2020 was a difficult year for the food and beverage world. The entire industry was utterly crippled by the pandemic—forced to lay off workers, switch to delivery and takeout, and scramble to implement safe and often complicated protocols for on-premises dining. Very little aid was offered. PPP loans disappeared quickly.

By April, more than five million food and beverage service workers had lost their jobs, and by year’s end, more than 110,000 restaurants had permanently closed. For most of us, there’s no such thing as a sick day or health insurance—and many establishments aren’t even bothering to inform their staff or the public of exposures.

The industry has long been rife with problems, from unfair wages and lack of basic workers’ rights to sexual harassment, racism/sexism/classism, and substance abuse. As the year dragged on and prospects dwindled, folks nationwide began coming forward.

Locally, the accusations have been grim—from the well-publicized instances of racism and inappropriate sexual behavior of the owner and management at Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, to the numerous sexual harassment scandals from other local establishments that keep getting swept under the rug. And while the pandemic has presented huge obstacles, it has also given us the opportunity to reexamine and ask: Can we do better?

I’ve spent my entire adult life in restaurants. The restaurant industry put me through college, and ultimately, I chose it. There was something truly gratifying about it. I was constantly learning—about food, spirits, wine. I learned to read people, to disarm an uncomfortable situation. I learned to cook in restaurants. I made lifelong friends and formed a sense of community. I felt like I was really doing something. I was always moving, learning, and adapting. But as I entered my thirties, the glaring injustices so ingrained in this industry became harder to ignore.

Over the last decade, the pay structure has barely changed. Tipped wage in North Carolina is still only $2.13 an hour, and restaurants rely on tips to supplement income for their servers, bartenders, and support staff.

Most line cooks still only make $10-12 an hour. Kitchens rely on immigrants and people of color to staff dishwashing positions, often paying them very little and rarely offering opportunities for growth. Most managers average 60+ hour weeks and typically don’t even bring in $50,000 a year.

The public’s attitude contributes heavily to these systemic problems. There’s an insulting underlying assumption at play: that we are uneducated, that we have made poor life choices, that our jobs aren’t “real” jobs. Diners expect us to perfectly guide them through a meal from start to finish, anticipating every need, and they often still believe that we’re morons. Just this year, Senator Ted Cruz suggested that we didn’t deserve the extra $600 a week and were lazy for not wanting to return to work in the middle of a pandemic.

The argument has been made that restaurants couldn’t survive without tipping—that they can’t afford to pay a living wage. Margins are tight, waste is often high, and capital is limited. But owners and chefs have profited greatly from the rise of the celebrity chef and the public’s growing fascination with the industry.

They appear on television, do NPR interviews, and are featured in national publications. Business skyrockets, reservations book out weeks in advance, and profits soar. They build brands on the backs of their employees, often never acknowledging or properly compensating them.

Instead, they build hot tubs on their roofs, spend hundreds of thousands renovating their homes, shell out thousands on custom lighting for their new projects, and then look you in the eye and say they can’t afford to give you a $2,000-a-year raise or increase the line cook wage by $1 an hour. Yes, even here in the Triangle.

We just need HR departments, they say—sensitivity training, an external investigation. And sure, that’s a great start. But let’s be honest: HR departments aren’t the ones with the power to advocate for workers’ rights. They don’t decide what constitutes a fair wage or fight for paid sick days. They are there to mitigate damage, to preserve a business’s public image. So how exactly does this solve any of the big problems? I’m genuinely asking.

Fortunately, some folks have stepped up. In June, Bay Area chef Teague Moriarty, owner of Sons & Daughters, vowed to close the gap between his salary and that of his lowest-paid workers. Locally, Andrew Ullom of Union Special starts pay at $15 an hour and has stayed open this year with strict protocols, simply to ensure that he can make payroll—and prioritizing his people above profits.

What do these establishments have in common? The owners are right there with their employees, scrubbing floors on their hands and knees, unclogging drains. There is almost no turnover.

There is no formula that will work for everyone. Each place has unique challenges. But there is no longer any excuse for allowing these injustices to take seed. We have the time to reexamine our practices and create environments where folks can thrive rather than just survive.

To restaurants and chefs: It’s time to start standing up for your people. It’s time to value those who run your company over ill-behaved customers and stand up for those brave enough to come forward about misconduct.

To the public: You have a part to play here, too. Take the word “unskilled” out of your vocabulary when referring to us. When you hear that someone has abused their staff, stop giving your money to people who refuse to take accountability! You ask so much of us—don’t we at least deserve a little respect? Aren’t we worth fighting for?

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