Can Restaurants Become Drivers of Opportunity—Not Inequality?

To Prosper in a New Era, Eateries Will Have to Reckon With Issues Left to Simmer on the Back Burner

Can Restaurants Become Drivers of Opportunity—Not Inequality? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

As the pandemic hits its second year, the restaurant industry faces a reckoning. Courtesy of Martin Meissner/Associated Press.

Thousands of restaurants have closed for good across America since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic last March. Many others remain temporarily shuttered; the remainder limp by with sales a fraction of what they were. Even with the arrival of a new administration and new vaccines, millions of restaurant workers continue to be out of work today, as the pandemic rounds its second year.

But the current disruption in the restaurant industry, for all the pain and economic loss it’s caused, provides an opening to disrupt the established models, and reckon with both the decline of hospitality and the reality of restaurant inequality. To recover and thrive in the years ahead, this essential American business will need to bring its time-honored cultural traditions into greater alignment with the social movements that define our times.

To start with, consider the slew of new options to purchase commercially prepared food that have flooded the marketplace in the last year. These options include delivery platforms, meal subscriptions, and online storefronts with offsite “ghost kitchens.” Takeout and delivery sales have skyrocketed, as have lines at the local drive-thru. Clearly, those who can afford to eat out occasionally are still buying and consuming food that they do not make themselves.

A shadowy army of workers has sprung up to staff these operations. Many are precariously employed, armed with some combination of a vehicle, a mobile app, a mask, and hand sanitizer. By connecting people to food through wordless hand-offs or drop-offs of plastic-wrapped edibles, these people are doing the human labor that Silicon Valley would rather automate than improve.

It’s paying work, but we should be alarmed by this trend, which represents the decline of hospitality.

Hospitality is not only about restaurants. It reaches into nail salons, spas, and hotels; it is the beating heart of the tourism trade. For customers, hospitality can be an immersive consumptive experience, the ineffable pleasure of a well-earned night out or trip away. For workers, hospitality is a form of interactive labor that requires subtle interpersonal skills. Hospitality is about customer service, which means that it is about affective and aesthetic forms of labor: the careful use of one’s emotions and bodily appearance to create a desired experience for others.

Precisely because hospitality is an infinitely more textured and sensory-rich experience when it is in-person rather than in a virtual environment, settings of hospitality are uniquely vulnerable to retreats in public life, be they from contagious viruses or new technologies.

While it may be easy for some observers to dismiss hospitality as “non-essential,” this overlooks just how deeply embedded hospitality is in our culture as well as our economy. Hospitality imbues otherwise ordinary activities (think: eating, resting, relaxing, going somewhere new) with special value and collective ritual. In restaurants, it elevates food consumption to the level of romance, laughter, discovery, scenery, identity, and status. We may not like everything that gets packaged together in restaurants, but picking restaurants apart and putting their constitutive parts back together as delivery handoffs and “ghost” kitchens sucks the life out of these operations.

When restaurants are allowed to re-open in full again, however, they will have to do far more than restore hospitality. They—and the larger society—will have to reckon with an issue long left to simmer on the back burner: social inequality within restaurants.

Even in the best of times, restaurants have been engines for social division and hierarchy in our society. These inequalities go beyond the well-known distinction between server and served—that is, those who have the resources to inhabit restaurants for leisure versus those who are compelled to be there for labor.

Less visibly, restaurants produce and reproduce social hierarchies of race and class within their workforces. As I explore in my recent book, Front of the House, Back of the House: Race and Inequality in the Lives of Restaurant Workers, everyday forms of inequality get threaded into the very fabric of restaurants. Particularly in higher-end establishments, class-privileged, white men and women get channeled into front-of-house and managerial jobs while working-class people of color, especially foreign-born Latino men, toil behind the scenes.

When restaurants are allowed to re-open in full again, however, they will have to do far more than restore hospitality. They—and the larger society—will have to reckon with an issue long left to simmer on the back burner: social inequality within restaurants.

This social division of labor is the result of both management decisions and the worker inter-relations that bosses help to structure. Management sets the stage for this dynamic in restaurants through discriminatory hiring and supervisory strategies. Workers then play out the scenes each and every day, coming to understand their colleagues as members of distinctly unequal “teams” tinged with race, class, and gender differences.

As a cruel irony, these inequities will get more pronounced, not less, as restaurants return to full operations (as I hope that they do again very soon). This is because serving more customers means very different things for different groups of workers. For those in the front of the house, a busy shift means more cash tips; for those in the back of the house, a busy shift means more sweat. Tips thus function as racialized and classed forms of income because they flow primarily to front-of-house workers who are often young, white, and highly educated and stop short of the Brown and Black workers in the kitchen. Under the hood of hospitality, the reproduction of social inequality feels—and looks—like business as usual.

Restaurateurs, given their numbers and all the lives they touch, could play an outsized role in bringing about organization and industry-wide innovation along these lines. The question they will need to address is, how can their establishments become more equitable spaces of employment while still managing to fill seats and pay bills? Upholding the exploitative and racially unequal norms of the past may become increasingly bad business, especially in an era when social-media savvy diners have trained their attention on these topics.

Using this moment to figuratively “turn the tables” on restaurant practices could represent a boon to business rather than an undue burden. This involves rethinking unspoken industry practices in order to widen the pool of people that find stepping foot in restaurants to be a rewarding experience. Because hospitality is about enacting finely crafted relationships with guests, the behind-the-scenes craftwork that goes into this should be made transparent to both customers and workers. The swift and silent busser, the jack-of-all-trades line cook, the bar back who is a master of anticipating needs; these workers invest daily in the production of hospitality. It is time for their employers to celebrate them in meaningful ways, such as by recognizing workers publicly while also expanding their training and advancement opportunities, or by soliciting worker input on best practices and providing these individuals with a pathway to acquiring a stake in ownership (or at least a cut of recent business successes they helped achieve).

Restaurant management should communicate these efforts proudly to members of the public as a selling point. Helping create a more inclusive workforce channels our moment in history in the most positive way possible, connect conversations in the community with conversations around dining tables—and among those walking the floor and working the grills, too. As we have seen from the rise of social and political protest in the sports world, restaurants could look to partner with foundational movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo in their efforts to empower workers of color and women and propel them into prominent roles within the industry. Restaurants are still businesses, and businesses must make money in order to survive. But they can and should do so as value-driven brands—third spaces for a new era—that tap the cultural milieu and refract it back outwards in the form of concrete practices.

Customers need to be able to support restaurants that make these concerted efforts. A worker advocacy center called Restaurant Opportunity Coalition United (ROCU) has launched an app call ROC National Diners’ Guide aimed at bringing consumer awareness to restaurants that are practicing “high road” employment standards, such as by offering livable wages, racial equity, and opportunities for advancement. The app’s interface is designed like Yelp, the widely used restaurant review app, except with a rating system for employment standards and a corresponding map of restaurants in the area (though it has limited coverage).

The Diner’s Guide is but one of a growing number of efforts to realize change in an industry that is at a crossroads. The road forward is to make going to a restaurant to be an act of supporting a new movement to infuse our dining experience with both expertly crafted hospitality and concerted efforts to advance social justice.

If we build such a movement, restaurants should thrive again in the post-pandemic era—as the engines of opportunity, not inequality.


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