‘We need it to work’: the restaurants trying to be forces of social and climate good

‘We need it to work’: the restaurants trying to be forces of social and climate good

How can restaurants be forces of good? Here are six ways

Cafe and bookstore Busboys and Poets, in Washington DC, seeks to be a place where 'racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted'.

Across the US restaurants are placing communities front and center, paying fair wages and going zero waste

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11th Hour Project

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Salome Gomez-Upegui

Last modified on Tue 20 Jul 2021 12.59 EDT

Whether it’s a beautifully decorated bistro, neighborhood diner, fancy white tablecloth eatery, or fast-food joint, millions of people escape to restaurants every day for nourishment, leisure and enjoyment. In the US the industry accounts for 4% of the country’s total GDP, currently employs around 12.5 million people, and in 2020 – despite the pandemic – reported $659bn in sales.

Still, restaurants do not serve all Americans equally. To name a few issues, according to the non-profit One Fair Wage seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the country are restaurant industry positions. And along with grocery stores and foodservice companies, eateries account for 40% of the 40m tons of food supply wasted every year. Moreover, Feeding America reports that more than 42 million people could be facing food insecurity, including about 13 million children, a situation that has been badly exacerbated by the pandemic.

So can restaurants be forces of social and environmental good? If a restaurant tried to practice ‘food justice’ in various forms, what would that look like?

“The conversation around food justice and restaurants is very nonlinear,” chef and food justice advocate Sophia Roe said. “Food justice looks different everywhere because the reasons people don’t have food are different everywhere.” Roe said restaurants have to consider both the workers involved in their operation, and also the environment.

“When I speak about all of the elements that have to come into play, such as fair wages, involvement of the community, sustainable farming and sourcing locally, people say it sounds impossible,” Roe said. But she added that numerous restaurants around the country are already at the forefront of change.

1 Placing communities front and center

Speaking of what the bare minimum should be for restaurants seeking to put principles of food justice into practice, Sophia Roe, a chef, believes “the No 1 effort should be directed towards the community that surrounds you”.

“If you’re in the middle of a black neighborhood and you don’t have one black employee, that is a problem,” Roe said. “And I’m not saying that you can’t be a white restaurant owner in a black neighborhood. But if you are, you better be making those black people the center of your work, paying them incredibly well, and getting food from black-owned farms.” Citing an example of a restaurant doing right by their community, she mentioned the case of Homegirl Cafe in Los Angeles, a restaurant run by Homeboy Industries – the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world – that offers skill training and employment to former female gang members of the city.

Voters at Homegirl Cafe in Los Angeles during the 2020 presidential election.

The cafe was an official voting center during the 2020 presidential election and Homebody Industries was involved in an effort to provide free food for workers at dozens of polling sites in the city.

In Cleveland, Ohio, meanwhile, Edwins restaurant has for years been training formerly incarcerated adults in cooking and hospitality in an attempt to inspire confidence and break the cycle of re-offending.

2 Uplifting important causes

Busboys and Poets is a full-service restaurant, bookstore, coffee shop, bar and events venue with nine locations spread throughout the Washington and Baltimore areas. Founded by Andy Shallal, an artist, activist, and restaurateur, it’s advertised as “a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted” and, aside from taking sustainability seriously by recycling and using 100% wind renewable energy at three of their locations, it has long been outspoken and supportive of crucial social causes like the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Trio-Plant Based, the first black-owned vegan restaurant in Minneapolis, has also been intent on uplifting the BLM movement. It was founded in 2018 by Louis Hunter, a cousin of Philando Castile, 32, who was shot dead by police in 2016 during a traffic stop. Hunter’s restaurant handed out free meals last year to those protesting the murder of George Floyd.

“Food justice can’t just mean having enough, it should also mean having what you want,” Roe said, describing the importance of everyone being able to enjoy good food whatever their income. Haymarket Cafe in Northampton, Massachusetts, is a great example of this. Through the Common Account, a donation-based initiative created by owner Peter Simpson around four years ago, the restaurant provides a sliding scale menu with prices at $3 to anyone who asks for it. “So many people are ostracized when they’re living outside. With the Common Account, they can come into the cafe, have a sense of normalcy and order anything from the menu, like everyone else who is going out to eat and having a meal they want,” Simpson said.

3 Paying fair wages

The restaurant industry has a wages problem. Countless workers are paid below livable wages and too many rely heavily on tips to make ends meet. Lately, this dire situation has resulted in staff shortages around the country, which some employers are responding to by offering better pay and better benefits.

Hunky Dory is an all-day cafe and bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that made a pandemic comeback implementing major changes to its policies around wages by eliminating tips – which have been heavily criticized as a source of income because of how they are influenced by guest bias – and committing to equal wages for all staff members including front and back of house employees. For owner Claire Sprouse, these changes have paid off by allowing her to retain great staff. “I think people are drawn to stability, but also to a business that shares their values,” she said. And though she recognizes the difficulty and risks surrounding these shifts, she also spoke about the importance of giving them a shot. “Some people have to start making these efforts, even if they’re at risk of failing because if they don’t, everything will continue to be stagnant. And that stagnant space we’re living in as a hospitality industry is only really working for a few people. We need it to work for more.”

Other restaurants committed to paying better wages and being outspoken about it include Colleen’s Kitchen in Austin, which advertises a 20% service charge for all dine-in tabs “to ensure a livable wage for all staff members”, and HallPass Food Hall in Salt Lake City, which recently began paying all employees at least $19 an hour.

4 Worker-owned or co-op models

The importance of employees is being taken to new heights by restaurants who have foregone the idea of hierarchies or sole ownership and instead, have adopted co-op models or are worker-owned.

Such is the case, for example, of Joe Squared, a pizza place in Baltimore which recently reopened its doors by transitioning into a worker-owned cooperative, or Understory in Oakland, a worker-led restaurant “that prioritizes immigrant, working-class, and people of color chefs through pathways to worker-leadership, project support and training, and economic opportunities”.

At Rhodora Wine Bar in Brooklyn, the model is also one of a flat hierarchy. “Everyone is paid the same wage and everyone has equity in the restaurant, so a percentage of all of our profits gets distributed to our team,” co-owner Halley Chambers explained. “I think people in restaurants can often feel that they’re at the whim of some management group that’s making decisions that don’t take into account their lived reality,” she added. Chambers believes the worker-led model makes it easier to operate as a cohesive team.

5 Going vegan or implementing sustainable food sourcing

When it comes to reducing the ecological impact of the food we consume, plant-based diets have clearly stood out as the best options. Earlier this year, veganism made headlines when Eleven Madison Park in New York City announced it would reopen its doors as the first fully vegan restaurant with three Michelin stars (there are 12 meat-free restaurants with at least one Michelin star). On a recent episode of the How I Built This podcast, Daniel Humm, the owner and chef, cited sustainability as the main reason for choosing a plant-based menu. “The way we have sourced our food, the way we’re consuming our food, the way we eat meat, it is not sustainable. And that is not an opinion. This is just a fact … So we decided that our restaurant will be 100% plant-based,” Humm said.

While celebrated chefs going meat-free helps promote the cause, cherished longtime neighborhood vegan restaurants have been making such a contribution for years. Almost every city has at least one but just as an example, Golden Temple in Birmingham, Alabama, has been serving meat free food since it opened in 1973.

Roe also believes going vegan isn’t necessarily the whole story in terms of sustainability. “We need to be mindful that being a vegan restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not creating a lot of plastic waste or a large carbon footprint. Veganism doesn’t make it all automatically better,” she said. Roe believes that eating and sourcing local foods is the most sustainable practice. “Now, eco-regional veganism,” Roe added, “that’s really wonderful.” For instance, Fermenter, a fully plant-based restaurant based in Portland is one of such places that offers fermented goods such as tempeh, koji, kombucha and cheeses by only using locally obtained grains, vegetables and legumes.

Several other restaurants around the country have sought sustainability by procuring ingredients from local farms. One example is Boulder, Colorado’s Blackbelly, which places sustainability and transparency front and center by detailing all of their local ingredient sources on their website and committing to the use of local-grown produce as well as pasture-raised animals they butcher in-house as “Boulder’s only whole animal, artisanal butcher shop”.

6 Carefully using resources or going zero waste

Berkley, California, is home to Chez Panisse, a green Michelin-starred restaurant that’s been lauded for launching the modern farm-to-table movement in the US. Since the 70s, Alice Waters, the chef, has made sure all of the ingredients served come from within a 50-mile radius, but the iconic restaurant does a lot more in terms of sustainability. It has been certified as a carbon-neutral business by Zero Foodprint and operates as a Green Business, meaning water consumption is limited, non-toxic materials are used throughout, and efficient use of energy is guaranteed.

Similarly, Uncommon Ground, a farm-to-table restaurant with two locations in Chicago which houses the first certified organic rooftop farm in the US, is also intent on using “ecological cleaning supplies, high-efficiency light bulbs, and solar hot water”.