Last weekend, Liberty Hill hosted one of its highly
regarded van tours to stops along the frontlines of change in L.A.—this time to
explore the frontiers of ethical dining accompanied by activists with
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United L.A. (ROC-LA).
Van tours are a special benefit for Liberty Hill’s Justice
Society donors, who, as major supporters, have made investments in changing L.A.
through community organizing. The tours allow grantee organizations to go
deeper with discussions of the issues—in this case, about conditions for
workers in the restaurant industry and what some “High Road” restaurant owners
are doing to take the next steps for justice.
About 47 participants were on board the bus
including Liberty Hill staff and representatives of ROC-LA, a community
organization that fights workplace justice campaigns, promotes the “high road”
to profitability and does research and policy work. Three stops were made: the
first at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in downtown L.A. to talk with
a worker who is part of the “ROC MD” coop through which restaurant workers can
get preventive healthcare; then at Red Hill restaurant in Echo Park for some
terrific food and an inspiring discussion; and finally outside Capital Grille at the Beverly Center for
background about ROC United’s campaign against discrimination and wage theft at
the national chain.
To get things rolling, Shane Goldsmith, Liberty Hill’s
Vice President and Chief Program Officer, took the microphone and proceeded to detail in
depth the inequities faced by workers in the restaurant industry every single
day. Currently, the median wage among restaurant workers in L.A. is $9.24 per
hour, although immigrant workers have a much
lower median wage than U.S.-born workers. Los Angeles has more employees in the restaurant
industry than any other city in the nation (including New York!) and most of these
jobs offer no health care, no sick pay, and lack of opporunity for advancement. More
than half of all restaurant workers in the United States earn less than the
federal poverty line for a family of three.
All of these reasons are why Liberty Hill is
supporting ROC-LA, a young organization with 300 members. Stephanie Cho and Nic
Bean from ROC LA joined the van at St. John’s and their narration continued the
discussion as the bus headed to Red Hill, a cozy place on Echo Park
Avenue near Dodger Stadium. Red Hill, a ROC-designated High Road Restaurant. pays tipped wages of $5 and non-tipped of $9, offers paid sick days, and has opportunities
for staff to have upward mobility in their jobs.
As tour participants sampled
flat breads and fresh-squeezed juices made from locally sourced produce, owner Jason Michaud, the owner, addressed the group
and talked about his feelings about the industry, and mentioned that with his
better policies that he has a dramatically lower turnover rate among staff and
feels they do better at their jobs with better conditions.He was joined by another High Road restaurant owner, DIep Tran of Good Girl Dinette in HIghland Park.
Saru Jayaraman, ROC LA’s Director and author of Behind the Kitchen
which is a researched text on inequality in the restaurant industry, spoke next
and highlighted the differences between Red Hill and the big chains. She talked
about the movement among diners supporting local food producers and farmers and
encouraging the use of organic products. She thanked diners for these efforts, citing eye-openers like “Fast Food
Nation.” The next step, she challenged, was for diners to realize that “ethical
dining” includes an awareness of worker rights and support for healthy
conditions for restaurant cooks and waiters as well as for their customers.
One of the main comparisons made in the discussion was between a restaurant
like Red Hill and those like Capital Grille, one of a chain owned by Darden
Corporation. Capital Grille, where ROC-LA members hold weekly protests, was the
last stop on the tour, and participants heard of some of the practices cited by
ROC’s “Dignity at Darden” campaign. ROC says the company’s sales were more than
$7 billion last year, but tipped employees are paid $2.13 per hour, non-tipped
employees receive $7.25 per hour, and neither receive paid sick days.
Paula Litt a longtime supporter of Liberty Hill who has attended
a number of van tours, was moved by the workers' revelations about Capital
Grille. “We go to restaurants pretty often, and you never think of the people
serving you or the people working in the kitchen,” she said. “Sure, we give
tips and try to be generous, but even in these high end restaurants the workers
perform in the worst conditions.”
See more photos at Liberty Hill's Facebook photo album of the tour.
Joseph Edwards is a Liberty Hill volunteer.