Restaurant Opportunities Centers United launch campaign to improve jobs in restaurant industry | Photos
On Tuesday morning, Saru Jayaraman, the co-director and founder of ROC, announced the launch of the national "Dignity at Darden" campaign. This campaign is aimed at alleged discrimination and wage theft by Darden Restaurants, owner of notable chains like Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and their high-end restaurant brand, Capital Grille. The allegations accuse Capital Grilles in four major US cities: New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
The charges first caught the attention of ROC when almost all of the black workers at the Chevy Chase (D.C. area) location of Capital Grille were fired for not "meeting Capital Grille's standards" and replaced by white workers. Looking deeper into the company's practices, ROC found "the CEO is making $8.5 million and the workers are making $2.13 an hour," said Jayaraman. "We will not put up with that."
Carlos Marban described his time as a dishwasher for Capital Grille in Chicago to the crowd of 60 or so people. "My experience there was not a pleasant one," said Marban. "I wanted to work my way up to become a waiter but there wasn't any room for improvement for a dishwasher. "
While Marban was able to leave after realizing there was no upward mobility, Alfredo Galdamez is not as lucky. Using a translator, Galdamez spoke to the crowd as a current employee at Capital Grille. "In my country, I used to be the person who ate at the Capital Grilles. In this country I am on the other side," said Galdamez. He detailed how Capital Grille reacted with indifference when he hurt his foot. "We are not allowed to bleed," he said. "We are not allowed to be hurt."
It was around this point in the panel that someone found a microphone the speakers could use. The voices and message became stronger.
"Ten years ago, we started asking where our food comes from. Now it's time to start asking, how are we treating the people who bring it to us?" asked Megan Larmer, co-president of Slow Food Chicago. "Sometimes these workers are treated worse than that pork chop that is on your plate."
Not all restaurants succumb to these pitfalls. Exceptions like Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique and Houlihan's (both catered the event) are favorably marked in the ROC national Diners' Guide, which asked restaurants about their practices regarding paid sick leave, wages for tipped and non-tipped workers and opportunities for mobility. It also provides tip cards that patrons can give to workers and managers at restaurants to ensure they know their rights.
Teresa Ging, owner of Sugar Bliss, began her career in finance and quickly learned that treating employees right was a vital part of financial success, turning the common wisdom of the food industry on its head. "I don't just look at them as employees," said Ging. "I look at them as family." When asked about the Diners' guide, Ging responded, "I feel honored to be a part of it. It's important that people patronize places that treat their employees well."
By the Q&A portion of the event, the volume on the mic had kicked into full gear and the voices of the panelists filled the room. For Marban, this event provided hope that things would get better. "I'm glad there is much support and there can be help. Things can change."