says Louya, “we could profit a lot more, but there’s a balance. This way, we can contribute to the greater good in our community.”
Giant —Jason Vincent (Chicago), 25 employees
A talent incubator with health care: In 2017, this chef-y take on Midwestern casual introduced a 2 percent line-item charge on customers’ bills to cover employee health insurance, enabling Giant to offer employees coverage for $100 a month and to enroll them in the same plan that partners use. By early 2019, 24 of the 25 employees were making use of it, according to founding chef and co-owner Jason Vincent (a F&W Best New Chef in 2013), who says he wants Giant to be “an incubator” for talent. To that end, Giant also helps broker and then fund stage trips for staff, covering flights, ground transportation, and meals. The one catch? “We’re not going to pick up the bar tab,” says Vincent.
Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm —Jen Castle and Blake Spalding (Boulder, Utah), 50 employees
Zero-tolerance for harassment policy: The country’s most remote fine-dining restaurant, outside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and four hours from Salt Lake City, is an unconventional workplace. With an eight-and-a-half-month season, a working farm to supply the restaurant, and staff housing off-site, it’s a natural fit for the young and free-spirited. But there’s a dash of grown-up, too: They pay living wages, there’s a zero-tolerance harassment policy, and all management is hired internally. Co-founding chef Blake Spalding, a practicing Buddhist, says she doesn’t believe in treating people poorly—but there are practical concerns, too. Happy staff keeps turnover low, so there’s less worry about finding far-off replacements midseason. And besides, says Spalding, “a happy crew makes for a happy restaurant. And since we work there, if it’s bad, it sucks.”
JuneBaby , Salare, and Lucinda Grain Bar—Edouardo Jordan (Seattle), 52 employees
Living wages and paid vacation: For the man who was last year’s most celebrated chef, running a good restaurant means getting, and keeping, the best employees. To that end, chef-owner Edouardo Jordan (a F&W Best New Chef in 2016) pays living wages, nixes shift drinks, and covers paid vacation and half the health insurance premium for anyone working 30 hours a week. “It costs more money to hire a new person and train them than it does to pay someone a living wage and keep them around,” says Jordan. But it’s personal, too. After coming up in brigade-style kitchens, he says, “I’m not going to be yelling at you or screaming at you. That’s not the kind of energy and vibe I want to have in my restaurant.”
Mama J’s —Velma and Lester Johnson (Richmond, Virginia), 60 employees
Promotes from within, raises every year: When this casual soul-food spot opened in 2009, it had something precious: a built-in clientele, drawn from the side business its founding chef, Velma Johnson, had started as a caterer after leaving a post as deputy sheriff. She and her son—and business partner—Lester Johnson ended up with a booming restaurant, and they made it one where sexual harassment results in termination, standard policy is to train lower-wage hires into better-paid positions, and wages go up every year. And, as a result of visiting his mom at her deputy sheriff job when he was a kid, Lester keeps an open door for people returning home from prison. “I used to visit [my mom] at work, and if you can help people to not have to go back to that, that’s a good thing,” he says. “If we’re going to say you’ve paid your debt to society, we’ll give you a second chance.”
Mei Mei —Irene, Margaret, and Andrew Li (Boston), 25 employees
Open-book management and employee training: When the Li siblings opened up this counter-service shop in 2013, the trio approached being an employer with the same creativity they brought to traditional Chinese dishes. In addition to wages above minimum, they cover 50 percent of health insurance premiums for workers at 30 hours and distribute tips through a pooling system. Co-founder Irene Li recently got a grant from a state workforce training fund to introduce open-book management as a training opportunity. Monthly staff meetings discuss Mei Mei’s profit and loss statement, set goals for efficiency or sales, and help train workers to run a restaurant along the way. “The team has awesome ideas because they’re on the ground every day,” says Li—and it has paid off. In 2017, Li says, the practice shaved 4 percentage points off their cost of goods sold in just three months.
Anti-harassment trainings and health insurance: When Susan Spicer, a F&W Best New Chef in 1989 and founding chef of the celebrated Bayona, opened Mondo in 2010, she knew exactly what to do when it turned a steady profit in its first year. “I wanted to be able to offer insurance,” says Spicer. Health insurance subsidies kick in for staff working 30 hours a week at Mondo and at sister restaurant Rosedale (opened in 2016), all employees get paid vacation, and staff who want to develop new skills can cross-train at new stations. And, once #MeToo broke, Spicer ran staff through anti-harassment trainings, earning her an “HR Shield of Approval” from local consultancy Gotcha Covered, which audits for workplace communication, competitive wages, and opportunity for advancement. Adding the new trainings “just eliminates an element that prevents people from focusing on their work,” says Spicer. “Which is ultimately what I want my cooks and waiters to be able to do.”
Patachou Inc.—Martha Hoover (Indianapolis), 350 employees
Anti-bias training and matched 401k plans: Despite being founded in 1989 during the early onset of chef-as-tortured-rock-star syndrome, this Midwestern group, now 13 restaurants strong, has long pushed workplace quality. “When I started my restaurant, I just thought, ‘This is a really fucked up system that treats people so poorly,’” says founder Martha Hoover. So, she “created our own template.” Today, the company gives all staff rigorous anti-bias training and offers matched 401(k) plans for full-time staff. Staff can access free legal advice and mental health counseling, organized in partnership with local professionals, and the Peer Fund, an emergency fund that offers loans (interest-free) or grants at the discretion of a committee. Full-timers get paid time off, health insurance, and parental leave. “My goal is to keep good people in my company,” says Hoover, who says her retention rate is a third higher than the industry average.
Living wages for everyone: After eight years of running this deli and restaurant, Jam Sanitchat and Bruce Barnes were dismayed by the pay disparity between kitchen staff and servers. So in 2016, they tried a base living wage for everyone, banned tips, and hiked prices 20 percent. Sanitchat, the chef, accurately predicted she’d lose 15 percent of her profits—but sales bounced back in a year, and turnover practically disappeared. “The environment is totally changed,” she says. The policy has also allowed her to add health insurance for full-timers and paid time off for everyone. “I don’t want to go back; it’s working for me,” says Sanitchat.
Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe —Vimala Rajendran (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), 27 employees
Open books and paid time off: When this counter-service café offering Indian home cooking, specifically cuisine from the state of Kerala (where chef-owner Vimala Rajendran was born), opened in 2010, its open kitchen wasn’t just a design choice—it made a moral statement. “The open kitchen for me is … a way to show that my life is transparent,” says Rajendran. She shares profit and loss numbers with her staff, hoping to promote a sense of ownership and to provide transparency. The restaurant pays living wages, offers every employee one week each of paid vacation and sick leave, encourages cross-training across positions, and participates in a local Chamber of Commerce program that offers subsidized primary care for all employees. And to push other business owners to do better, she helped found RAISE, a ROC United–backed association of restaurant owners pushing the industry to take “the high road” as employers.
Zingerman’s Community of Businesses—Ari Weinzweig (Ann Arbor, Michigan), 700 employees
Employee aid fund and cross-training: Launched in 1982 by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, this collective that began as a reimagined American deli is now made up of 15 businesses, including a new Korean eatery, Miss Kim. Wages and tipping policies vary among the businesses; Miss Kim pays living wages and is a tip-free restaurant, while other businesses stick more closely to minimum and let tips make up the rest. But all workers get paid time off based on hours worked, usually two weeks after a year, and can access an emergency fund. Their biggest standout is their intensive open-book management, which engages all staff in financial strategy and constant cross-training. “Most places teach people how to do their job, not how to run the business,” says Weinzweig. The approach is popular far beyond Zingerman’s itself. Since 1994, its ZingTrain business has shared the model with thousands of businesses (including Biscuit Love) nationwide.
In developing this year’s list of Great Restaurants to Work For, Food & Wine asked three questions: What keeps restaurants from being good workplaces? Who is known for being a good restaurant employer? How can we check? Here’s how we tried to answer them.
How to send feedback
What did we miss? We’ve done our best to give you an honest assessment of great places to work, but if there’s something missing, we want to know. We’re taking comments on this year’s list seriously, and we would love to hear suggestions for next year’s. To comment on this year’s list, fill out our Great Restaurants to Work For Surveythis link opens in a new tab, or email us at email@example.com.
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