Stars, points, forks, chef toques... Restaurant ratings have entered the language and the imagination of diners all over the world. The web has allowed anybody to post reviews and comments on the places they visited, often accompanied by pictures of the dishes they consumed. Depending on what reviewers choose as their guiding principles, ratings can reward cuisine, ambiance, price, sustainability, or the use of local ingredients -- really whatever they think is most important to the dining experience. Restaurant goers also check the grades given by the local health inspectors to make sure that the places they patronize respect the necessary hygiene standards. As consumers, whether we follow ratings or not, we want to make sure we are weighing all our options to make the best selection. This same need for information is the catalyst behind the development and success of various seals and value-based labels, from organic to fair trade.
However, we often pay more attention to the aspects of the food system and restaurant industry that receive coverage in the media and in public debates. The impact of celebrity chefs, the conversations around farmers' market and food safety, and the social activities aimed at better local food systems risk to overshadow other crucial elements, including the role of labor.
Restaurant and food workers, often immigrants and at times undocumented, remain invisible. Yet we know that in a city like New York not much would food would be produced without an army of line cooks, dishwashers and busboys. We see deliverymen zipping on bikes to bring us the food we order online or over the phone, but we acknowledge their existence only when we hand them a delivery tip. Their relevance and their contribution to the food system will be the focus of an event at The New School on March 11.
Following their mission to improve wages and working conditions for the nation's restaurant workforce, ROC -- the Restaurant Opportunity Centers -- have launched the ROC National Diner's Guide to Ethical Eating, a yearly publication that puts labor issues at the forefront. The rating criteria include wages, benefits (including health insurance and sick days), and opportunities for professional advance and internal promotions. Best practices are highlighted as part of what is proposed as the "High Road to Profitability."
Of course, ROC realizes how challenging this can be for companies and entrepreneurs. For that reason, ROC has inaugurated Restaurant Industry Roundtables, which provide a forum for workers and labor organizers to connect and collaborate with restaurant owners, government agencies, city officials, media and consumers. As stated in the initiative's webpage, Roundtable members have access to many services, including guidance on how to gain and/or stay in compliance with employment, immigration, health and safety laws; access to low-cost health insurance for employees; and access to advanced training for both front- and back-of-the-house employees.
The 2013 edition of the ROC National Diner's Guide to Ethical Eating -- the second to date -- covers major cities such as Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia, and smaller urban centers like Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. The guide is based on information gathered by ROC from Roundtable members through surveys developed under the guidance of researchers at University of California and Georgetown University. The restaurants listed in the guide are among the most profitable establishments that have adopted the "High Road" principles.
Although ROC initiatives target business, consumers have a big role to play. By choosing to dine in a place that works to improve labors relationships, we can indirectly "vote with our dollars," as the saying goes. Of course, this is not enough to tackle complex and enduring issues such as the decrease in workers' wages and the organization of the workplace. Interventions in terms of laws and regulations are necessary, which require our engagement and attentions as citizens and voters. However, being more mindful about the labor practices of the restaurants we go to is a first step, and one that can bring change to the lives of restaurant workers.