A great food scene needs to support food service workers

SEPTEMBER 25, 2018

IIf you live in the city, you’ve seen it — the vast expansion of places to eat and drink, from small cafes to 70,000-square-foot breweries. Philadelphia’s food scene has really grown up; our restaurants easily could (and do) rival that of New York and D.C. As someone who ran a restaurant here for four years, and who continues to work with local restaurateurs, I’m excited to see how the city has matured beyond cheesesteaks and soft pretzels.

With all of this, we've been given the opportunity to change the way we do business and many restaurateurs are getting on board. This industry is a grueling one. It’s hard, honorable work but many workers are left struggling to make ends meet, even when working over 40 hours a week. In recent months, there’s been a lot of conversation about how Councilwoman Helen Gym’s proposed Predictable Scheduling bill (sometimes called the Fair Workweek bill) will impact restaurants in the city. I thought it'd be helpful to share my perspective from my own experience in practicing ethical employment in an industry that isn’t always fair to the workers that make it run.

When we opened Girard Bruncherie in November 2014 we were inspired by our own experiences of being on the front line. We knew that restaurant workers deserved a fair wage, and we’d seen firsthand the restaurant scene in San Francisco, where owners paid at least $15/hour and benefits. As of this month, 42 states still have a sub-minimum wage for tipped workers where employers can pay as low as $2.13/hour.

There is little to no enforcement for wage theft/violations. In a study done by ROC United, tipped restaurant workers are nearly three times as likely, to live below the poverty line as the rest of the employed population. Eighteen percent of tipped workers live below the poverty line, compared to 8 percent of all employed workers. In the eight states without a sub-minimum wage, food service workers don’t have to scrape by solely on tips, customer service is not only surviving, but thriving — and so is business.

When we opened, we committed to paying a fair wage based on a fair schedule, which we did by including a 20 percent hospitality fee in the price of our meals. Just like when you go to the auto mechanic and they bill you for parts and labor.

Our staff were guaranteed a 40-hour schedule if they wanted one, and schedules were predictable from one week to the next. While we generally maintained the same schedule from week to week, we’d shift around if someone requested off. During our entire time in business I never declined a single RTO, because these are people with lives that don't revolve solely around work.

What I found over time is that, while treating restaurant workers ethically required a little bit more of an investment up front, it cut down on turnover so much that in the end it paid big dividends. Because our staff felt valued, they took the time to really know the product and the clientele, and that showed in the bottom line, year in and year out. There was considerable cohesion between the front of house/wait staff and the back of house/cooking staff—everyone worked as a unit to deliver an exceptional experience for our customers.

Over the course of her four years with us, our sous-chef got engaged, had her first child, and eventually became the general manager of the restaurant. In the food service industry, maternity leave rarely exists, and many working moms struggle to retain their job.

I am proud to have been able to keep her position for her, along with some pay while on leave. I couldn't imagine the stress of a new baby on top of having to look for a new job. Yet, the reality is most workers are at risk of losing their job when they do anything that doesn't fit into the restaurant’s schedule and own particular needs — whether it be a much needed vacation or family planning.

Another one of the staff decided that he wanted to get certified as an emergency medical technician. The staff collectively worked out the schedule to accommodate his classes. Everyone had each other’s backs, in no small part because they knew that if they ever needed a similar accommodation, it would be the norm, not the exception. Even when I was hospitalized and out of work for an entire month, my team pulled together and did a great job on their own.

After spending four years running the Bruncherie, I decided to sell the restaurant in the spring of 2018 in order to prioritize my personal well-being.

At the end of the day, it’s all about respect. As owners and operators we must acknowledge the effort and sacrifice our employers put forth to make our business a success. They deserve so much more from us. I’m confident that other restaurants can succeed with an ethical, highroad model as well. The restaurant industry should be lining up in support of Councilwoman Gym’s Fair Workweek bill, and proving that we can support our staff at the same time that we continue to make Philly’s restaurant scene one of the best in the nation.

Brian Oliveira was the owner and head chef at Girard Bruncherie for four years, until selling it this spring. He is currently working as a food industry advocate and consultant to other restaurants.