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An illustration of a female chef working at a table in front of the faded backdrop of a child’s nursery

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Who’s Watching the Kids?

For parents working in the restaurant industry, securing child care is a constant struggle. A New York City restaurant and a Bay Area nonprofit want that to change

When Cameo McRoberts was first hired as a line cook at Frontera Grill in 2001, the executive chef at the time (a woman) told her, “Don’t get pregnant.” McRoberts rose through the ranks and left the restaurant five years later as a sous chef. But while she’s confident that Rick Bayless’s restaurant would have found a way to keep her if she had gotten pregnant, you won’t find her in a famous restaurant’s kitchen anymore. Today, McRoberts lives in Ketchikan, Alaska, with her 6-year-old son, Mason, and teaches culinary classes at a high school.

“It was never my intention to move home,” she says. There were no restaurants she could cook at in the small town and no chance of moving forward with the only career she’d ever known. But as a single mom, she ran out of ideas for how to balance work with child care. Moving closer to family and old friends — and to a state where she’d qualify for child care subsidies — felt like her only remaining option.

Throughout the restaurant industry, from McRoberts’s world of award-winning restaurants to fast food, workers face unique challenges in finding child care that will allow them to keep their jobs, not to mention advance their careers. The most lucrative shifts for many restaurant workers (especially in jobs with tipped minimum wage) are at night and on weekends, and traditional child care facilities don’t accommodate the necessary hours. Shift work tends to be volatile, and some opportunities require last-minute availability. The industry’s low wages rarely pay enough for workers to cover the costs of any type of care, forcing them to depend on unreliable, unsafe, or unaffordable options. And so when New York City restaurateur Camilla Marcus announced this fall that she would both provide and pay for child care, it made waves in the industry.

Marcus began offering employer-paid child care for staff in November, in conjunction with child care provider Vivvi Early Learning. It’s the first step in a partnership designed for expansion, as it’s open to any employer in the industry who wants an affordable way to offer care. (Marcus says she’s had many inquires, though no other restaurant has joined yet.) The center is open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., for children 6 weeks to 5 years old, and prides itself on paying well over the standard salary for caregivers while providing maximum flexibility for parents. But as expensive as that sounds, to Marcus, this was a money-saving solution.

Marcus purchases 100 credits a month (each worth a day of care) that any of her employees are welcome to use. They can use as much or as little as they need, and they have the flexibility to book on a regular basis or last minute when a need arises. The credits cost $200 apiece, but with tax credits, Marcus says she’s really only out about $50 for each one.

When she launched West-bourne, an all-day cafe and wine bar, in 2018, she found that many of her employees were single parents. No matter how flexible and accommodating she tried to be with scheduling, she says, “There’s only so many weeks you can modify schedules, so many breaks you can give, without hurting other team members.” But she also knew she had good people on her team and that if they left, it would cost her extensively in time to find, onboard, and train a replacement. And because of the systemic issue — that these weren’t temporary flare-ups, but that there simply are no options available for parents in the industry — she would be doing so indefinitely. Various studies estimating the cost of turnover in the industry range from $3,500 to almost $6,000 per employee. This, combined with the National Restaurant Association’s statistic that turnover in the industry is almost 75 percent, means that employers stand to save a huge chunk of cash if they can prevent that churn and hold onto employees.

But even beyond the sheer cost savings, Marcus sees child care as essential to operating a business. “I don’t think people should have to choose between kids and a job,” she says. “There’s no work-life balance if neither is a real option.”

A 2016 report by nonprofit workers’ rights organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United found that nearly 3.5 million parents work in the restaurant industry and more than 1 million of those are single moms — 40 percent of whom live in poverty. They tend to be in the lowest wage jobs and have little opportunity for growth. The study found that nearly every parent in the industry felt that child care issues had cost them in shifts, promotions, or overtime, and that’s without even addressing the emotional cost to families. In the long term, the lack of stable, quality, affordable care means that moms, especially single moms and women of color, opt out of career paths that could lead to advancement and higher wages, either by staying in basic positions or leaving the restaurant industry altogether.

When Emme Ribeiro Collins was 12 years old, her parents started a restaurant called Tempero do Brasil in Seattle’s University District. “I was super excited,” she remembers, “until it opened and they were literally never home.” She was old enough to care for herself, but she went from a full house and home-cooked dinners to restaurant leftovers that didn’t arrive until 9 or 10 at night. “It was like a third sibling that I hated,” she says of her parents’ restaurant, and it drove her away from a career in the standard restaurant world. Collins had her first child at age 20, so she opted to go straight from culinary school to working as a private chef and later catering so that she could always have time for her children. “I didn’t want to be a restaurant owner because I’d been a restaurant child.”

But a year and a half after having her third child, Collins’s parents were semi-retiring and their restaurant, out of which she operated her catering business, would close if she didn’t try to make a go of it. She changed the name to Alcove Dining Room, and tried to allay her fears of neglecting her children by focusing on ticketed events that gave her control over her hours. But the events weren’t doing well, and eventually Collins shifted Alcove to a traditional restaurant format, staying closed Sunday to Tuesday to spend time with her children. “I think work-life balance is a myth,” she says. “But I was trying to make it work.”

After a year, she closed the restaurant and found a job as district chef of Seattle Public Schools. “I’ve been a mom all my chef life,” she says. “I’d see other chefs my age that don’t have kids out there networking, getting drinks after events, working as a yacht chef. I always have this thought in the back of my head of where I could be if child care weren’t an issue.”

McRoberts, who was warned about the difficulties of having a child while working in the restaurant industry well before her son was born, was also forced to prioritize a flexible schedule over pursuing her own career. She was the opening chef of the second iteration of acclaimed Seattle bar and restaurant Vessel before her son Mason was born. The owners were extremely accommodating, but the volatility of the industry bit her: The restaurant closed before she returned to work after her son was born. She took occasional food styling assistant jobs to make money (“from a fellow mom, so I could run off into a broom closet and pump when I needed to”), but without help or the money to cover child care, she couldn’t even look for jobs in a professional kitchen. “I have no idea how I survived,” she says, looking back. “I cannot remember how I paid rent.”

Eventually McRoberts took a job cooking at an upscale retirement community because it had standard hours. But, still struggling to afford care and basic necessities and knowing she wasn’t making progress in the restaurant industry, she moved back to Ketchikan, where she spent years floating around other types of jobs before she found the teaching position. While there were no jobs for her skillset in Ketchikan, there was something more important for a single mother: a network of family and friends she could rely on when she needed child care.

That type of informal network is the focus of the Parent Care Exchange by Bay Area nonprofit Tipping Point. The organization has partnered with ROC United to focus on breaking the cycle of poverty for working parents in the restaurant industry. ROC United found that 44 percent of working mothers experienced negative consequences at work due to their child care needs, with 23 percent of these given less desirable shifts, 8 percent denied a promotion, and 18 percent demoted or otherwise disciplined.

Tipping Point’s research and development team, led by director Stephanie Lewis, found that the primary way parents were able to continue working in the restaurant industry was by relying on informal networks of family and friends to provide care; for the parent to maintain a job, another community member often sacrificed their own work-life balance. Tipping Point theorized it could help level the playing field for working mothers by tapping into the informal care economy.

Tipping Point first created a program called Gma Village that connected parents working nontraditional hours to grandmothers looking for additional money and community connections. When the Gma Village project ended (the temporary program reached the end of its funding), Tipping Point worked on its next evolution, fixing some of the main issues it had run into with Gma Village — chiefly, parents wanted trained caregivers with whom they could establish a trusting relationship. “We’ve heard stories about parents leaving their babies in the car overnight in front of the restaurant or leaving kids at home or with neighbors who they don’t really trust,” Lewis says. “The system is putting them in the pretty difficult position of choosing between the safety of their child and being able to put food on the table.”

Tipping Point’s Parent Care Exchange app helps parents trade off child care duties, but imitates the natural trust of leaving a child with family or friends by building a network for the parents. The Exchange will create circles of 10 families with parents working in the restaurant industry, and each circle will be led by one trained, committed “superuser.” “We’ve been doing this research for three years and talking to hundreds of parents, and over and over,” says Lewis, when it came to how they made decisions on care, “if they had a choice, trust came up.” They examined what trust meant. By making the caregiver community smaller, it allows for more connection based on the factors they learned made a difference: geography, shared language, and being part of the same community. The app further creates opportunities for the circles of families to meet and connect beyond just handing their children off to each other. Then parents can request or offer care when they need it — from people they trust.

Tipping Point is currently developing the app and hopes to onboard a test class of 100 users by the end of the summer to test the viability of the program. Lewis acknowledges that the program is just a band-aid on the problem, “in lieu of the government actually stepping in to do their part.” She notes that all of Tipping Point’s research shows that families in the restaurant industry would prefer to have access to traditional licensed care facilities over piecemeal informal systems, but this is where the organization has the power and budget to make actual change.

With Vivvi, Marcus is the first in the hospitality industry to provide the kind of care that parents actually want. But for this to catch on, it requires the buy-in of restaurateurs who recognize the benefits for the restaurants and for the working parents who would otherwise drop out of the industry.

McRoberts doesn’t know exactly where she would be if a program like Marcus’s existed when she was cooking, but, she says, “I don’t think I would be here” (meaning Ketchikan). “It was never my intention to move home.” McRoberts is happy in her new job, despite the irony of teaching high schoolers the skills to enter an industry that closed its doors to her, and she sees a glimmer of hope in the latest textbooks she uses from the National Restaurant Industry. “In the first five chapters, it addresses self-care and drug and alcohol abuse and learning to manage your time,” she says. “That didn’t exist when I was in culinary school.” It’s not employee-provided child care, but to her it’s a sign that change just might be coming to an industry that has long trafficked exhaustion as currency and thrown parents into a child care wilderness.

Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based writer.
Emily Chu is an award-winning Canadian illustrator.
Copy edited by Dawn Mobley


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