In this age of food we're bombarded by facts and opinions on how, what and where to eat. We Angelenos especially like our fine restaurants and casual eateries. But where to go? There are more than 20,000 restaurants in Greater L.A., according to the Weekly's Voiceplaces.com. There seem to be nearly that many ideas on the best spot for a hot pizza, spicy taco or juicy burger.
Now, there's a guide with a slant, the ROC National Diners' Guide 2012: A Consumer Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants. ROC is the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a restaurant-worker advocacy group based in New York City with locations in eight cities, founded by the workers of the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant after 9/11.
The guide rates restaurants on five criteria: tipped-worker wages, non-tipped worker wages, availability of paid sick leave and a record of promoting from within. The fifth category is what ROC calls "the high road to profitability" for restaurants that aim for quality working conditions and agree to partner with ROC in supporting its causes. (ROC has recently released case studies of these "high road" spots, Squid Ink reported last week.)
There are 38 "high road" restaurants across the country, with six in LA. The guide's other 146 listings are from Restaurants and Institutions magazine's 2009 listing of high-grossing chains. For example: McDonald's, Domino's, Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, Starbucks and 7-Eleven. On the pricier end we see restaurants including Roy's, McCormick and Schmick's and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. These fared similarly to their fast-food companions, failing in most or all categories.
L.A.'s six "high road" restaurants contrast with those in the "top-grossing chain" category based on size and revenue. The "high roaders" are independent, relatively new eateries (Good Girl Dinette, The Gorbals, Homegirl Cafe and Local) or members of small, exclusive groups (Chaya and Craft). (The criteria for identifying this group are unclear, as are ROC's plans for adding new entries.)
Last Tuesday evening, ROC kicked off its L.A. publicity campaign with a dinner and panel discussion at The Gorbals. For $25, guests munched bacon-wrapped matzoh balls and other snacks accompanied by a high-volume DJ. Somehow, the five panel members -- a ROC administrator, three "high road" restaurant staffers and a representative of the L.A. Food Policy Council -- made themselves heard above the din. ROC panelist Cathy Dang said the guide's purpose is to encourage employers to adopt improved working conditions; an increased hourly wage, paid sick leave and a record of promotions from within.
There seems to be little disagreement with ROC's basic agenda. According to the L.A. Food Policy Council, most food service workers do not have jobs that offer a living wage, fringe benefits, job security, decent working conditions or advancement opportunities. Still, some see drawbacks to the guide.
One is that its perspective is too narrow. The guide excludes the challenges of finding jobs, discrimination, harassment, workplace safety, fringe benefits (other than sick leave), grievance resolution, job security and more. Furthermore, ROC doesn't address issues such as healthy eating, environmental protection, ethical sourcing and responsible agriculture.
Then, there are questions about the survey methods. For the majority of restaurants, at least one category shows a question mark, meaning that the surveyors -- staffers and volunteer university students -- were unable to obtain the information.
Some companies contest the guide's findings. One is Darden Restaurants Inc. (Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster), which is being sued by former employees with ROC's legal help. The guide not only gives Darden zeroes but also inserts frown-face icons indicating alleged discrimination and wage theft.
"I don't think the ratings we received are accurate in any way," Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers told Bloomberg News. "Opportunities in our restaurants are incredible. The president of Red Lobster started as a line cook in 1973."
Alexa Delwiche, speaking on behalf of the L.A. Food Policy Council, acknowledged these concerns, but said the guide can "start a movement among consumers who didn't realize so many issues exist in the restaurant industry."
Ilan Hall, chef and co-owner of The Gorbals, agreed. He said the guide is "a jumping-off point that tries to bring awareness of the issues." He also said many eateries not in the guide treat workers well simply "because that's their philosophy."
Dang said the guide can be useful. "Dine at starred restaurants in the guide, and take it with you when you travel across the country," she said.
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Chef-owner Diep Tran of Good Girl Dinette said that diners need to understand the complexities of food service work. The biggest question is, "how do you stay in business?" Tran said.
The L.A. Food Policy Council recognizes the role of competition among restaurants. The need to keep costs low "makes it difficult for employers to do right by their employees without being undercut by other firms," according to its website. It is "nearly impossible" for small businesses to improve working conditions without outside help.
Jason Michaud, chef-owner of Local, said he prefers to pay high wages for quality work. But it's a struggle. "If Local weren't popular, I would be bankrupt, out on the streets panhandling."