by Sean Maloney
Well, here's a humdinger for ya! While there has been a lot of talk lately about ethically and sustainably produced food — free-range vegetables, biodegrable napkins and pesticide-free meat and what not — but there hasn't been a lot of talk about the actual people who are preparing and serving your food. It's sort of a given that food service workers are underpaid and overworked, that they don't get benefits and don't get paid sick days, and that it isn't a big deal or a thing that your average diner should be concerned about.
Hopefully, with the release of Saru Jayaraman's book Behind the Kitchen Door (coming this February from Cornell University Press, check the trailer above) that will change — there's an entire class of people being disregarded in our current food revolution, and those are the very people who are making it happen on the microscopic, putting-the-food-on-your-plate level.
For me, the treatment of restaurant workers and the need for reform hit really close to home. I left the restaurant industry because I couldn't handled being treated like a piece of Grade-D Sysco pre-fab meat by my employers and customers alike. The straw that broke the camel's back was me, well, throwing out my back on the job — it was a slow night and the owner wanted me and the crackhead janitor to unload a truck of P.A. equipment, but the crackhead got distracted and dropped a 300-pound speaker cabinet on me — and then getting fired shortly after I started looking into worker's comp so I could maybe, possibly see a doctor. I mean, maybe I should have quit the restaurant industry years before when a faulty fryer nozzle resulted in a latex glove melting onto my hand and leaving a burn the size and shape of New Jersey, but like many other restaurant workers I didn't really have any other options. I just had to put some ice on it and hope to hell it didn't require actual medical attention. And hope that the pus didn't get in the food.
And while I do know that there are restaurants out there that do treat their employees well, in my experience they are the minority. And I understand that treating your employees like human beings isn't the most profitable way to run a business — I might be a terrible, terrible capitalist but I do understand that — but don't we as consumers deserve to have our food prepared by people who are healthy and happy? Would you being willing to pay a premium to know that the waitstaff and the kitchen staff are being treated well?
If you're the kind of person who makes a big deal over local food, organic food and sustainable food, the answer should be yes. I know that if there was some sort of proletariat certification — like a LEED certification for employment practices — I'd be all about it. And I'd still tip well, because fuck it, if somebody is going to bring me food and not accidentally get snot in it because they could actually afford to go to the doctor, I'm going to support that.
But what about you Bitesters? I know that you're not all as pinko as I am — I'm about as pinko as they come — but would you still support a restaurant that raised its prices to give its employees better wages, benefits, a degree of security in an often cruel and unfeeling industry? Do we owe the people making our food a decent living? Do you even give a shit about that sort of thing?
Or would you rather just have the current system in place? Do you already have places you support because you know that they not screwing workers over? Do you have a place you support because you know they ARE screwing the workers? I'm seriously intrigued on where you guys stand on this.