Saru Jayaraman laughs at the $25 hamburger and other restaurant myths



Author and activist Saru Jayaraman signed copies of her controversial book, Behind the Kitchen door last week during her appearance at the Central Library.
  • Author and activist Saru Jayaraman signed copies of her controversial book, Behind the Kitchen Door last week during her appearance at the Central Library.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard, during the years I was a server, a customer gripe: "If your employer would pay you a decent wage, I wouldn't have to leave a tip."

My response: "But they don't, Blanche. And they're not going to as long as they can get customers to subsidize our salaries and the National Restaurant Association to aggressively fight a rise in the tipped minimum wage."

That shut them up pretty quickly.

Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national restaurant workers organization, has heard all the same arguments for not paying restaurant worker a living wage - and then some.

Another myth being perpetuated by those opposed to an increase in the tipped minimum wage - which has not been gone up in 22 years, thank you - is that if restaurant owners were forced to pay higher salaries to their employees, the cost of dining in restaurants would soar dramatically. "I'd have to charge $25 for a hamburger," one local restaurateur told me once. I don't know what body orifice he pulled that figure out of, but it was seriously disingenuous: He was already marking up his wine and liquor so high that it was a scandal.

During her standing-room-only appearance at Kansas City's Central Library last Thursday, Jayaraman laughed at the story. "The American restaurant industry has four or five times the profit margin of Wal-Mart," she said. "The National Restaurant Association - or as we call it, the other NRA - struck a deal with Congress to keep the tipped minimum wage from raising two decades ago, in addition to billions of dollars in other exceptions. It is not a struggling industry.

Jayaraman's most potent argument, for most of the patrons gathered to hear her lecture, was her shame at the American restaurant consumer: "They're far more interested in whether their vegetables are organically grown or that their chicken is free-range than the living conditions of the people cooking their food or bringing it to the table."

"We're talking about line cooks who can't afford to see a doctor," she said. "Or a waitress who was fined because two customers walked out of the dining room without paying their bill. That unpaid tab was $20 more than she made all night!"

Eating ethically, said Jayaraman, means a lot more than requiring free-range chicken or hormone-free beef kabobs: "We go to restaurants to celebrate the important moments in our life. Birthdays, anniversaries, engagements," Jayaraman said. "But for most of us, the people responsible for making it a special occasion - the restaurant workers who serve us - are completely invisible and almost purposely so."

Jayaraman says she was guilty of this herself. "When I looked back to all of the meals I had eaten in restaurants over the years, I could only remember one person who had served us."

She says her life changed after September 11, 2001, when she helped create an organization to find jobs for the restaurant survivors of the destroyed Windows on the World in the World Trade Center (73 employees, mostly immigrants, were killed inside the dining room that day); more than 250 employees were left jobless by the disaster.

"The Restaurant Opportunities Center was established to help these workers get back on their feet. But we were overwhelmed by the number of restaurant employees all over New York City who had lost their jobs."

Since its founding, Restaurant Opportunities Center United has attracted 10,000 members in 26 cities and won 13 campaigns against restaurant injustices, including the high-profile lawsuit against celebrity chef Mario Batali and his business partner, Joseph Bastianich (the son of TV chef Lidia Bastianich, owner of Lidia's Kansas City). Jayaraman says Batali and another celebrity chef, Tom Colicchio, are now working with her organization to stop restaurant owners from stealing tips, underpaying employees, and sexually harassing employees.

Jayaraman's advice to her audience included always leaving cash tips for servers (restaurants will sometimes take a percentage of credit-card tips or, in some cases, wait weeks to pay them) and patronizing restaurants where the employees are offered insurance and sick days.

"I'm not telling people not to tip," Jayaraman said. "You must. But know that you are helping to subsidize an industry that won't pay a living wage. Speak up!"

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