What restaurants should you eat in if you care about workers?

Laura Clawson, June 15th, 2012

Americans spend a lot of money eating in restaurants—75 percent of us eat out at least once a week. If you’re a person who likes food or hates to cook but also doesn’t like the fact that 19 percent of restaurant workers earn less than minimum wage, what are you to do?

Advocating for better policy is the most important thing, of course. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is just $2.13 an hour; if tips aren’t enough to bring that up to $7.25 an hour, employers are supposed to make up the difference, but many do not. Increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers and passing paid sick leave laws are important moves; passing laws that crack down on wage theft is another.

But while changing the law would improve working conditions for the greatest number of restaurant workers, we can also try to have an effect as consumers. That’s where the Restaurant Opportunities Center National Diners’ Guide comes in. It includes information on the 150 most popular restaurants in the United States, as well as others that have especially good labor practices. Here’s the bad news: If you eat in restaurants, it’s a near certainty that you’re eating in places with poverty pay and no sick days or opportunities for advancement. That’s the average. Except for the chains that ROC is organizing against around discrimination and wage theft, the restaurants that stand out, stand out because they’re better.

Nationally, Five Guys stands out as a good restaurant choice—the burger chain, in addition to being delicious, offers paid sick leave and opportunities for advancement, promoting at least 50 percent of its workers, and participates in a ROC Restaurant Industry Roundtable to promote a “high road to profitability.” Among regional chains, In-N-Out offers paid sick days and pays a wage of at least $9 to all its employees, and Elephant Bar, which has restaurants in 10 states, pays $5 an hour to tipped workers and offers opportunities for advancement. Some other chains offer paid sick leave or opportunities for advancement, but beyond that, you’re looking local. The local restaurants in the Diner’s Guide are, understandably, concentrated in places where the Restaurant Opportunities Centers are organizing. If you’re in New York City, Detroit or Ann Arbor, Michigan, Washington, DC, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, or several California locations, there may be options for you.

ROC also offers a consumer toolkit and tip cards for restaurant workers, owners, and managers that you can print out.