"It is our duty to make sure they have the time to make their own voices heard," says Kelly English.
Credit: Photo by Caleb Sigler

Editor’s note: Communal Table is a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: kat.kinsman@meredith.com. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.

Kelly English cooks at Restaurant Iris and The Second Line in Memphis, TN and Magnolia House in Biloxi, MS. He really likes doing that and wouldn't want to do anything else. Sometimes people say nice things about him and his food and they occasionally print it in magazines, like Food & Wine when they named him a Best New Chef in 2009.

Small business is a strange place. Restaurants are a stranger place. Small business restaurants are the most gloriously diverse and strange place on the planet. We work with and for everyone from every walk of life. We are both equal to our guests who have the most, and in service of those who have less. We are everyone together, and no one on our own. We welcome all people to sit at our tables and we serve them as if they were loved ones. We count.

Our teams are comprised of people for whom we care deeply and who are actually affected by policy—not just by percentage points or on April 15 every year. They work hard and often hold thankless jobs. They frequently smile after the tasks are done, knowing that they did their part that day to make their team successful. They are strong because of their diversity and they are the future. They are people who work in less than ideal surroundings every day and still come back the next day. They count.

When given the opportunity, restaurant owners realize how important it is to speak up on behalf of our teams. We take stances that some consider to be a risk, but that is our charge. We decided to lead and to take care of the people who want to take a journey with us. We have been given a voice on the backs of our collective hard work, and we count those who work beside us as part of our family. We see what addiction and cost-prohibitive healthcare drive people to. We are their home. We must.

Our teams look to us to do the right thing and to lead them by example—and they feel it when we don’t hold up our end of the bargain. They often feel like their words matter less than some people's, and they want to be heard. We owe it to them to let them be heard. And for almost every instance in which we are granted an ability to speak on their behalf, it is our duty to make sure they have the time to make their own voices heard. They must.

Every one of us was a less glorified part of a team—just like they are now. We know who they are and what is important to them. We know what scares them and how they cope with it. We know that, just like us, our teams comfort each other through sharing food, knowledge, and recipes. We watch them look down on each other, only to put a hand out to lift each other up when it counts. We share with them in in their victories and defeats. We are them.

They look for the chance to cook something for us, just like we used to want to show the chef who we were without ever saying a word. They each can cook food that we can’t and are the best on our teams at something. They all have things that are more important to them than their teammates, but they wouldn’t ever dare put themselves first. They feel strange when they get to a party and there isn’t a kitchen to retreat to for a minute, just like we still do. They share in our accomplishments and they see when we put ourselves last. They are us.

They are us and they don’t know it yet, so it's our duty tell them that they are. Challenge them. Ask them what the single biggest political or social issue is to them. They don’t have to answer, but make them think about it. Let them know that as hard as it is on you to be down a set of hands, that in 27 states (including my own state of Tennessee) they can be paid for time if they are scheduled on voting day. Get your team together to hammer out a schedule that works for everyone, so that people have a chance to vote and no one gets too badly in the weeds. Show them that business and humanity can coexist.

In our restaurant group we have made an agreement with Sweetgrass, another restaurant here in Memphis, to give a gift certificate to each other’s employees who vote, to encourage our communities and to give them a place to go that isn’t where they work. Make sure the people you work with know this is their (sometimes first) opportunity to feel seen and to be part of a huge decision. Encourage them to share their thoughts with a vote the same way they share their culture with your team to make it stronger. These types of sharing and strength are no different from each other. Tell your teams that they are you, and you are going to vote.