Nona Willis Aronowitz
Anyone who has worked in the service industry knows that the public face of a restaurant hardly reveals what’s going on behind the scenes. The chipper smiles of food service workers, who make up one-tenthof the U.S. workforce, often belie the fact that these workers can make poverty wages and endure horrible working conditions.
Now, diners have a new tool to tell the ethical restaurants from the grimy ones. Just in time for the new year, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has created a National Diners’ Guide to 186 of the most popular restaurants in the country [PDF]. The guide rates restaurants based on tipped worker wages, non-tipped worker wages, paid sick days, and opportunity for advancement—like Zagat for socially-conscious dining. If a restaurant meets ROC United’s standard, they earn an icon; if not, they get a zero. Standout establishments are awarded a silver or gold star; shady businesses receive a frowny face. The guide also includes tip cards for restaurant owners and workers that inform them of their rights.
The guide covers everywhere from Burger King to five star restaurants, and the results are mostly depressing. A smattering of high scorers—like California’s Chaya Restaurant Group or New York City’s Colors—are nestled in a sea of zeros, earned from places like McDonald’s, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and even chains with good reps like Starbucks. Many establishments have question marks, meaning they’ve declined to reveal their policies at all. For spots not listed in the guide, ROC United advises you to open your eyes while dining or strike up a convo with your waiter. Is the waitstaff a lot whiter than the line cooks? Does that message on the tip jar sound a little too desperate? Sometimes, the evidence is right in front of you.
Food service workers are a group spanning from college-educated rich kids to undocumented immigrants. Ten million of us hold these jobs, and we’re staying in them longer and longer. If the future rests on the polo-and-apron economy, it only makes sense that we keep tabs on it—and chow down at the restaurants that are treating their workers right.