The ground swell of a new movement is well underway, at least in the United States. For decades North Americans have looked down upon jobs in the restaurant business. When I applied to the University of Guelph’s school of Hotel and Food Administration in 1984 (the school I teach at today) my father tried to talk me out of it. “You should look at a real career, something in banking or accounting” he said. The result of this attitude towards the restaurant business has seen an entire industry develop an inferiority complex. The industry is not looked upon as a honorable profession, we’ve accepted that it is and always will be a ‘transient’ business, and perhaps most damaging; we’ve incorporated poor employment practices into our business models. As an industry we’ve set an incredibly low bar for ourselves and accepted that this is the way it will always be.
Speak to industry leaders and they will tell you that finding and retaining great staff and quality management is almost impossible in today’s marketplace. Well is this not something we have done to ourselves? Is the fact that an alarming amount of recent hospitality graduates are leaving the restaurant business after only a few years not a signal that we are doing something wrong? Is it not time that we move to a different model, one of respect and dignity, not only for the people that work in our restaurants but for the profession itself?
So what is happening in the United States right now that isn’t happening in Canada? Change is what is happening in the United States, leaders, advocates and innovators are taking the socio-economic realities of food service workers and looking for ways to improve careers in food-service. In many cases its as simple as trying to provide food-service workers with a living wage.
Here are a few examples of change agents south of the border:
1. Fight for 15 is perhaps the best example. http://fightfor15.org/en/homepage/ This movement feels somewhat like the ‘occupy’ movement of a few years ago. Protest based, this organization is fighting for a ‘living wage’ for food-service workers.
2. Leaders like Saru Jayaraman. Saru is one of the founders of the Restaurant Opportunities Center and author of a wonderful book entitled ‘Behind the Kitchen Door’. Saru is an advocate for the socio-economic issues facing food-service workers today. http://rocunited.org/
3. Innovators like Danny Meyer. I’ll admit that Danny is my hero but he is also an innovator in the restaurant business. His innovation hasn’t been food related like most restaurateurs, his has been a business model based on ‘enlightened’ hospitality towards his customers and ‘servant leadership’ towards his staff. Read this wonderful article by Chef David Falk to learn more about caring about kitchen employees http://www.esquire.com/blogs/food-for-men/battle-cry-for-hospitality?src=spr_TWITTER&spr_id=1456_70384501
4. Radical thinkers like Jay Porter who eliminated tipping at his restaurant the Linkery in San Diego. Porter did this, to help redistribute more of the wage pie to his kitchen staff. Read this article in Slate written by Jay as he tells how he got rid of tipping and the service at his restaurant improved. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2013/08/tipless_restaurants_the_linkery_s_owner_explains_why_abolishing_tipping.html
Now does this mean that nothing is happening in Canada? No it doesn’t but there are surprisingly few individuals addressing these really tough issues that plague our industry, there is really no momentum being created at all in this country. There is no ‘organization’ happening, there is no larger company setting a standard for others to follow. Interestingly enough the one ‘no-tipping’ restaurant that has popped up in Canada (Smoke n’ Water) is actually owned and operated by an American. And get this, he has no restaurant experience! http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/05/12/is-it-time-to-take-tipping-off-the-menu/
So why are these issues not being addressed in Canada as fervently as they are in the United States?
1. We have no ‘association’ that looks at real restaurant issues. Sure there is Restaurants Canada (The old CRFA) but this organization is truly only a lobbyist and pays no real attention to issues other than those that will save their members a few cents cost in the short run.
2. Our Chefs are quiet. I’ve been waiting, hoping that a recognizable Canadian Chef will step up and address these issues but this is yet to happen. This is a hard one to understand because you would think that Chefs having lived through the world of low wages and poor working conditions would want to create a better environment for those following in their footsteps.
3. No company setting the pace! In the US you have In and Out Burger, Chipotle, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group all doing radical and innovative things when it comes to compensating or treating their employees. In Canada I have searched high and low for such a company but without luck. Sure we have some great companies to work for but nobody is innovating when it comes to these issues.
4. The hype about ‘local’. I’m all for supporting our local farmers but I really don’t want their food being cooked by a single parent working for a wage below the poverty line. If we want to support local should we not look at improving the living conditions of not only those that grow our food but those that prepare it!