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Take the "High Road" to Eating Out

Three Homegirls preparing plates of food

Byline: Sylvia Moore

Restaurant Opportunity Centers United (ROC-United) , a Liberty Hill grantee, jumped into action as soon as it was founded in 2010. It reached out to low-wage restaurant workers and it undertook research into local conditions. Its February 2011 report Behind the Kitchen Door, Inequality and Opportunity in Los Angeles, the Nation's Largest Restaurant Industry  caused a stir. Now it's "promoting the high road to profitability" by highlighting 10 "High Road Restaurants" with a profile rolling out each week on the ROC blog. These profiles describe each model employer's labor practices and benefits offered to workers-- which nevertheless may sound modest-- such as paid vacations, health care or paid sick days, wages that start above the minimum wage, and the ability to receive wage increases.

The ten restaurants of ROC's Restaurant Industry Roundtable are a foodie's dream of fine dining establishments, neighborhood favorites, and inexpensive cafes, and represent a tantalizing variety of cuisines. “We want to use this as a model for the industry,” says Cathy Dang, co-coordinator for ROC-United’s Los Angeles chapter, ROC-LA. said of the recognition program.

And the "High Road" restaurants are (scroll further down for more details):

  • Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park
  • LOCAL Restaurant in Silver Lake
  • Chimu Peruvian Soulfood in Downtown L.A.
  • Homegirl Café in Chinatown/Downtown L.A.
  • Mama’s Hot Tamales in MacArthur Park
  • Craft Los Angeles in Century City
  • Chaya Restaurant Group (Chaya Brasserie, Beverly Hills; Chaya Venice; Chaya Downtown)
  • The Hungry Cat, Hollywood
  • The Gorbals, Downtown 
  • Pacific Dining Car, Downtown

Homegirl Cafe, which serves contemporary Mexican and American food and baked goods, is at one end of the spectrum of restaurants recognized. It's part of Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth and youth formerly involved in gangs. The 45 employees at Homegirl receive health insurance, sick leave and vacation, and also get training in food safety. Homegirl’s manager, Erika Cuellar, says employees are also offered English classes, therapy sessions and legal assistance. Cuellar says that providing for its employees benefits society at large. “If we’re taking care of our staff, they will take care of the organization,” says Cuellar. “If you take care of your staff, you’re also helping form productive members of society.”

Craft Los Angeles, part of a national group of fine dining restaurants started by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, has also gotten the “high road” seal of approval. Craft offers its employees discounted health insurance, paid vacation and sick days, and flexible spending accounts. “Being a restaurant that offers that to employees today is fabulous,” says Ashley Robey, Craft’s human resources director. “It creates a safety net for them. It creates more of a family feel as well. You know the restaurant will be there for you.”

Providing sick leave for restaurant employees is particularly important-- for the safety of customers as well as the workers. Dang says more than 60% of restaurant workers go to work sick because they can’t get time off, and that poses a health risk for the public and consumers.

In recognizing restaurants that treat their employees well, ROC's goal is to improve working conditions industry-wide and win restaurant workers a living wage. The ROC report found that the median wage among L.A. restaurants workers is $9.24 per hour, but according to Dang, an actual living wage for a city with a high standard of living such as Los Angeles should be about $19 an hour.  “We want to make a restaurant job a middle class job,” she says.

Each week, the ROC blog adds details about one of the restaurants on the "high road" list, but here's a preview of what each employer does right:

Chimu Peruvian Soul Food is a casual take-out restaurant located at the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. Starting wage at Chimu is $10/hour. Chimu also offers employees access to ROC-LA’s health care cooperative, and trains and promotes from within.

LOCAL Restaurant is a casual restaurant serving American-style cuisine with locally grown, organic ingredients. Starting wage at LOCAL is $10/hour, and line cooks are salaried at a living wage. Workers are offered paid sick days, access to ROC-LA’s health care cooperative, and the restaurant trains and promotes from within.

Homegirl Café, a casual restaurant and bakery, provides full health benefits, paid vacation and sick days, paternity and maternity leave. Employees start at above minimum wage, and are ensured a safe working environment through health and safety trainings.

Good Girl Dinette is a casual restaurant specializing in Vietnamese and American comfort food. Good Girl Dinette starts lowest paid workers at $10/hour, trains and promotes from within, and provides workers access to ROC-LA’s health care cooperative.

CHAYA Restaurant Group, a fine dining restaurant, specializes in French/Japanese fusion cuisine. CHAYA trains and promotes from within, provides 401k options, two weeks paid vacation, and ensures equal opportunity of workers regardless of race, gender and age.

Craft Los Angeles is a steakhouse specializing in American cuisine. Craft provides employees with health insurance, and trains and promotes from within. Craft has a strict equal opportunity policy for all workers, and hires and promotes regardless of race, gender and age.

The Hungry Cat, a casual fine dining restaurant, specializes in seafood. The Hungry Cat provides workers with health insurance, and trains and promotes from within. 

Pacific Dining Car, a venerable fine dining restaurant and steakhouse, specializes in American cuisine. Pacific Dining Car trains and promotes from within the company regardless of race, gender and age. Web site:

The Gorbals is a casual fine dining restaurant specializing in American cuisine inspired by flavors and dishes from around the world. The Gorbals subsidizes employees’ health insurance, trains and promotes from within, and helps employees obtain significantly discounted public transit passes.

ROC-United was initially established in New York to support restaurant workers displaced after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Since 2008, the organization has expanded to eight cities around the country with 8,000 low-wage restaurant worker members.

Sylvia Moore is a Liberty Hill public affairs fellow.

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