The Dish: Giving a voice to the restaurant worker

Over the last 12 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the essential nature of restaurant work. From the beginning of the crisis in March 2020, service workers were hailed as heroes, bravely navigating a virus-ridden world to prevent the collapse of society. But even before the spread of the novel coronavirus, restaurant workers across the country suffered under poor labor conditions, low pay, and few benefits. When the pandemic comes to an end, a return to the February 2020 status quo will not fix these problems.

To give a voice to the restaurant worker—and critique the systems of inequality that have contributed to the unraveling of the restaurant industry—a group of DSA-affiliated restaurant workers has founded The Dish, a newsletter sharing the experiences and opinions of restaurant workers in their own words. Click through to check out the inaugural edition—and read the founding statement of The Dish below:

Anyone who has lived this first stretch of the 21st century with steadily building dread is now likely feeling some mixture of outrage, pain, vindication, and perhaps existential adrenaline rush at watching the restaurant industry unravel.

Even before 2020, the service industry’s social safety net was tenuous at best, lacking stable wages, paid sick days, healthcare benefits, and the like. Attempts to counteract the spread of COVID-19 have added layers of ad hoc regulations and safety measures, followed unreliably or not at all. 

Repeated closures and re-openings (in those areas that had the political will to close at all) have left workers in limbo while industry insiders and business owners proclaim the end times for restaurants if they aren’t allowed to remain open.

In the meantime, the jobs they claim to be saving have become increasingly stressful, even lower paid, and, in some cases, deadly for the people who have to actually work them.

Forget about lauding food workers as heroes for feeding people during a pandemic. Or portraying jobless food workers as stoic or scrappy for surviving the collapse of their industry. Forget about paying lip service to instituting a livable wage. 

At this point it would be nice if someone would simply ask those of us who work in food service: “What do you think about all this?”

Opinion makers describe this past year as harrowing but illuminating, that as long as we learn from it, the disaster will not be for nought. Editors everywhere find their inboxes overflowing with “My Covid Experience” think pieces.

But so far, those lamentations and critiques, even the thoughtful and penetrating ones, have not reckoned with the systems that failed to protect our lives and welfare. 

It’s widely agreed that the pandemic has laid bare the inequities and divisions that permeate our society, from the federal government all the way down to the humble (multi-billion dollar) restaurant industry. 

But what exactly are the lessons we are learning on the ground, in our little corner of the pandemic? 

And who will implement those lessons going forward? Will it be the same well-positioned few whose voices are already shaping the debate at the highest levels?

When any number of restaurateurs or famous chefs or industry lobbyists say they need to stay open so their employees still have jobs, should America take their word for it that food service workers want to turn back the clock to February 2020?

They riff on a dream-world-that-never-was where every cook is one day (or an 80-hour-work-week) away from realizing their dream of becoming a star chef and every server really is your friend. We’re supposed to overlook the poor pay and the abuse, not to mention the odds of contracting serious illness. Apparently, those difficulties pale beside our sacred duty to “Keep the Economy Open.” 

But did anyone actually ask those cooks and those servers? 

How many of those who supposedly speak for us have walked through the swinging kitchen doors, around the expo station, yelling “behind” all the way past the line (swerving to avoid the fry station), dodging racks of dry goods, and finally stepped out onto some god-forsaken loading dock in an alley to ask the dishwasher taking a smoke break by the dumpsters what the hell they actually want their work to mean to them and how much it’s really worth?

That’s our goal with this newsletter.

Now, to be clear, this is just a modest rag put together by a small crew in the restaurant industry, who have begun asking other workers what they want from their jobs.

That is a pretty big ask. 

But here we are, inaugurating this publication in uncertain times, in the spirit that you have to start somewhere. Why not a space for workers to speak for themselves? 

A place to dish, if you will. 

And maybe, along the way, we can begin envisioning, discussing, and debating alternatives to the status quo. 

Because something else is possible, but only if we begin talking to one another, finding common ground, and advocating for that future together. 

In this inaugural issue we are hoping to get the conversation going, while also reflecting on the strange year that has brought us here…

… to showcase some of the successes and failures of those who have tried to gain a say in their workplaces…

… and serve up items of interest in the form of industry news, humorous advice, and recipes from our friends.

We hope you find it thought provoking. We also hope you’ll pass it on to friends, family, and colleagues … start demanding more of restaurant labor practices … and even write something and submit it. 

If enough of us get on board, then some day soon, we will finally get our seat at the table.