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 Door, 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.
Guest blogger Joseph Edwards is a Liberty Hill volunteer.