Pay Black folks in equity, not empty statements.

By Ryan Shepard
Updated June 17, 2020
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Miodrag Ignjatovic / Getty Images

In July 2018, former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was holding a press conference just outside of the restaurant I managed in Atlanta. Her fairly progressive campaign had attracted the attention of the nation, and all eyes turned to Georgia to see if the state was ready to usher in a more inclusive future. That day, she received an endorsement from Barack Obama, which gave her candidacy the feeling of momentum, inevitability even.

On all sides, Abrams was flanked by local business owners, nearly all of them white. They wore the unmistakable look of people utterly pleased with themselves.

“What a load of shit,” my coworker said to me, as we watched the revelry from behind the floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room where we worked. “If they’re so liberal, maybe they should think about starting here first.”

When I moved to Atlanta in 2017, I had just graduated with my master’s degree from the University of Southern California and completed culinary school. Even with those credentials, securing a restaurant job in my new city proved more difficult than I’d anticipated. I interviewed at a bistro. Despite my work experience and degrees, instead of being offered a managerial position, I was instead hired as a barista.

After a year spent constantly over-drafting my meager checking account, I was relieved when the general manager position opened up, and I was offered the job. But my short-lived excitement evaporated when I learned that—unlike most other managers with my title—I would not be salaried, and what little pay I was to receive was well below the market rate. To add insult to injury, I also discovered that our bar manager, a white man, made almost double my salary, even though he spent most of his time elsewhere.

Unfortunately, my experience wasn't out of the ordinary; in fact, I had it easier than many. A talented Black female bartender who worked on the busiest nights in our restaurant and regularly brought in more revenue during her shifts than her two white male counterparts was consistently underpaid, overworked, and undervalued. She had to fight for every penny increase she deserved, and she was almost fired for it when white management labeled her as "unfriendly" and "difficult."

The environment inside of the restaurant was not unique. If you walk into the finest dining establishments and cocktail bars in the city, or any city for that matter, you’ll notice a few similarities: chic decor, robust wine lists, farm-sourced menu items, and few, if any, people of color in positions of power.

For too long the food industry has been willing to sustain itself on Black labor while doing absolutely nothing to address the lack of African Americans in positions of leadership. There are few Black executive chefs, general managers, or sommeliers helping run the leading restaurants in Atlanta, and it’s not because Black folks somehow lack the talent.

I’ve watched white chefs use their Black line cooks as uncredited muses for some of their most popular dishes. I have also seen them string along these same budding chefs with promises of promotions, pay increases, and expanded responsibilities that never come to fruition.

I have been paraded around like a show pony to demonstrate how progressive and “forward-thinking” my employers hoped to appear. During my time spent as a general manager, two of the couple's three businesses were managed at the highest levels by me and another incredibly capable Black woman. At the time, we were two of only a handful of Black people in all of Atlanta that held general manager positions at lauded restaurants in the city.

So last Tuesday, when I saw all of the black squares popping up on social media accounts from restaurant owners in Atlanta professing their support for Black lives, including my old boss, I had to assume that meant they supported the movement in theory, but not in practice.

It’s hard for me to believe restaurants care about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement when they’ve historically devalued Black labor within their own organizations. An Instagram post affirming solidarity and support of a human rights cause is the bare minimum. What African Americans in the food industry deserve is access, opportunity, and pay equity.

It is too often the truth that white restaurant owners with politically liberal leanings refuse to see the hand of white supremacy in their own establishments. From the staff they hire, train, and promote, to which cooks get to put new dishes on the menu—Black men and women rarely get an equal chance to succeed.

In order for any proclamation of support to amount to more than just performative allyship, restaurants must do the hard work of examining their company cultures and confront the many ways in which, whether intentionally or not, they have contributed to and benefited from systematic racism and the devaluing of Black lives.

Until they do, their social media activism amounts to business as usual. If these past few weeks have shown nothing else, it’s that we can’t afford to do that, nor are we willing to.