Restaurants and Labor Practices

I used to be a line cook. For a little while in Cleveland, and then later in San Francisco, and then in Chicago. The experience transformed me, in part because it was where I gained a sense of self-discipline. Also, because I was good at it. In school I had never been good at anything – I was a talented dilettante, but I had trouble sticking to anything, partially because of a lack of discipline, but also because I desperately needed affirmation that did not come from sympathy, or personal attachment. Moving to San Francisco and getting a job in a serious kitchen changed all that. I knew that if I didn’t show up on time and work hard, I would be fired, and it scared me enough to get me into the habit of working. And once I actually started to get the hang of it, it turned out I was pretty good at it too. However, I had various personal problems that led me to leave San Francisco, and by the time I started working in kitchens in Chicago, I had stopped taking cooking seriously. It was just a way to make a living while I figured out what I was doing with my life. I still love to cook, and sometimes miss the thrill of restaurant work – the steadfast endurance of heat and strain, the flat-out panic of the rush – but I was mighty pleased to get out of the service industry when I finally did.

The good folks over at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth recently put out an issue brief (based on a larger academic study) by T. William Lester, a Professor a UNC Chapel Hill entitled “The consequences of higher labor standards in full service restaurants” that I found utterly fascinating. In a comparison of restaurants in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina and the city (and county!) of San Francisco, they observe distinct situations for labor, stemming in part from the different policy choices of their respective local governments. San Francisco has some of the highest labor standards (mandated by local government policy) in the US – Research Triangle falls significantly lower on that scale. The study really brings out the differences between the two.

In San Francisco, because wages are higher, restaurants have incentive to limit turnover, to minimize time and resources spent training. They also encourage professional development among employees, sometimes designed around team building exercises. People tend to spend years working happily in the same place, and the quality of service is improved by that. Thinking back on my time there, I’d say it’s quite true that there is a strong sense of camaraderie among service industry workers, and that employers tend to approach their employees as people, rather than just tools with inconvenient emotional traits. I think that’s partially a culture thing – and I think San Francisco is special, even in the Bay Area, as a place where people really work at not being assholes to each other at work. Outside of work, its maybe a different story. But anyways…

The contrast of North Carolina is stark – hiring practices are very machine like, because turnover is higher. I’ve seen this side of the service industry as well – it can be dehumanizing, the online job applications, the cattle call interviews and the cookie cutter training. But people don’t stick around to work crap jobs and be treated like objects, so turnover is high, and restaurants have to deal with that. And they have to commit considerable resources to the activity of hiring and shuffling and dealing with people they don’t know all the time. I’m sure managing a large restaurant that way would be soul sucking work. Even the most stout-hearted person in the world would become a merciless tyrant after a few years in a place like that.

I’ve occasionally wondered what my life would have been like if I had stayed in San Francisco and committed to the culinary life. It’s a great town to cook in – and from the sound of it, cooking there is a career, and not a bad one either. Arduous, sure. But most places have health benefits, and when they don’t the City actually provides basic health benefits at low cost to workers. Moreover, the data suggests a convergence of wages between back-of-house and front-of-house positions that increases the general sense of equality among workers, and helps break down long standing racial and ethnic stereotypes rampant in the service industry. It makes me really happy to know that policy really does make a difference in regular people’s lives, especially over the medium and long term. I remember when the City passed a minimum wage of $8.75 (I think) back in 2003, and my boss at the time was just bitter about it. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association was super bent about the whole thing, saying that raising wages would ruin the industry. Turns out, it made it way better, both for the customers (who now enjoy exceptionally high levels of service) and labor.

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