This article is inspired by a story related to the youngest freshman U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio – Cortez. Putting aside your individual political bent – she comes to the House of Representatives from a history of positions working in the restaurant business – so she automatically has street cred in my book. From her vantage point she felt connected to a very large segment of the U.S. population – a segment that feels first hand, the issues that face our country today. It made me think just how representative our fellow workers are of the country and the core challenges that are faced by everyday Americans.
As I look into the eyes of those hard-working, passionate, and occasionally maligned individuals with whom I worked for so many years, I see the real America, the country where opportunity exists, but where individual challenges can seem overwhelming. Here is what I see and what representative Cortez brings to the forefront of discussion:
I don’t know of any businesses more impacted by immigration issues than agriculture and the restaurant business. To some, the answer to our labor challenges is to simply pay employees more – then Americans would be more inclined to select jobs in those fields. In these industries where the product and service offered is very labor intensive and product prices have reached their peak – it is difficult to imagine how businesses would be able to increase wages without automation to eliminate a significant portion of the workforce. I think that we would all agree that illegal immigration is wrong, and those who want to make America their home must do so in the correct manner – but in the meantime, farmers and restaurateurs are faced with reducing services and in some cases closing their doors due to a lack of an adequate pool.
 LIVABLE WAGES:
The lack of a livable wage is one of the effects of an industry that finds profitability extremely challenging. Simply throwing money at the challenge is not the long-term answer. The restaurant industry needs to take a hard look at its operational model and adjust to one that makes it possible to pay a fair wage for the work done. If left to government, then restaurants will be burdened with mandated wage increases. The real solution must come from the bottom up. Restaurants need to collaborate with competitors, education, professional organizations, unions, employees and customers to devise a workable solution.
FACT: Everyone needs a fair, affordable, and functional healthcare plan. The restaurant business, like many other profit-starved industries has simply ignored this fact for generations. It is time for business and government to find a solution that won’t starve the individual and bankrupt the country.
Addiction to drugs and alcohol is prevalent throughout our society. It no longer strikes at just lower income segments of the population – every socio-economic group faces this issue. However, in the restaurant business we have brushed this very significant problem under the rug for as long as I can remember. Is addiction an effect or a cause of societal problems – is our industry, as an example, with the work and social challenges that it creates, partly to blame for a rampant problem that impacts cooks, servers, operators, and owners alike – or does the nature of the business tend to provide a safe haven for those who are inclined to addiction abuse? We all know, first hand, how far-reaching this challenge is. We see it every day in restaurants from coast to coast.
The restaurant business is the great equalizer. Ethnicity, race, gender, age, size, and educational background have little bearing on a person’s status in the kitchen. The fact that an employee has a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a discipline doesn’t make him or her more or less valuable than the person who never finished high school. As a safe haven for all – the business is flush with people who feel that they have little opportunity for advancement as well as those who feel that they are stifled and unable to utilize the educational chops that they accumulated. To some – restaurant work is a lifeline, an opportunity for a paycheck and a foot in the door – while others view it as a dead end that, out of necessity, is where they plant their feet.
 FOOD INTEGRITY:
Cooks and other foodservice professionals have a very unique tie to the ingredients they use. Just as more and more consumers are showing concern for the source of ingredients and how those items are raised and handled, the cook depends on quality ingredients that they know are safe and nutritious. The macro issue of food integrity from the source to the plate is of paramount importance to those who make a living while nurturing and adapting those ingredients in the kitchen.
 CLIMATE CHANGE:
Is climate change something that really impacts the lives of everyday Americans? Is this more of a 1,000 foot issue for politicians and leaders to fret about and analyze? Changes in climate hit home with restaurants as they struggle with the impact it has on product pricing and availability, and how extreme changes in weather impact on customer participation in the restaurant experience.
With sub standard wages comes lifestyle decisions that are not ideal. So many foodservice employees view owning a car a luxury that they can ill afford – while most of us view the ownership of a vehicle to be an absolute necessity and a sign of our freedom to make daily choices. The cost of car payments, gas, and parking are out of reach for many who wear a chef’s coat and apron. Access to affordable mass transportation is essential for this audience. In areas where this is not available – the restaurant culture suffers.
As a community grows and prospers so too will an abundance of restaurants. Jobs made be prevalent, but if affordable housing is not in proximity then those same restaurants will struggle to find staff. Yes – there is a significant portion of the American population that cannot afford shelter, transportation, and food for their own table. Low unemployment rates are not the sole indicator of a healthy economic climate. Far too many foodservice workers find it impossible to live on the salary from one job and as such wear many hats.
Shelter, Food, Transportation, Healthcare, and now technology can all be considered necessities for a reasonable life. A person without a personal computer is at a disadvantage. Fathers and mothers who cannot provide web access for their children are crippling their education. A cell phone may still seem to be frivolous, but if a person is to feel connected to society and life that is changing at breakneck speed – then a cell phone is a critical piece of the puzzle. When sub-standard wages fail to provide for any of the critical “necessities” in life then we can’t expect enthusiastic, passionate, committed work to result.
 SOCIAL MEDIA AS A NEWS SOURCE:
We are more and more aware of the problems with social media and the lack of sufficient controls and monitoring of content – yet, when a workforce is starved for quality education, when time is one of the aspects of life in shortest supply, then that phone that is a necessity also becomes the primary source of information (sometimes accurate, oftentimes less so). Opinions, anxiety, anger, misinformation, short sound bites, and unqualified sources are being driven to those who have little other options than to simply take everything at face value. “If it’s on the Internet it must be the truth.”
 CLASS STRUCTURE:
Outside of the restaurant “family” there has always been a class structure that is felt, but rarely discussed. As far as we may have come in terms of public respect – working in a restaurant has rarely been a favorable choice for a career in the eyes of those who have never felt the gratification of working with great people, creating wonderful food, and uplifting those who view the restaurant as a place where they can leave behind their challenges and problems and simply enjoy being served.
Yes, a restaurant is a microcosm of the American condition. The challenges of down-to-earth people are evident and maybe even more pronounced through the eyes of cooks, chefs, servers, bartenders, and operators.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training