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More than 10,000 people have joined the program.

Jillian Kramer
February 21, 2017

Amid growing fears rippling throughout the restaurant industry—worries that minority workers could be detained, deported, or worse, targeted for violence—hundreds of owners and thousands of consumers are standing up to say there is a place at the table for everyone. In fact, that's their motto.

Sanctuary Restaurants is a movement that aims to support and sustain inclusive environments for the workers and consumers of restaurants nationwide. Launched in January, it's the brainchild of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Presente, two organizations that came together to address the industry's staggering labor shortage and walked away with a plan to make everyone feel safe—and want to stay—on the job and in restaurants, explains ROC cofounder Saru Jayaraman.

Sanctuary Restaurants' motto—a place at the table for everyone—is the promise employers, workers, and consumers make when they sign up to participate in the movement. Employers make a public declaration—with a sign in their establishment's window—that they support a safe space for everyone, including immigrants, refugees, people of varying faiths and religions, races, abilities, and sexual orientation. They must follow through by informing workers of their rights and enforcing that safe space with employees and consumers alike.

Workers who participate pledge to become educated about their rights and their options, should they become the target of hate or harassment at their workplace, while consumers promise to patronize safe spaces, and be watchful while dining. In return, Sanctuary Restaurants provides resources, such as informational webinars and meetings, training, and legal counsel, should it be needed.

As of last count, the movement has more than 285 restaurant owners, 500 workers, and 10,000 consumers signed on to participate, Jayaraman says.

"It has been so inspiring to see the response, and so powerful to then see how this response makes a clear call for an end to racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the restaurant industry and beyond," says Presente executive director Matt Nelson, "how it pushes back on the attacks of the restaurant industry, and how it's uniting thousands of workers, diners, and allies inside restaurants and out in the streets."  

Sanctuary Restaurants’ launch preceded by weeks the "A Day Without Immigrants," a Feb. 16 protest that saw dozens of restaurants shutter in support of immigrants. That protest fought back against threats by the Trump administration to vet and deport immigrants immediately.

"There's real leadership coming from the restaurant industry to show and create the type of inclusive and equitable world we all want to see and deserve," says Nelson.

Amali managing partner James Mallios was only too happy to join the fight through Sanctuary Restaurants. The son of immigrants—of a father who fled the Iron Curtain and a grandfather who absconded a military regime to make it to America—Mallios says he grew up surrounded by immigrants and the children of immigrants. "I grew up with that American dream very much imprinted on my psyche," he says.

For Mallios, standing with Sanctuary Restaurants is standing with the first line of defense against immigration policies he believes have no place in this country. But it's also smart business to support immigrants and minorities, he admits. "There's no line of American-born citizens waiting outside our door to do dishes," Mallios says.

Despite differences, in restaurants, people can find common ground to support an industry in which we all partake and enjoy, Nelson says. "Restaurants for many people are a home away from home—they're a special place they can go and feel sustained, by great food and also by great communities," he says. There, people can feel safe "to have conversations about the critical issues of our time—they're places you can come and ask the tough questions and have the difficult conversations."

Mallios agrees. "Sometimes you have to just say you give a s—t and be transparent and have conversations," he says. "It doesn’t' mean we're always going to enjoy it or it's what everyone wants to do or that we'll all agree on everything, but at least then people know we're out there saying we care to be the best employer we can be."

You can learn more about Sanctuary Restaurants, as well as sign up to support the movement and find a map of Sanctuary Restaurants in your area, on this website.