Want to Know If a Restaurant Exploits Its Workers? There's an App for That

Sure, the food tastes great, but is the staff paid fairly?

In 2015, going to a restaurant without reading about it first online is almost unheard of. Did you make your Saturday night dinner reservation based on Yelp reviews? Probably. Craving Korean? Most likely you typed "kimchi" or "bulgogi" and your city into a search engine to find out where to get the best/cheapest/most authentic rendition to suit your Korean food craving. Looking through Instagram photos of menu items is commonplace before ordering, and these days everyone is a food critic on social media.

While reported taste and presentation are certainly valid ways to discover where you'll be enjoying your next meal, an important aspect of restaurant dining should not be ignored: how the restaurant treats its employees.

The service industry has been struggling pretty much forever with minimum wage, unfair tipping policies or pooling and many more labor atrocities are becoming more upfront. Would you eat at a restaurant where busybots are paid $2.10/hour and barely tipped out? 

In New York, Chef Amanda Cohen has abolished tipping altogether, adding a 20% service charge to her menu at Dirt Candy, similar to the charges seen on most European restaurant menus. She claims her staff is paid a fair wage and the 20% ensures that workers will receive what they deserve after waiting on each table. 

An increasingly popular app, which NPR called Yelp for Labor Rights, rates restaurants based on how they treat their workers. ROC United Diner's Guide (available on iOS and Android), will show the user restaurants in her neighborhood and how they pay workers, if they give benefits and how the restaurants compare to leading chain restaurants. 

In the updated version, users can report on restaurants they visit, noting server-to-diner ratio and if they can discover the wages and tipping policies. The app also investigates occupational segregation, a racist and sexist method of determining who works in which part of the restaurant.

Linking right to Yelp, the app encourages users to write about labor rights on the popular social-powered review site, bringing more pertinent issues to the collective conscience rather than just which sandwich to order. 

ROC, Restaurant Opportunities Center, works to improve life for those in the service industry, collecting data and formulating surveys to see how restaurant workers are paid and treated as employees throughout the country.

"Though you can’t be a card-carrying foodie if you don’t know the provenance of your heirloom tomato, you apparently can be one if you don’t know how the members of your wait staff are treated. We don’t seem to mind or even notice that our servers might be making $2.13 an hour. That tip you debate increasing to 20 percent might be the difference in making the rent," Mark Bittman argued in a 2012 New York Times column. Restaurant aficionados may not know what goes on in the kitchen, but service right in front of their eyes and plates cannot be ignored. 

Only when patrons start caring about how restaurant workers are treated, and making dining decisions based on fair labor practices, will improvements in the industry truly start to take form and stick. 

Melissa Kravitz is a writer in New York City who writes about food and culture for First We Feast, Thrillist, Elite Daily, Edible, and other publications. 

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