Meet the chefs and restaurateurs who are making restaurant jobs better.

By Tracie McMillan
March 14, 2019
From top left to right: Mike Piazza, Emily Crawford-Berger, Rachel Enneking, Rikki Ward Photography

When it comes to working in the average restaurant in America today, there is good news, and there is bad news.

The bad news probably won’t surprise you. As an industry, food preparation and serving post the lowest wages in the country, with half of workers earning well under the median living wage. Sexual harassment, brought to center stage with the #MeToo movement, has been more commonly reported by workers in restaurants than any other industry over the past two decades. When Just Capital, a survey group dedicated to corporate accountability, ranked 890 publicly traded companies in 33 industries based on worker treatment, “restaurants and leisure” as a category ranked second to last.

In America’s more than 640,000 restaurants, most workers, whether in award-winning fine-dining kitchens or massive corporate chains, know that it is bad. In 2017, the turnover rate in accommodation and food services was 72.5 percent, compared to a total private employment turnover rate of 47.4 percent—putting restaurant turnover rate at 53 percent higher than the national average. When worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United surveys restaurant workers, they find that “the biggest issues [workers] confront is wages first, benefits like paid sick leave, and mobility—especially on the basis of race, but also gender,” says Saru Jayaraman, the group’s cofounder and president.

Much of this has been par for the course for decades, with an origin story in the brigade system that defined renowned European kitchens. When Anthony Bourdain wrote a tribute to Marco Pierre White’s 1990 genre-defining White Heat for the book’s 25th anniversary, he called the industry’s work conditions “a cycle of abuse that passed as learning one’s trade.” It makes a certain kind of sense that cooks made their work’s lawlessness and cruelty into a badge of honor. And yet, some operators are beginning to suspect that the rock-and-roll kitchen tales may have been something else: a myth that helped make the unbearable, bearable.

And this brings us to the good news.

Today, an increasing number of restaurateurs have set out to improve restaurant jobs. Some have done this for decades; others are new to the effort. Either way, they are boosting wages and expanding benefits. This is happening in the liberal enclaves of Brooklyn and Seattle, but it’s also bubbling up in conservative bastions, like Boulder, Utah, population 200, and Indianapolis, too. (And it is happening even as the federal government has ignored calls to raise wages for the past decade.)

Some of the improvements are happening for practical reasons. America’s tight labor market is tighter still in restaurants, the country’s third-largest industry, and kitchens have been particularly hard-hit by immigration restrictions. Restaurants now work harder to attract and keep good workers. They cast wider nets in hiring, and some restaurateurs now seek out returning citizens (people coming home from prison), for both kitchen work and the well-paid front of the house. And they seek to reduce turnover, a goal that many who’ve dropped the traditional tip model—by pooling tips across workers or by replacing tips with a living wage—say they’ve achieved.

But there is passion, too, some of it long-standing. “You are not allowed to pick up a baguette and pretend it’s a dick in my restaurant,” says Martha Hoover, who helms Indianapolis’ 13-outlet Patachou Inc., now in its thirtieth year, which runs employees through implicit bias training and has a zero-tolerance policy on harassment and discrimination. And for chefs who came up in rough-and-tumble kitchens, there can be a drive to make it better for the next generation. “I’ve worked in places you dreaded to be,” says F&W Best New Chef 2016 Edouardo Jordan, of Seattle’s JuneBaby, Salare, and Lucinda Grain Bar restaurants, who starts workers well above the state’s $12 minimum wage; he also pays 50 percent of health insurance premiums and covers paid vacation for anyone working 30 hours a week. “I was never able to have insurance as a young cook; I think only one time I had vacation pay,” he says. “And I don’t want to put anyone through that life.”

In the profiles that follow, you’ll learn about 19 American restaurants that are creating better workplaces for staff. So what does a great restaurant to work for look like? It may have an open kitchen, which operators say promotes better professional conduct, and open books, which helps workers learn the business. It may have set schedules and pooled tips, which take guesswork out of the job and promote stability. And there is almost assuredly a dedication to treating restaurant workers as something they have rarely been given credit for: professionals.

From top left to right: Beasley's Chicken and Honey, the directors of AC Restaurant Group Kait Goalen, Ashley Christensen, Teddy Diggs, Cappie Peete, Steven May; Poole's Diner, Death & Taxes
From top left to right: Annie Bovitz, Jeff Bramwell, Johnny Autry, Nick Pironio

AC RestaurantsAshley Christensen (Raleigh, North Carolina), 200 employees

Setting high standards from the get-go: When visiting chefs come through Ashley Christensen’s kitchens at any of her five restaurants (or Aux, a commissary kitchen opened in 2015), prep includes an email explaining the careful work the group has done to root out harassment and unprofessional behavior post-#MeToo and setting the standard to which they’ll be held. “It gives us the opportunity to make sure the work we’re doing isn’t wrecked by someone who brings, perhaps, their own bad habits,” says chef-owner Christensen, who now makes discussing the company’s harassment policies an explicit part of training for new hires and a regular topic at staff meetings. “We have this opportunity to talk about this thing and contribute to our industry.” In addition to taking a strong stance on harassment, Christensen offers starting wages for untipped workers at 45 percent above minimum wage, health and dental benefits for all full-time employees, and vacation for all salaried workers.

From top left: New American fare at Ardent, owner and chef Justin Carlisle, Ardent Restaurant interior

Joy Jacobs Photography

ArdentJustin Carlisle (Milwaukee), 9 employees

Regular schedules and maternity leave: With only 20 seats and a tasting menu, Milwaukee’s Ardent, open four days a week, shares plenty of DNA with traditional fine dining. But when chef-owner Justin Carlisle, who came up in brigade-style kitchens, opened the doors in 2013, he was considering quality of life as much as the food. The thinking, he says, was “What’s the minimum I need to be open, and be able to pay the bills, and live without resorting back to the culture that I left?” Carlisle tries to bring that influence to bear on his two other concepts—Red Light Ramen and Laughing Taco—but it’s the policies at Ardent that stand out the most. Staff there get set schedules, living wages and pooled tips (which take guesswork out of the job and promote stability), cross-training between front and back of house, and a month of paid parental leave.

From left to right: Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, Chiles en Nogada, the kitchen at Barrio Café

Courtesy of Barrio Café

Barrio Café and Barrio Café Gran ReservaSilvana Salcido Esparza (Phoenix), 32 employees

It's not just about a paycheck: After a long and dispiriting stint in corporate dining, chef-owner Silvana Salcido Esparza wanted to do better for her employees when she opened her own place, Barrio Café, in 2002. She pays living wages, added a tip option for the kitchen on receipts at eight-table tasting-menu restaurant Gran Reserva, and covers health care and 401(k) plans for her five managers. Benefits for hourly employees are less formal: She’ll loan employees money interest-free to patch a rough , she cultivates local talent, she gives set schedules, and she takes “no bullshit; there’s no sexual harassment.” The idea, says Esparza, is that “there are other ways of paying people: by treating people well, giving them the schedules they want, and being accommodating. It’s not just about a paycheck.”