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Fighting Violent Power Structures in the Restaurant Industry

A new nonprofit wants to raise millions to tackle issues from wage fairness to sexual harassment and gender discrimination

Cooks working in Chelsea Market, NYC.
Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

On a Tuesday night in November, a group of 30 or so friends and strangers with some connection to the restaurant industry gathered in a Lower East Side apartment. As guests entered the apartment, the night’s hosts — married couple John deBary and Michael Remaley — took their coats and slung them over the bed in the bedroom. They offered drinks — beer, a hibiscus tea, and, this being a gathering of restaurant industry professionals, a serious rum cocktail from Speed Rack co-founder Lynnette Marrero that was heralded as perfectly capturing the scent of autumn.

The guests mingled over cheese and crudite, discussing their connections to the hosts and talking about what they do. More often than not, it was work that aimed to improve the restaurant industry. Finally, an hour and a half into the party portion of the evening, the hosts gathered everyone in the living room to “bear witness” to the very beginning of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, an officially legal 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

DeBary, tall with glasses and straight platinum hair, famous in the field for his work as a bartender at both PDT and Momofuku, spoke first. After the 2016 election, he said, he realized it was imperative that he take action to combat white supremacy and the other violent power structures entrenched in this country. “The food system is at the nexus of a lot of the social justice issues that we face, so to attack those issues through the community that I’m a part of and by linking the philanthropic community to that, I hope we can make the world a better place,” he explained to immediate applause. Since 2016, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation has been theoretical — an earnest intention. But now “this is real, we actually need to put up or shut up,” deBary said. “So this is it. We’re actually doing it.”

RWCF wants to improve quality of life for restaurant workers, both front and back of house, and make the restaurant industry a place where everyone can work long term. “It’s very hard to get ahead if you don’t have a leg up,” deBary said to the group. “The concept of gender justice and the prevention of sexual violence is a big concern for people in the restaurant industry and also prevents many people from entering and staying in the restaurant industry.”

And so the new nonprofit is organizing its work around four primary restaurant industry issues: wage fairness and career ladders; sexual harassment and gender discrimination; immigrant fair treatment; and mental health and substance abuse. Leading RWCF’s efforts to address the long list of issues inherent to restaurant work are 12 board members, most established figures in the restaurant industry, like Marrero, Everyman Espresso founder Sam Penix, and Sother Teague, “a bartender that everyone’s heard of,” as deBary put it. Others come with years of experience working in nonprofits and philanthropy, like Remaley, who is the senior vice president of public policy and communications for Philanthropy New York.

DeBary stresses that right now RWCF is all about getting the word out and making sure the community that will benefit from RWCF knows it’s here. But once that happens, RWCF will spend the funds it raises in a few different ways. First, it will advocate for improved quality of life for restaurant workers. RWCF will produce op-eds to raise awareness around the the issues central to its mission. Remaley, deBary, and the other board members want to build a community of engaged restaurant workers — much like the ones assembled on that Tuesday — that they can then connect to other resources related to its mission. They also want to hear from them. “Do they think this that those are the right issues for an organization that’s called Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation?” Remaley says. “If they are, what do they think that we should be telling the restaurant industry about those issues? ... How should we operationalize this mission?”

RWCF board members Sam Penix, Michael Remaley, John deBary, Tiffany Langston, Lynnette Marrero, and Loren Bornstein
Rhea Wong/RWCF

The second pillar of RWCF’s work is grantmaking. The board has already identified three grant recipients for 2019 with causes relevant to the new organization’s mission: the headline-making Restaurant Opportunities Center United; OutSmartNYC, which works to prevent sexual violence in bars and restaurants by offering bystander intervention training; and Brandworkers, an organization that advocates for food factory workers.

Lastly, RWCF will invest funds in restaurant businesses that “adhere to a certain set of quality standards,” Remaley said during the presentation. Amalgamated Bank is doing the investing for them with some of the funds they’ve raised so far, but the ultimate goal, “if we amass millions of dollars and become really successful at this,” would be to buy up stock at a place like Darden Restaurants, the company that owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and change the way it operates to better serve restaurant workers.

RWCF is here, but it’s not fully formed; among the plans for 2019 are launching a website, creating a newsletter, and putting together that database of engaged community members. They’ll need to find more board members — deBary says they want to get to 20 — and they’ll assemble committees of board members and volunteers to organize the nonprofit’s governance, communications, grantmaking, and fundraising. “Our people could put on the best fundraisers in the world because we could get volunteers to do essentially what Lynnette did — bring their amazing work literally to the table for amazing fundraisers that have great food and great service and great drinks,” Remaley says.

At the end of the evening’s presentation, there were, of course, questions: How will RWCF be different from existing restaurant industry nonprofits? If it’s pro-restaurant employees does that mean it’s anti-restaurant employer? For this, Chauntel Gerdes of OutSmartNYC had an answer: “It’s not about shaming people, it’s about creating an avenue for conversation.”

Those difficult conversations have yet to to really begin. For now, there are some simpler asks to address, like: Should RWCF be on Instagram? What about LinkedIn? It was a resounding yes and yes from the assembled group, who were invited to stay following the presentation for as long as they wanted — or until 3 a.m., whichever came first — to drink, eat, and talk more about what they want this thing to look like.

The support and excitement that night exceeded deBary’s expectations — two people wrote checks on the spot — but RWCF’s organizers want to get to the hard questions, too. “Someone can tell us that we need to do something or they’re not sure they agree with something,” deBary says. “The best way to strengthen your ideas is to have them challenged, so I’m looking forward to that.”

Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.