Opinion: Food for thought for those mourning Noma

Opinion: Food for thought for those mourning Noma

Editor’s note: Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Work Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America” ​​(New Press, 2021). The views expressed in this comment are the author’s own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.


In 2017, a professionally trained chef from India was working as an intern at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that has often topped a list of the world’s best and has announced that it will close for dinner next year to reinvent itself as a food laboratory. As an intern, the New York Times reported, Namrata Hegde’s sole task was to make 120 fruit leather “beetles” each day. She was told not to laugh or, for that matter, make any other noise. All this would be bad enough if Hegde had been paid. But she was an unpaid intern at a restaurant that charged $500 per person for the dinner menu.

Her story is part of a much larger narrative about fine dining and the restaurant industry in general. As Imogen West-Knights reported for the Financial Times in June last year, at Noma and other fine dining restaurants in Copenhagen, “two stories are being told. The first is in the dining room, a perfectly choreographed display of luxury and elegance” and the second, which consumers should never see, is “the story of what happens on the other side of the kitchen wall”. West-Knights’ reporting acknowledges that it would be unfair “to point the finger exclusively at Noma” (who denied many of her characterizations of working conditions in her piece) or at practical work in particular, but also paints a picture living the financial and mental health toll experienced by many restaurant workers at the center of the Nordic fine dining boom.

This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to Nordic culinary circles. It is truly international and has been going on for a long time. In 2017, with the publication of the list of the best restaurants in the world (the top five of which at the time were located in New York City, Italy, Spain, France and Peru), Eater pointed out that many of them cannot to function without unpaid work. . And by the end of this month, New York Times food critic Pete Wells — noting Noma’s impending closure — said, “Most overstretched restaurants can’t go a week without free work.”

But the fact that Noma is closing, citing an “unsustainable business model” as the reason, coincides with a historical moment that goes beyond the problem of hands-on work (but relates to the ugly economic reality of fine dining). Both in the United States and internationally, millions of workers in all segments of the restaurant industry are refusing to work for the wages and working conditions they accepted for decades, and a massive staffing crisis has resulted in thousands of restaurants admitting that the model The back-breaking low-wage work used for more than a century is unsustainable.

While low wages and poor treatment of restaurant workers is a problem around the world, the business model of restaurants increasing their margins by cutting wages — paying workers as little as possible, or not at all — has roots very american. It dates back to the end of slavery, when White restaurant owners sought to find loopholes to avoid paying newly freed Black workers.

This led to the creation of the tipped minimum wage in the United States, a legislative mechanism through which restaurant owners are not required to pay their workers the same full and fair minimum wage that every other worker in the country is entitled to. right because the customer’s tip is supposed to cover their wages. This puts servers, who are mostly women and women of color, at the mercy of customers, leading to rampant sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Indeed, due to minimum wage laws at the federal level and in 42 states, black women in the restaurant industry earn $2.57 an hour less than their white male counterparts.

And, of course, in a globalizing world, restaurants in the United States increasingly rely on the exploitation of immigrant workers, including undocumented immigrant workers—just as the pattern of low wages and exploitation of restaurant staff has become a global phenomenon. In this regard, many delicious business models borrow from the same unfair playbook prepared by corporate chains, many of which lobby to maintain sub-minimum and poverty wages in the industry.

The use of free and low-wage labor is particularly hypocritical in fine-dining restaurants that charge hundreds of dollars per plate, but it is part of a general history and system of cheap and poor labor in the restaurant industry in generality that is finally being rejected. by workers en masse, forcing employers to face the fact that it was never fit to begin with.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurant workers reported that tips were reduced, sexual harassment increased and workers were required to enforce masking, social distancing and vaccination cards for the same people they were supposed to be getting tips from to survive – making an already unstable job even less stable. After that, workers fled the restaurant industry, no longer accepting abusive conditions and poverty wages. This has led to a global shortage of restaurant staff – from the United States to India, from Australia to the UK.

Although the National Restaurant Association says the industry has added 2.2 million jobs in the past two years, even though they admit the industry still has over 450,000 fewer workers than before the pandemic began. This is just one part of the labor shortage facing the industry. The number of job postings is over 500,000 more than before the pandemic. While the monthly churn rate for the industry remains nearly 30% higher than it was before Covid-19. Of those who remain, more than half say they are leaving, according to surveys conducted by the organization I lead, One Fair Wage, which serves restaurant workers and owners nationwide working to improve wages and working conditions in the services sector. Nearly three-quarters of these workers say the main factor that would make them return to restaurant work would be a full, livable wage with tips on top.

In response, thousands of restaurant owners aren’t throwing in the towel, but instead are stepping up—joining thousands upon thousands of owners around the world who have shown that good wages and working conditions can not only go hand in hand with running a success. restaurant business, but are actually also necessary components of long-term growth, staff retention and profitability.

In the United States, thousands of high road restaurants are paving the way for a better industry, not only leading with their great food, but also with their values. These range from fast casual restaurants to experimental fine dining establishments that pay a full, fair wage with tips on top, in addition to providing staff benefits including health insurance and paid time off. And in the wake of the pandemic, we at One Fair Wage have documented over 5,000 more restaurants paying $12, sometimes $15, sometimes $20 an hour or more to attract and retain talent — finally facing the fact that poverty wages were never okay to begin with. and they were bad for workers and bad for business.

Even more exciting, policymakers are following suit — to turn these wage increases into law so our industry can keep moving forward. Just in 2022, restaurant workers won a campaign to raise tipped workers’ wages from $3 an hour to $12 an hour in Michigan and $5 to $16.75 an hour in Washington, DC. There is now legislation moving in at least nine other states to end the minimum wage for tipped workers, including New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont and Rhode Island, and measures by ballots moving on the same issue in several other states that will be on the ballot in 2024.

All this progress is due to the fact that millions of workers are rejecting sub-minimum and poverty wages for the first time since Emancipation, and thousands of employers are acknowledging that industry wages have been unsustainable for too long. Lawmakers must listen and support these workers and employers with policies that would institutionalize these wage increases and encourage millions of workers to return to work.

Simply put, the people who put food on our tables in restaurants need to be able to feed their families – or they won’t be able to afford to work in restaurants. It’s too bad that the highly innovative team behind Noma chose to close their doors instead of being innovative where the restaurant industry needs it most, to show how to run a great restaurant that respects and rewards the workers who they make it great.

But instead of mourning the closing of Noma, we should celebrate and support the innovation and leadership of the thousands of other restaurants that are reinventing the industry and making it more sustainable—and the workers who are driving that change.

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