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How Queer Restaurants Keep Their Money In Their Community

For restaurants like Ursula and Provincetown Brewing, doing business means supporting fellow queer service workers and vendors

Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at Eater.com, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

When Eric See was building the new location of Ursula, his hit New Mexican-inspired spot in Brooklyn, he wanted to make it queer. For many restaurants, even those staffed and frequented by queer people, queerness can turn into an afterthought, something that happens to a restaurant later. But See wanted it baked into the concept. He hired queer staff, hung art by queer artists, brought on queer cocktail and wine consultants, used queer interior decorators, and is bringing in other queer entertainers and chefs for movie nights and pop-ups. “Within our community, we have a lot of talent and we can trust those people to get what we’re trying to convey or express in the space,” he says. “And then also, there’s plenty of money put in straight people’s pockets every day, all day. Let’s keep it in our community.”

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, “LGBTQ+ workers earn about 90 cents for every dollar that the typical worker earns,” with queer people of color, and trans and non-binary people earning even less. And according to a Williams Institute analysis from 2019, “more than one in five LGBTQ+ adults (22%) are living in poverty, compared to an estimated 16% of their straight and cisgender counterparts,” again with trans and queer people of color facing even more risk. The question of where money goes in the queer community, and how long it stays there, is a pressing one.

But restaurants may be uniquely equipped to become financial hubs in the queer community. As Kelly Fields, a chef and restaurant consultant, explains, restaurants are some of our most visible businesses. Most customers don’t find themselves in a hedge fund office or at a printing press every week, seeing what the workplace feels like. But at restaurants, the work is happening all around you. And at a queer restaurant, that means the potential to see queerness thriving. “You’re like, Oh, this is possible,” says Fields. “Let me also be part of it.”

One of the most obvious ways to support the queer community in a restaurant is via charity. Erik Borg, partner at Provincetown Brewing Co., says he and his team wanted to ensure the business was recognizably queer, and decided early on that 15 percent of proceeds would go to various queer charities. He says they settled on a defined and substantial percentage, instead of the vague “a portion of profits” language you sometimes see elsewhere. Provincetown Brewing then promotes those causes, like the AIDS Support Group Cape Cod and Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts, on the brewery’s cans and other materials.

In an even more direct form of support, Provincetown Brewing Co. employs queer people. They make up the staff of the taproom and the artists featured on the cans. “I can’t say that we’ve sat down and made a concerted decision to do that per se. It’s just happened naturally,” says Borg, who recently won an election to Provincetown’s Select Board. “We’ve created this brewery, and we’ve oftentimes ended up hiring people who have come to know and love it organically.”

See says he’s experienced much the same: “Queer people recognize that this is a space where other queer people work and they’re looking for that, so they organically reach out to find jobs.” And while legally one can’t only hire people of a certain demographic, See says his job listings include that Ursula is a queer-friendly space, which tends to weed out anyone who would be uncomfortable working alongside LGBTQ+ folks. “It’s kind of a subtle little nod to, or a little flick of the wrist at [queer] people.”

While Fields agrees that “every queer food maker I meet or talk to, they lead me to another one,” she notes that it still takes intentionality on the restaurant’s part to seek out, say, queer butchers or queer florists instead of going with the easier (and often cheaper) corporate options. They tend to be smaller operations, and fewer and farther between. And even though more are popping up every day, Fields does a lot of work ensuring these smaller businesses can sustainably supply the restaurants they’re partnered with in the long term, so that restaurants are less likely to choose big vendors who may not share their values, but who can reliably fill their orders.

Still, there are inherent limitations to what queer bars and restaurants can offer to the queer community as a whole, as Greggor Mattson writes in Who Needs Gay Bars?. Though they have historically been places where many queer people have found safety and community, “Bars can’t serve everyone in the community,” Mattson told Eater, whether it’s because you need to be 21 to enter or you need to have money to pay for your meal. There is only so much a business, which needs to pay rent, can do for a community as a whole.

But restaurants and bars provide visibility, and while visibility isn’t liberation, restaurants can be places where queer labor and creativity is experienced: Your food, cooked by a queer chef, brought to you by a queer server, in a booth a queer person built, under a photograph a queer person took. And it inspires other businesses to follow suit: Fields says other queer businesses in Provincetown have adopted Provincetown Brewing Co.’s charity model.

And bars and restaurants can pay. See says he pays his staff above the state-mandated minimum wage to help create financial security. “My staff also spends that money back in our community at other popups, like with queer artists at other queer stores,” he says. “You can build a strong financial center in a restaurant and redistribute ... [it] back out in your community, and it just becomes this cycle where the money stays in our pockets a little bit longer.” Your money, in queer pockets.

Rymie (she/they) is an illustrator and muralist splitting time between Oakland, CA and Queens, NY. Find more of her work at www.lauren-rymer.com or @rymie on Instagram.

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