CNN – Eatocracy

February 7th, 2012

Stacey Samuel
Would you eat at a restaurant without knowing if the food has gotten a good review? How about basing the night’s dining destination on how well its employees are treated?A new guide has been released rating restaurants not on the quality of their cuisine, but rather on fairness.“Diners’ Guide 2012: A Consumer’s Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants” evaluates establishments nationwide, from fast food to fine dining, ranking them on their labor practices.“It’s the first national guide of its kind ever released,” says Saru Jayaraman, Executive Director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) which commissioned the endeavor.“It’s not asking people not to eat anywhere,” says Jayaraman, “It’s just asking people to engage in a conversation every time they eat out. The same way consumers have gotten into a conversation about organic food or [asking] ‘Is this locally sourced?’”

The guide’s ranking system mimics the popular Zagat guide, with symbols representing whether the restaurant has paid sick leave and if workers receive less than $5 in hourly wages.

Food service workers have the dubious distinction of being the lowest paid workers in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum wage for tipped wage earners is $2.13, the same it’s been for the past 20 years.

In the opening pages of the guide, author of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser is quoted as saying, “How the food tastes at a restaurant really doesn’t matter, if the people who work there are being mistreated.”

Do working conditions factor into where you decide to eat?

Total Votes: 2,026

It’s a sentiment echoed throughout the food and beverage service industry.

“Why shouldn’t I receive the same benefits as any other professional in America today?” said Jared Cropps, a former bartender at The Capital Grille, who says he studies his craft outside of work, researching wines and food so he can offer the best pairings.

Like most tipped-wage earners in the service industry he did not receive paid days off, and a sick day or a vacation meant days of not being paid. Now, Cropps is among a group of 26 former Capital Grille employees who have filed a lawsuit against the restaurant’s parent company, the Darden Corporation, alleging racial discrimination, failure to provide equal opportunity and some forms of wage theft.

He says after returning from a scheduled vacation he lost his job, never having been written up. He wasn’t alone; in the same week, two other African-American male employees were also let go, they say without a history of infractions.

“Racial and gender discrimination are quite prevalent in the restaurant industry,” says Nikki Lewis, Lead Organizer for ROC in its Washington, D.C. office.

The Darden Corporation, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, which owns The Capital Grille, along with other well-known chain restaurants including: Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse, has been named for a second year in a row to Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.

In response to Darden’s industrial accolades, Jayaraman says “We need to make sure that the company, regardless of what awards and things they want to say about themselves, that there’s dignity and respect on the job, there’s basic unified treatment of the workers, there’s no discrimination on the basis of race or gender; that they’re complying with basic wage and hour laws.”

Rich Jeffers, Director of Media Relations for Darden, says until the lawsuit, the company had no record of the employee’s complaints being filed through their “dispute resolution process” which offers workers the chance to air grievances in a variety of ways.

“By no means do we say we’re perfect,” said Jeffers in an interview with CNN, before the class suit was filed. “We absolutely want to look into if anybody feels they are not being treated fairly.”

A major complaint among restaurant workers is the lack of promotions and advancement opportunities. It’s an issue that affects many among the 11 million people who work in the service industry across the country.

“People get pigeonholed, no matter how many years of experience they have,” says Lewis, who continues to work as a bartender and server, while operating the growing D.C. office.

“The big issue is that the livable wage jobs among hourly workers are wait staff and bartending positions in fine-dining restaurants. You can have lots of people of color, you can have people of color managers at a Red Lobster but that’s not who you see working in the most livable wage jobs,” adds Jamarayan.

Since 9/11, when workers from the famed Windows on the World restaurant (which was located in the World Trade Center’s North Tower) lost some of their colleagues and their livelihoods, ROC’s mission has been to improve the wages and working conditions of the nation’s low-wage workforce.

The guide is a call to action for both diners and restaurant employees. While restaurant workers, and consumers alike, provide data on the working conditions at eateries, local ROC offices organize demonstrations in hopes of provoking change among the worst offenders. Their actions have even caught the attention of an Emmy-award winning director Robert Bahar who is following ROC-DC’s protest against The Capital Grille.

But what does fairness cost restaurants? Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local Washington D.C. staple, is touted in the guide as a “High-Road Restaurant” because the eatery takes part in roundtable discussions that educate restaurant owners on fair labor practices, while not compromising profitability.

High marks are handed out to outfits small and casual to high-end, like gold medal winners Crema and Craft, fine dining eateries, in New York City, and José Andrés’ multiple restaurants in Washington, D.C. Head of Human Resources, Eduardo Sanabia, of Think Food Group which manages famed Chef Andrés’ restaurants believes employees are the backbone of the business.

“We provide them with a lot training, training for their careers, we’re producing the food industry professionals of tomorrow,” says Sanabia. “We focus on quality and service, the profits will come.”