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Sanctuary Restaurants Are Redefining the Meaning of Hospitality

Inside the businesses fighting today’s “environment of fear”

It was a Wednesday morning, less than a week after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, when an Associated Press story hit the wires calling Russell Street Deli in Detroit, Michigan, a sanctuary restaurant. Co-owner Ben Hall woke up to find that the article was already getting picked up widely on local and national news sites.

Several weeks prior, Hall had given an interview outlining his reasons for joining the sanctuary restaurant movement — an effort launched in early January by national restaurant labor group ROC United, in collaboration with online Lantinx social justice organization, Presente.org. Russell Street Deli was part of a first wave of allies that included more than a dozen establishments across the country declaring themselves safe spaces for people of all backgrounds, faiths, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds. However, it wasn’t until the AP story published that the sanctuary restaurant label began gaining traction in the public consciousness.

Though it was only 7 a.m., every article already had a deluge of comments. A version of the AP report that appeared on Yahoo Finance received more than 3,400 responses “and they were all pretty brutal,” Hall recalls. “We got tons of negative Facebook and TripAdvisor reviews, all of which we had to contest [because] they were not real reviews.”

Suddenly, Russell Street Deli was thrust into the spotlight as the poster child for the sanctuary restaurant program. But the attacks surprised Hall. While the sanctuary status was a more direct declaration of the business’s values, in his mind, Russell Street had long-embodied the movement’s ideals. “It's already how we operated,” he says.

The AP article might have been considered old news if not for the timing: It published amid a charged political climate over immigration. The same day the story ran, Trump issued an executive order declaring that so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions,” better known as sanctuary cities, would not be eligible to receive federal grant money except in cases “deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes by the Attorney General or the Secretary.” Only two days later, Trump would issue his international travel ban directed at seven majority Muslim countries.

Like sanctuary cities, sanctuary restaurant status doesn’t have any strict legal definition, meaning that any restaurant that wishes to can proclaim themselves a sanctuary. But businesses that align with the ROC United program pledge to embody a specific set of values: that their spaces are hate and discrimination-free zones and do not permit “harassment of any individual based on immigrant/refugee status, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.” In return, affiliated restaurants gain access to tools and educational resources — for both workers and employers — that raise awareness about their rights and legal obligations.

“Before the election our industry was already going through the greatest labor shortage in our history,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of ROC United. (Somewhat ironically, the seeds of the sanctuary restaurant program were sown when President Obama was still in office — back “when everybody thought that it was just going to be Hillary status quo life,” Hall says.) But now, according to Jayaraman, “You’re talking about creating an environment of fear for our workers.”

Businesses that sign on to the ROC movement are also provided with placards and additional posters directed at primarily English-speaking consumers, explaining the goals and values behind the sanctuary restaurant initiative. The biggest misconception about the program, Jayaraman says, is that it’s entirely focused on immigrants and refugees. “I think we’re also going to see lots of attacks against LGBTQ. We’re already seeing more transgender actions, and we’re already the industry with a high rate of sexual harassment.”

Paul Saginaw, co-founder of the Zingerman’s family of restaurants in Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped develop the program with RAISE — the ROC-associated organization for restaurateurs. “Leading up to the election the rhetoric in the country was becoming more and more divisive,” he says. “Unfortunately that rhetoric gave people who are normally — I don’t know, kinder — some kind of tacit permission to behave in aggressive ways. Our employees were feeling more and more harassed… So we said, well, ‘We need to say something.’”

RAISE, in collaboration with ROC, first issued an open letter in November 2016 calling on then president-elect Trump to “speak out to alleviate the fear of deportation or other harassment of immigrant workers in our industry.” The two partner organizations then began developing a more cohesive plan to address industry concerns, with the aim of educating consumers on businesses’ stances on racism, xenophobia, and other forms of harassment.

At Russell Street Deli, for example, Hall points out that immigrant labor concerns are not necessarily as big an issue. Around 70 percent of Russell Street Deli’s staff is black, meaning that concerns in his workplace often have more to do with race or sexual harassment, rather than an fear of a raid by ICE. “Our local and regional conversation is quite a bit different than the national conversation,” he says.

Regardless, Hall recognizes that concerns over undocumented workers affect every part of the food industry, from his partners at RAISE whose workforces are primarily made up of Latino employees to farm workers. “If people want their food made by Americans — which I guess is their right to have that desire in a free market society — if they go one step up the supply chain, they’re basically going to end up [relying on] an undocumented worker,” he says. “It just depends on who touches it last.”

Hall says he made an effort to engage with some of the angry commenters he encountered online. “I replied to most of the Crain's [Detroit] comments,” he says. “One of the guys called and we had a conversation and he said, ‘I over-reacted, and I didn’t know this, or I didn't know that.’ People associate it with their political party or their political leaning and that’s fine. But we’re here to do one thing, and that’s to feed people.”

Much of the online barbs directed at Russell Street Deli related to the impression that sanctuary restaurants harbor undocumented workers — an issue that Hall believes resulted mainly from confusion and poor timing. Because the initial launch of the program coincided with a heightened awareness of sanctuary cities, many reporters and readers drew direct connections between the two designations as they related to immigrants, while ignoring the sanctuary restaurant language.

“It was kind of a drag, but also we gained a lot of solidarity from it,” Hall says. Russell Street Deli wasn’t alone. Many establishments involved with ROC’s sanctuary movement have received mixed responses since the announcement. “It was easy to misunderstand the message that we were employing undocumented workers,” Saginaw says. “Certainly the anonymous snipers on the internet took aim at us and we became a good punching bag for those folks.”

Since launching in January, more the 300 restaurants have signed on to the sanctuary restaurant program — enough that ROC United says it has had to hire new employees to help run its associated online webinars and workshops. Jayaraman and her team are already beginning to plan more organized events and demonstrations orchestrated around sanctuary restaurants.

Still, some businesses remain cautious about publicly aligning themselves with a program that attracts so much attention.

In San Francisco — a professed sanctuary city where deportation and concerns about ICE raids are on the minds of many people in the community — the Golden Gate Restaurant Association recently announced that it had allied with other sanctuary restaurants. Beginning March 20, the organization began offering free educational workshops covering topics related to immigration to its roughly 1,000 Bay Area member restaurants.

“It’s both the education component and also the value statement component that’s important to us,” says GGRA executive director Gwyneth Borden. Borden acknowledges that some of the restaurateurs in her organization are concerned that “by labeling or putting something up publicly acknowledging that they are a sanctuary restaurant that they will be targeted.” By announcing under the umbrella of the association, GGRA aimed to take some of that burden. “It does help provide some degree of political cover,” she says. “With the sanctuary restaurant movement, the more people and players involved, the harder it is to target one particular group.”

Since GGRA’s press conference, some of the restaurants that publicly participated in the announcement have received negative feedback. “People are just saying nasty things. That’s obviously common when you take on something that seems to be controversial,” Borden says. “An interesting thing is that if you read the sanctuary restaurants’ statement, it’s the most innocuous thing. It basically says, ‘We support everybody. We follow the laws and we’re a welcoming environment.’ There's nothing in the statement that’s at all controversial.”

Where some of the program’s most ardent critics would say that politics shouldn’t be mixed with food, Saginaw disagrees. “I think there are times when human dignity and the safety of people is at stake, and at those times it’s important to let people know where we stand,” he says. “Neutrality does not help the victim ever. This is a time that calls for moving outside the belief that it’s good business to take politics outside of business.”

Brenna Houck is the editor of Eater Detroit and the weekend editor at Eater. Shannon Wright is a freelance illustrator and cartoonist.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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