Take a bite for workers' rights: Restaurant guide shows you how to eat ethically

Take a bite for workers' rights: Restaurant guide shows you how to eat ethically

Do you ever look up from the table and wonder how much that harried waiter makes per hour? Or thought about the working conditions of the person behind the drive-thru window?

Although the restaurant industry is growing, even during tough economic times, restaurant workers are suffering, according to Restaurant Opportunities Center, the national restaurant workers' organization. More than half of all restaurant workers live below federal poverty line, and minority workers are concentrated in the lowest-paying positions, according to the center.

But when you're hungry, how do you know how workers are treated where you want to eat at? They've created a national restaurant guide, letting you know the working conditions for servers, busboys, cooks and hosts in more than 150 restaurants. You can download the guide and look for your favorite greasy spoon, but here are some of the highlights.

  • Most chain restaurants = bad. If you can eat the exact same meal in Santa Fe, N.M., that you can get in Buffalo, N.Y., it's likely bad news for the people behind the counter. There are a few exceptions: Craft, Elephant Bar and Todai.
  • Most fast food restarants = bad. Just one fast food restaurant was recognized by the center for being exemplary: Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Most others got nothing but zeros from the center, except for White Castle and Chipotle, both of which offer their workers paid sick leave, and Hardee's, which provides opportunities for advancement. Starbucks, which is known for higher wages and giving employees health insurance, got zeros from the center.
  • Even fine dining spots can be lousy for workers. Although many of the restaurants that were labeled as excellent were fine dining places, but in general, higher prices and nicer food didn't make restaurants immune from treating workers poorly. One notable example: Nobu, the much respected national sushi restaurant by the celebrity chef of the same name.
  • Some restaurants go from bad to worse. Restaurants owned by Darden Restaurant Company received worse than zeros from the center. Why? Not only does it pay workers low wages without paid sick leave, but it's being sued by employees for wage theft and discrimination. Its restaurants are some of the biggest: Olive Garden, Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster.

Two Chicago eateries were named best of the pack by the center: Houlihan's and Sugar Bliss.

Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling "Fast Food Nation," recommends the guide as a way to make ethical food choices.

"When you go out to eat, you shouldn't get wage theft, racism and sick cooks in the kitchen along with your meal,” Schlosser said. “How the food tastes at a restaurant really doesn't matter if the people who work there are being mistreated.  This guide will help you separate the good guys from the bad."

So if you're looking for a place to have the company party or take your special someone for a bite to eat, don't just think about the food. In this season of generosity and giving, make the people serving you are fairly treated too.

Photo credit: Ollie Crafoord

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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