Editor’s Note: Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and president of One Fair Wage and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America” (New Press, 2021). The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
In 2017, a professionally trained chef from India was working as an intern at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that has frequently led a list of the world’s best and has announced that it is closing to diners next year to reinvent itself as a food lab. As an intern, the New York Times reported, Namrata Hegde’s only task was to make 120 fruit-leather “beetles” every day. She was told not to laugh or, for that matter, make any other noise. All of which would be bad enough had Hegde been paid. But she was an unpaid intern at a restaurant that charged $500-per-person for its dinner menu.
Her story is part of a much broader narrative about fine dining, and about the restaurant industry at large. As Imogen West-Knights reported for the Financial Times in June of last year, at Noma and other fine dining restaurants in Copenhagen, “two stories are being told. The first is in the dining room, a perfectly choreographed show of luxury and elegance” and the second, the one diners are never supposed to see, is “the story of what happens on the other side of the kitchen wall.” West-Knights’ reporting acknowledges that it would be unfair to “point the finger exclusively at Noma” (which denied many of the characterizations of its working conditions in her piece) or at intern labor in particular, but also paints a vivid picture of the financial and mental-health toll experienced by many restaurant workers at the center of the boom in Nordic fine dining.
This isn’t a new problem, nor is it limited to Nordic culinary circles. It’s truly international, and it’s been going on for a long time. In 2017, with the release of the World’s Best Restaurants list (the top five of which at the time were located in New York City, Italy, Spain, France and Peru), Eater pointed out that many of them could not function without unpaid work. And as recently as this month, New York Times food critic Pete Wells – in noting the impending closure of Noma – said, “Most of the overkill restaurants could not last a week without free labor.”
But the fact that Noma is closing, citing an “unsustainable business model” as the reason, coincides with a historic moment that goes beyond the problem of intern labor (but is related to the ugly economic reality of fine dining). Both in the United States and internationally, millions of workers in all segments of the restaurant industry are refusing to work for the wages and working conditions they accepted for decades, and a massive staffing crisis has resulted in thousands of restaurants recognizing that the model of backbreaking work for little or no wages used for over a century is unsustainable.
While low pay and poor treatment of restaurant workers is a problem worldwide, the business model of restaurants increasing their margins by reducing wages – paying workers as little as possible, or even nothing at all – has very American roots. It dates back to the end of slavery, when White restaurant owners sought to find loopholes to avoid having to pay newly-freed Black workers.
That led to the creation of the subminimum wage for tipped workers in the United States, a legislative mechanism through which restaurant owners have not been required to pay their workers the same full, fair minimum wage that every other worker in the nation is entitled to because customer tips are supposed to cover their wages. That puts servers, who are overwhelmingly women and women of color, at the mercy of customers, leading to rampant sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Indeed, because of subminimum wage laws at the federal level and in 42 states, Black women in the restaurant industry make $2.57 an hour less than their White male counterparts.
And, of course, in a globalizing world, restaurants in the United States increasingly rely on exploiting immigrant workers, including undocumented immigrant workers – just as the model of low pay and exploitation of restaurant staff has become a global phenomenon. In that regard, many fine dining business models borrow from the same unfair playbook cooked up by corporate chains, many of which lobby to maintain subminimum and poverty wages in the industry.
The use of free and low-wage labor is particularly hypocritical in fine dining restaurants, which charge hundreds of dollars per plate, but it is part of an overall history and system of free and poverty labor in the restaurant industry generally that is finally being rejected by workers en masse, forcing employers to confront the fact that it was never appropriate to begin with.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurant workers reported that tips went down, sexual harassment went up, and workers were required to enforce masking, social distancing and vaccination card rules on the very same people from whom they had to obtain tips to survive – making an already unsustainable job even less sustainable. In the aftermath, workers have been fleeing the restaurant industry, no longer willing to accept abusive conditions and poverty wages. This has led to a global restaurant staffing shortage – from the United States to India, from Australia to the UK.
Even though the National Restaurant Association says the industry has added 2.2 million jobs in the last two years, even they admit the industry still has over 450,000 fewer workers than before the start of the pandemic. This is just part of the worker shortage facing the industry. The number of job postings is over 500,000 more than before the pandemic. While the monthly quit rate for the industry remains nearly 30% higher than it was before Covid-19. Of those who remain, over half say they are leaving, according to surveys conducted by the organization that I lead, One Fair Wage, which serves workers and restaurant owners nationwide working to improve wages and working conditions in the service sector. Nearly three-quarters of these workers say that the primary factor that would make them return to working in restaurants would be a full, livable wage with tips on top.
In response, thousands of restaurant owners aren’t throwing in the towel, but are rather stepping up – joining thousands and thousands of owners worldwide who have shown that good wages and working conditions can not only go hand-in-hand with running a successful restaurant business but also are in fact necessary components of long-term growth, staff retention and profitability.
In the United States, thousands of ‘high road’ restaurants are paving the way to a better industry, not just leading with their great food but their values. These range from fast-casual restaurants to experimental fine dining establishments that pay a full, fair wage with tips on top in addition to providing benefits for staff including health insurance and paid leave. And in the wake of the pandemic, we at One Fair Wage have documented over 5,000 more restaurants paying $12, sometimes $15, sometimes $20 an hour or more to attract and retain talent – finally confronting the fact that poverty wages were never okay to begin with and were bad for workers and bad for business.
Even more exciting, policymakers are following suit – to turn these wage increases into law, so that our industry continues to move forward. In 2022 alone, restaurant workers won a campaign to raise tipped worker wages from $3 an hour to $12 an hour in Michigan and $5 to $16.75 an hour in Washington, DC. There is now legislation moving in at least nine other states to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers, including New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont and Rhode Island, and ballot measures moving on the same issue in several more states that will be on the ballot in 2024.
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All of this progress is due to the fact that millions of workers are rejecting subminimum and poverty wages for the first time since Emancipation, and thousands of employers are recognizing that the industry’s wages have been unsustainable for far too long. Legislators need to listen to and support these workers and employers with policies that would institutionalize these wage increases and incentivize millions of workers to come back to work.
Simply put, the people who put food on our tables at restaurants should be able to feed their own families – or they will not be able to afford to work in restaurants. It’s too bad that the very innovative team behind Noma chose to shut their doors instead of becoming innovators where the restaurant industry needs it most, in showing how to run a great restaurant that respects and rewards the workers who make it great.
But rather than lamenting the closure of Noma, we should celebrate and support the innovation and leadership of thousands of other restaurants that are re-inventing the industry and making it more sustainable - and the workers who are driving that change.