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Restaurants Have a Racial Equity Problem. Here’s How to Fix It.

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A new program could help close the front- and back-of-house divide

Colors Restaurant in Detroit.
Michelle and Chris Gerard

Step into most fine-dining restaurants in America and the front-of-house employees are likely going to be primarily white, but look into the kitchen and customers will likely find a vastly different racial makeup of staff. It’s a problem that’s plagued the food industry: How do restaurants create more opportunities to workers of color?

“There’s no reason why someone should be stuck in the back-of-the-house if that’s not where they’re going to be afforded opportunities,” says Teo Reyes, research director at the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a progressive labor organization that provides education and support to restaurant workers.

Reyes and his team have authored multiple studies illustrating racial and gender biases in the industry. In one case, a 2014 audit of fine-dining restaurants’ hiring practices across several American cities found that white applicants for fine-dining server positions (generally considered to be some of the better-paid positions in a restaurant) were more likely to be interviewed — and twice as likely to be hired — as equally or better-qualified workers of color applying to the same establishments.

Now, the organization is doing something about it.

Last week, the ROC unveiled a comprehensive guide aimed at leveling the playing field in the restaurant industry for minority employees and job-seekers. The “Racial Equity Toolkit” is essentially a how-to manual for restaurant owners and management who want to begin weeding out potential sources of racial and gender bias in their hiring and operational practices.

The toolkit is the culmination of a pilot program done in cooperation with Race Forward and the Center for Social Inclusion at two Bay Area restaurants — Alta and Homeroom. Consultants from the partnering organizations helped develop a model for how individual establishments can cultivate a more equitable, diverse staff. The packet outlines each restaurant’s process and the results after six months of work.

While not a complete turnaround, quantitative measurements looking at the makeup of the dining staff at Alta and Homeroom taken before and after the six-month pilot program showed noticeable progress toward reducing segregation between front- and back-of-house staff. Alta, for example, “increased the representation of people of color in front-of-house positions from 29 percent to 57 percent,” according to the report.

ROC is now offering the consulting service to other restaurants in the Bay Area free of charge, thanks to a grant. However, the organization is eager to engage restaurants across the country and work out a plan that’s right for them.

Eater recently spoke with Reyes to learn more about what went into developing the toolkit and what steps independent restaurants can take to start implementing these strategies.

Why did ROC create this toolkit?

Teo Reyes: There’s tremendous segregation, within and across occupations. And we see that the real livable wage jobs in fine dining are dramatically and disproportionately occupied by white males.

Even though there’s a majority of women working in the industry — in particular in front-of-the-house serving occupations — when you go into fine dining, most of the front-of-house serving and bartender occupations are going to be men; and likewise in fine-dining restaurants and in a lot of full-service restaurants you see a real color line between the front of the house and back of the house. The closer you get to the back of the house, the darker and darker the staff are.

So, you have this color line where workers of color are generally denied access to these front-of-the-house positions that tend to have much higher wages. People love to work in this industry. They have a real passion for food and for service and they should have the opportunity to grow, care for their families, and really grow in these occupations.

Why was it important for you make this as accessible to all restaurants, rather than reserving this as something just for ROC to use in consulting?

We’ve found through our own research looking at matched pair audit tests that there is active discrimination that occurs in hiring. There’s also issues of implicit bias. Even among well-meaning employers, there’s issues of labor pool. Are employers able to reach out to a broad population of workers to get to apply? We want to work with them to do this.

How do you implement this process at the restaurants that bring on ROC as a consultant?

The first thing we do is an assessment where we interview management staff. We also do in-depth interviews with workers in both the front and back of the house. We review all of their employment manuals. Together we [also] do an audit of the restaurant as far as the demographic breakdown of the different positions. Any restaurant can do that using the tools already that we’ve presented, and just doing that alone can be a real eye opener.

Through the interview we get a sense of where they’re at as a restaurant. So, if a place has values that they’d like to project, do the people that work there actually feel those values expressed in through the workplace? Then we work out a plan on steps to take. Is it looking at improving your outreach materials? Is it making sure that your language is inclusive? Is it making sure that [when you post a job] you are getting your postings out into the community so that you can get a broader population to seek employment?

[It’s also about] ensuring that you’re providing opportunities for people to grow within the restaurant: Are postings internally made available to everyone so they know when you’re considering a new hire, so someone can look at moving from one position to another? Are you actively creating career paths? ... We have some places where they’ll have people work as dishwashers and go from there to bussers and runners and then from there to servers. Do you have that as a career path so they’re learning on the job and ready to move into those positions as they become available?

How long does that process usually take? Just the initial process of interviewing staff and designing a plan?

We would like to have a month period where we are able to establish several meetings and interviews.

Who do you see this toolkit being most useful for? What kinds of restaurants do you see it being used in?

We’re particularly interested in having it used in fine dining. We think that fine dining has a tremendous influence on what happens in the industry... There’s a lot of casual fine dining that’s really exploding, as well, in different cities, so that’s a very key area. But our key interest is fine dining because that’s where the real livable wage positions are.

What are some of the most common pitfalls that youve seen so far?

One is that these all tend to be informal hiring structures. When a position opens — either in the kitchen or in the front — you just tell someone who’s working there, “Hey, this position is open. Do you know someone who can come in and apply?” So, you’re essentially hiring within very limited social circles. You’re reproducing the same demographics of the industry every time a position opens up. [Restaurants] need to have professionalized recruitment practices, to make sure you’re making postings available, that they’re clearly available to everybody.

One of the things that we encourage employers to do is to take an implicit bias test, just so that they can learn a little bit about implicit bias and how it might impact the decisions that they might be making, even unwittingly. Equally qualified people can be impacted [by subconscious associations with race], so we would like employers to educate themselves on this issue, recognize its importance, and make sure that they have these professional practices in place to ensure that they are providing opportunities, equitably.

Did you look at any other HR models when you were developing this plan?

This was a joint project with Race Forward and the Center for Social Inclusion, and they have unconscious bias training, and so we looked at multiple other models that were out there and tried to figure out what would get the best plan for the industry. Then we worked closely with Alta and Homeroom to try to make it effective, something that could actually be implemented.

Which target goals do you think are most effective in helping improve racial balance and equity within a restaurant?

They need to be very deliberate about ensuring that they are providing advancement opportunities to people in the restaurant. If someone has been working as a busser or runner, they can certainly have the experience to be server if they have a little additional training. If they need a little bit of English-language training, then the employers should be encouraging those workers to take those ESL classes. And they need to be working with local community groups to share their posting so they’re being shared with a wider community.

The toolkit mentions that focusing on too many changes at once can lead to burn out for employers and employees. How do restaurants choose which aspects of the toolkit they should be prioritizing and how many things do they prioritize at once generally to make it work?

One of the reasons we do encourage employers to reach out to us is so that we can help them with that process, so it isn’t overwhelming. For a lot of employers it can be challenging to think about, “Okay, well, how do I change the language on my resume so that it is more inclusive?” These are all valid concerns, and we can help... provide them with examples of materials and tools and walk them through what might be the easiest immediate steps.

If you set yourself a manageable goal, achieve that goal, then you can set yourself a slightly more challenging goal and achieve that as well. We don’t expect any of this to change overnight, but we do expect that any restaurants can change if they just set their mind to it.

One obstacle that I could see for restaurants is not having enough money to support an HR initiative. How does ROC suggest restaurants finance a more robust employee training or management program?

Smaller employers — they’re not able to have full time HR, absolutely. But small employers they do engage in shift trainings or weekly training. They have to keep their staff appraised of the needs of the restaurant. So, these are opportunities that they can take to share their values and let workers know how they want to see their restaurant grow. These are also opportunities to talk about sexual harassment polices — something that’s finally getting the attention it deserves.

If you don’t have the resources to make sure you have someone that’s always on top of that, then you need to make sure that you are training your workers on what is appropriate behavior. It’s all part of sharing your values with the staff, and there’s always opportunities to do that.

If there was one thing you would recommend restaurants do to start thinking about improving racial equity in their business, what would that be?

They need to step back and not simply go [with] word-of-mouth hiring. They need to understand it might take a little bit longer, but instead of just going to your server that you know well in the front-of-the-house, [they need to] also talk to someone in the back and say, “Hey do you know someone that might be interested in applying to be a server?” Or ask someone that’s a busser or runner if they want to apply to that serving position.

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