Betting on the Bay with Saru Jayaraman
Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), which focuses on building a more sustainable and equitable restaurant industry by bringing together restaurant workers, owners, and diners to advocate for improved wages and working conditions.
Walter & Elise Haas Fund Executive Director Jamie Allison spoke with Saru recently to launch what will be a series of interviews with those leading the Bay Area towards a more healthy, just, and vibrant future. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation and an invitation for you to engage with ROC’s effective work to promote equity.
Jamie Allison: Thank you for helping us launch this series, Saru!
Saru Jayaraman: You’re very welcome!
Jamie: Why did you choose the intersection of workers’ rights and food?
Saru: It was destiny; it chose me after 9/11. I’m an attorney, and I was asked to start a relief center for the hundreds of restaurant workers who lost their jobs after the World Trade Center disaster.
I continue to do this work because the food industry is the largest and fastest growing industry in America—and also the lowest paying. It’s the epitome of economic inequality in our country. I cannot think of anything more important for me to do.
Jamie: Can you give us an introduction to some of the issues ROC is tackling? We know Bay Area food is good—but is it good to be a food worker here?
Saru: It’s better than in a lot of other places. But here we have an alarming divide between white workers and workers of color. That’s a wage equity gap.
By that I mean people of color are more likely to be segregated into lower paying segments of the industry, whether that’s jobs in quick serve places instead of fine dining, or whether that’s into back-of-house jobs like dishwasher or busser instead of higher-paying front-of-house jobs like server or bartender.
ROC is working on making restaurant work more equitable. We’ve got an app that helps diners see and encourage equitable employment practices. We helped one of the most expensive restaurants in the country, Alta Restaurant Group, and its owner, Daniel Patterson, transition from a roster comprised of 90% servers and bartenders who are white to having 90% of front-of-house staff be people of color. Now we’re helping other companies go through the same process and we’re working with The Walter A. Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley to build a certified course so other restaurants can make this transition.
Jamie: Is the Bay Area’s economic boom helping or hurting this process?
Saru: Booms have to be experienced by everybody. Otherwise, what’s the point?
On the positive side, there are more restaurants. That means that we’re able to prove to the rest of the country that higher wages don’t automatically mean fewer jobs or industry decline. Yet, even with higher wages, many restaurant workers can’t afford to live anywhere near where they work.
Jamie: What can we do about that?
Saru: Restore Oakland is our answer to that question. Restore Oakland is a joint venture between ROC and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. It will assist Bay Area residents with job training, criminal justice interaction support, housing issues, and childcare so they can live healthy lives in their chosen community. La Cocina is also a Restore Oakland partner, supporting entrepreneurship among workers who may have otherwise been relegated to low-wage work.
But we can’t just focus on the workers. Restaurant owners are key partners in the pursuit of equity, too.
Jamie: You’ve mentioned Alta Restaurant Group. Are other owners embracing your vision?
Saru: Yes! we’ve gone from 200 restaurants in our restaurant association to 700. That’s 3.5 times more employers committed to equity. And knowing how excited consumers are to engage; that’s really great, too.
Jamie: How successful has ROC been at improving conditions and raising wages in Bay Area restaurants?
Saru: Where we’ve made a significant contribution is with restaurant companies that have moved beyond a $15/hour minimum wage. For example, with Alta Restaurant Group we’ve create a new wage equity model in which we’re getting very close to parity between front of house and back of house staff. That doesn’t exist in most fine dining establishments.
Everybody in Alta Restaurant Group makes at least $25 to $30 an hour, no matter where in the restaurant they work. We don’t have masses of restaurants following that lead yet, but ROC has created a model for how it can be done and how it can work.
Jamie: Have on-demand service jobs like the ones available through Uber and Doordash made people more sympathetic to the struggles of workers?
Saru: The fact that companies like those are headquartered in the Bay Area, which is a more progressive environment, means we have the opportunity to hold them accountable for how they act nationally.
Jamie: And those cafe kiosks, where instead of a barista there’s a robot that serves you coffee? Or those delivery robots in Berkeley? Is automation a threat to food service workers?
Saru: I don’t think so; automation can’t replace the social experience of dining out that we, as humans, find enjoyable.
Jamie: What is it about the Bay Area that keeps you here?
Saru: The question is: where do I want my kids to be? What do I want to come home to on weekends and what kind of environment do I want for my family? We still have a long way to go towards equity but, diversity-wise, the Bay Area is the future of America. I want my kids, who are mixed-race, to be undeniably proud of who they are. This is the place for that to happen.
And then there are white progressives here who are committed to racial equity and social justice in a way that I just don’t see when I travel across the rest of the country. The Bay Area can stand as a model of solidarity for the rest of the country.
Jamie: What makes a region like ours vibrant—or not?
Vibrancy comes from people of different backgrounds, from different walks of life, and with different experiences coming together to create culture together. In the Bay Area, we are creating culture that’s replicated across the country. A lot of that coming together happens through food.
You know where else it happens? Public transit is a space where you see people coming together in beautiful ways. We have a long way to go in the region in terms of creating greater equity, but the fact that we have more public transit here than in other regions creates opportunity for people from all backgrounds and walks of life to interact. On BART, on MUNI, we’re literally in it together.
In addition to co-founding Restaurant Opportunities Center United, Saru Jayaraman is Director of the Food Labor Research Center and an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley. She was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House in 2014 and honored with a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2015. This year, she received the San Francisco Chronicle’s VisionSF award. She has written two books Behind the Kitchen Door and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining. Saru and ROC are featured in The Great American Lie, a new documentary film produced by Jennifer Seibel Newsom. She holds degrees from Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.