What’s Behind the Kitchen Door May Surprise You

How do restaurant workers live on some of the lowest wages in America? And how do poor working conditions—discriminatory labor practices, exploitation, and unsanitary kitchens—affect the meals that arrive at our restaurant tables?

These are the questions that Saru Jayaraman artfully answers in her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Every Diner Should Know About the People Who Feed Us. Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, paints a picture of the harrowing conditions of life as a restaurant worker, and explains that, no matter how many heirloom tomatoes we plant or free-range chickens we raise, we’ll never have a thriving local foodie economy until we change what it’s like to work throughout our nation’s food chain.

Through both statistical analysis and personal storytelling, Jayaraman describes the poverty wages, long hours, lack of healthcare, and systemic racism and sexism that are hallmarks of America’s restaurant industry. While today’s celebrity chefs earn millions, the tipped minimum wage for the U.S.’s 10 million restaurant workers has remained static for 22 years, at just $2.13/hour. That amounts to about $15,000 a year for full-time work, well below the federal poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four.

The book follows the stories of ten different restaurant workers across the country, from fast food to fine dining, from New York City to Los Angeles. One of those workers is Victoria Bruton, whose multi-generational story encapsulates the stagnation and exploitation of the restaurant industry. A single mom, Bruton has worked in restaurants her whole life, struggling to provide for her two daughters on $2.13/hour with inconsistent and sparse tips. Today, her now-grown daughters also work in the restaurant industry, and they fight to stay afloat on the same meager $2.13/hour that she made more than two decades ago.

Jayaraman also discusses racial differences in the wages and advancement opportunities workers receive, explaining that, after conducting more than 6,000 surveys, Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that a $4 wage gap exists between workers of color and white workers.

On top of low wages and workplace discrimination, restaurant workers also frequently struggle with illness and injury, which subsequently endanger customer health. 90% of restaurant workers do not have paid sick days, so it’s not surprising that 2/3 of the workers surveyed reported cooking, preparing, and serving food to customers while sick. Through hair-raising tales of sick cooks and filthy kitchens contaminating supposedly high-end, gourmet food, Jayaraman illustrates again and again the inseparability of food quality and job standards.

Luckily, we can do something to change the equation. Since ROC was founded as an expansion of UNITE HERE Local 100‘s work with the families of workers who lost their lives in New York’s Windows on the World restaurant on 9/11, restaurant workers have continued to successfully organize for change. But they, like food service workers from campuses to airports, need ongoing support from their communities – and from the food movement.

We simply cannot have truly real food without real jobs. In order to overhaul our current dysfunctional food system, we have to address the experiences of all people throughout the food chain: not just consumers, not just farmers, but also cooks, busboys, cashiers, truck drivers, and farmworkers. Food will never be truly healthy or sustainable if it is grown, processed, cooked, and served by people who are sick, injured, underpaid, or disrespected.

Behind the Kitchen Door will be released tomorrow, 2/13, to represent the $2.13/hour tipped minimum wage. To learn more visit the book’s website, and spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.

UNITE HERE represents tens of thousands of restaurant workers — from individual restaurants to restaurants in hotels and airports.




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