"A lot of people who work in restaurants don’t even understand what health insurance is."
Credit: Saba

As news of toxic kitchens continues to animate and horrify the food world, there have been people quietly doing the work to shift restaurant culture so it's healthy, safe, and sustainable for its employees. The work is not easy. As has become clear over the past year, the prevalence of restaurant kichens that discourage or out-right penalize accountability, whether it comes to sexual harassment, wage theft, or racial discrimination, is striking. While this toxic culture is only now making headlines, many people in the service industry have endured these realities for years.

"For a long time, it wasn’t a legitimate industry. It didn’t provide benefits, it didn’t provide wage increases. Your pay fluctuates, so it’s thought of as a job with no stability," said Sweetbitter's Stephanie Danler in a recent interview, remembering her years as a server in the 2000s. "There were no HR departments, and there were no rules or laws, and the health inspector was someone you paid off in the back alley.”

Why does the restaurant industry still fall behind when it comes to human resource standards?

When it comes to change, organization matters, and that's why instituting human resources policy and staff could help with some of the issues plaguing restaurants today – though, as we all know from daily stories of harassment cover-ups and mishandlings, it can't solve everything. But to make restaurants better, Suzi Darre, who serves as the Director of People & Culture at Alon Shaya's Pomegranate Hospitality, believes in the power of a strong HR department. For months before the new restaurant Saba's opening, Darre worked towards setting a workplace culture that was safe and healthy. This started as early as the recruitment and interviewing process.

"Instead of asking someone, 'How long have you been a server,'" Darre tells Food & Wine. "Our biggest questions is: 'What are you going to do to contribute to our team to maintain a healthy work culture?' I heard many times from people that they'd never had an interview this thorough and this long – whether they were a runner, server, or dishwasher."

Cara Peterson, who is the chef de cuisine at Saba, says she has never worked at a single restaurant company that has had an HR department. Saba employees are offered health insurance, paid time-off, gym discounts, educational programs, and more.

"A lot of people who work in restaurants don’t even understand what health insurance is," says Peterson. "This is something that we hope for everyone. We’re looking to create this standard. Our baseline is operating at this level. There should be no reason other people aren’t doing what we’re doing."

Setting a standard didn't happen overnight. Peterson says that attempting to structure a healthy workplace culture was "seven months in the making;" it started at the recruitment process and continued through the onboarding process and restaurant opening. And they hope other restaurants follow suit; the team has invited local restaurants and businesses to attend their diversity and harassment training, so they could get something out of them, too.

"We'd be glad to share this information with anyone who asks for it," Darre says. "Whether it’s a restaurant that needs help – they don’t have the resources for an HR department."

Indeed, many restaurants don't have the resources, especially smaller family-run businesses, which is why so few have access to HR infrastructures that offer benefits like insurance, paid time off, and official channels for safely communicating problems to a third party.

While putting their own policies in place, the Saba team reached out to restaurants and people that were "doing things right," and Shaya cited Ashley Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalenof Raleigh, North Carolina as people whose advice he sought.

"It’s been great because it really feels like we’re all in this together to do things better all around and not make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past," Shaya told Food & Wine.

Christensen shared some of her methods with us, as well.

"One of the biggest things for us is teaching people to only work the standard full time," she said. "I want managers to not work more than 50 hours a week. It's traditional in our industry to have folks feel like they have to destroy at work all the time. And we've tried to implement a lot of tools that help folks organize themselves, to realize if you're saying you don't have time to take a vacation, that's not the case. You just need more help organizing how you approach your work. I think people are their best selves at work if they get to enjoy their life outside of work, if they get to feel like they're successful in both. Seeking work/life balance should be the biggest thing."

Shaya helmed Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya in the Besh Restaurant Group until he was fired in September 2017, and soon after the Times-Picayune broke the story that John Besh had fostered a culture of sexual harassment. Shaya later claimed he was pushed out of the restaurant group for speaking out about Besh's alleged misconduct and the toxic workplace culture fostered by the group. The Times-Picayune story noted, however, that "current and former staff of Shaya's BRG restaurants say his restaurants were not the safe havens from sexual harassment that he described."

Hopefully, things can and will be better this time around. While fostering healthy working environments isn't easy or cheap, Darre, Peterson, and Shaya believe it will pay off, and the restaurant industry needs to catch up.

"Focusing on people and culture is not necessarily a new idea in other industries, and they’ve been successful with it. In hotels and tech and other places," Darre says. "It’s no secret that companies literally focus on culture as their base core, and that’s why they’ve been so successful. You’re focusing on the most important thing – which is your people."