Guy Fieri has spent the entire pandemic working to save restaurants. He partnered with the National Restaurant Association to launch a $21.5 million relief fund, offering $500 grants to hospitality workers. He fed firefighters in Northern California. He called out Jeff Bezos for not donating. He has used his popular, lovable, nigh-indestructible persona as a populist hero to shine light on small businesses across the country. But he also has a confusing message about the return of restaurants: Spoiled workers are holding the industry back. “You can’t sit on your ass and expect that it’s going to come to you because it’s not,” he told Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast Sway.
During the interview, Fieri rightly chastises legislators for giving massive handouts to airlines and other big industries while the Restaurant Revitalization Fund keeps running out of money. “How about everybody that’s in legislation that loves to go to restaurants?,” he asks. “How about you just ask your local restaurant what you could do to help them stay afloat?” He also specifies that, though he brought up Bezos’s failures in the past, he’s “not into shaming people.” He just wants to save restaurants.
But what about the people who make them possible? Fieri seems taken with the idea that workers aren’t coming back because they’re too cozy enjoying federal unemployment benefits, comparing their reluctance to return — driven by concerns over low wages, a lack of child care and sick leave, and there still being a risk of contracting COVID, particularly as the Delta variant spreads throughout the country — to a child refusing a healthy dinner after snacking on junk food all day: “Why would you go and eat broccoli if you just got to eat Doritos?,” says the man who built his empire on serving burgers topped with mac and cheese and fried cheese steak spring rolls.
In this analogy, unhealthy-but-desirable snacks are unemployment benefits, or perhaps specifically the federal pandemic unemployment programs put in place through the CARES Act as millions of workers lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, broccoli — good for you but unappealing — is getting back to work. When Swisher points out that, despite the pandemic, the restaurant industry is overwhelmingly offering workers the same low pay and negligible benefits as it did in 2019, Fieri counters that “the restaurant business is awesome” to work in, and anecdotally talks about a friend’s son who works at In-N-Out, notoriously an outlier in the fast food industry with regards to working conditions.
“So for me, no, you can’t sit on your ass and expect that it’s going to come to you because it’s not,” says Fieri, referring to either money or to work. He suggests that there will be a domino effect, where a lack of workers will turn into a lack of work. “If we don’t get ahead of this and we don’t fix this, we’re going to get into a situation where everybody wants a job, and you can’t get a job.”
Fieri implies, in other words, that restaurants will now die — not because restaurants had to fight for even the most paltry financial relief, not because we didn’t cancel rent, or enforce better pandemic safety — because workers would rather stay at home and collect unemployment than get back to work. This has been a common refrain as America opens back up, with Republicans using it as fuel for cutting benefits to supposedly save the country’s economy. But that narrative is largely a myth perpetuated by business organizations and fast food corporations. As workers themselves explain, the jobs aren’t worth the risk of contracting COVID, the low pay, lower tips, and fighting with customers about safety protocols, especially if they have family to care for at home. “I haven’t been back since [early 2020],” one line cook told Eater, “because I can’t really trust any restaurant owners to provide a safe environment for their employees.”
Many hospitality workers aren’t even eligible for the extended unemployment benefits that Fieri’s argument presupposes. As states relaxed or did away with stay-at-home orders, many refused to extend benefits to workers who did not want to return to work for fear of their health and safety, with some state officials even asking employers to report those workers to the state. And yet, the New York Times has reported, where jobless benefits were cut early, people are still hesitant to return to work: “[Workers] are more likely to point to child care and continuing health fears with less than half the population fully vaccinated. Nor should it be surprising that the nation’s road back from the harrowing limbo of the pandemic, in which millions of jobs vanished and more than 600,000 people have died, is bumpy.”
Fieri does say wages, especially for back-of-house workers, should go up, but is vague as to when and by how much. He evades Swisher’s questions about a $15 minimum wage, unionization, and conditions at his own restaurants; when asked about workers at a Pennsylvania location of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen + Bar alleging unfair pay and racial bias, he just notes that it’s been “resolved.” He also takes a firm anti-regulation stance when it comes to restaurants caught in the bind of relying on third-party delivery services to stay afloat, and being at the mercy of high commissions and hidden fees. “I’m not a big fan of rules. I think that all of a sudden [the] government jumps in and makes [it so] certain groups can’t work together and all this kind of stuff,” he says.
As a solution, Fieri posits that it “would be awesome if some gigantic philanthropist could say, ‘Hey, you know what? Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll make it so we’re a nonprofit delivery company. And we’ll make sure drivers make money and restaurants make money...I’ll put it together, and it’s going to cost me $50 million to make this thing work.’” A lot of things would be awesome, but our billionaires seem too preoccupied with going to the moon. Fieri just signed an $80 million contract with Food Network though, so maybe he could give it a shot?
Fieri is right when he says restaurants “can’t get the money out of their pockets that they don’t have.” With no philanthropic billionaires in sight, ongoing support for one of the hardest-hit industries in the pandemic is going to have to come from elsewhere — especially as the government continues to abdicate responsibility to restaurants and their employees. But at the very least, there needs to be an understanding that workers shouldn’t settle for the crumbs they had been getting, especially from someone who’s built his image and empire on being a supposed man of the people. Unfortunately in this instance, Fieri’s empathy has hit a wall when it comes to some of the people he could help the most. By comparing concerned, alienated workers to picky, spoiled children, he’s showing his well-hidden elitism and distancing himself from the very real people who make up his beloved industry.