Great Restaurants to Work For: How We Chose the 2019 Winners
In developing this year’s list of Great Restaurants to Work For, Food & Wine asked three questions:
- What keeps restaurants from being good workplaces?
- Who is known for being a good restaurant employer?
- How can we check?
Here’s how we tried to answer them.
What keeps restaurants from being good workplaces?
We started by taking a structural look at the restaurant industry by interviewing experts on restaurant work, the hospitality industry, and workplace quality. Policy experts, including Patricia Smith at the National Employment Law Project and David Cooper at the Economic Policy Institute, helped us understand the trends and challenges for workers in the industry. Worker advocates at the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant employees union, as well as hospitality experts like Ashtin Berry, of Radical Xchange, and Matt Jennings of Full Heart Hospitality, helped explain the issues restaurant workers struggle with the most. We also talked to folks at La Cocina in San Francisco and FoodLab in Detroit; both organizations help food entrepreneurs get started.
Who is known for being a good restaurant employer?
Whoever we spoke to, we always asked: Is there a restaurateur you think is doing a good job? We asked this of a couple dozen people across the food world: F&W editors and contributors, activists and policy experts, hospitality experts, and food journalists who report on the ground in their communities. We decided to exclude corporate chains because they use a fundamentally different business model than the independently owned shops accounting for about half the country’s restaurants. We also passed over operators that had been open less than two years, reasoning that it can take time to settle on employment policies. Then, with an eye toward reflecting the country’s geographic and cultural diversity, as well as the breadth of scale and price points in the industry, we began contacting restaurateurs.
In those interviews, we looked for two things. First, that operators were going above and beyond the admittedly low bar set by laws—and industry norms—for worker treatment in the restaurant industry. Second, that operators did more than just talk compellingly—they needed to be doing specific, concrete things that made their workers’ jobs better.
This meant we asked about their philosophy as employers, of course. But we also asked for specifics on policies. Hearing about starting wages, benefit premiums, their approaches to sexual harassment, retention, and how they build in opportunity for advancement let us assess whether operators are building systems that create stability and respect for workers. These issues are central to workers’ job quality, and we ultimately made answering questions about them a condition of inclusion on the list.
By the end of the process, we conducted more than 60 interviews, many of them an hour long.
There are still flaws in this inaugural list. We were unable to gather enough information about retention, a key indicator, to talk about it meaningfully. And we didn’t have an infrastructure to gather stories—good or bad—from workers themselves. We hope to change that in the future, and we’re optimistic that the Great Restaurants to Work For Feedback Form will help us make the direct experiences of restaurant staff central to the conversation.
How can we check?
To figure out how to assess a restaurant’s workplace record, we checked in with groups that work to separate bad employers from good ones. Public interest data group Just Capital generously shared their method for assessing corporate employers, and Great Place to Work explained how they gauge employee satisfaction, most notably in its work with Fortune magazine. (They will also be assessing restaurants for Food & Wine for next year’s Great Restaurants to Work For list—click here to nominate a restaurant).
Researchers at the Unite Here offered tips on looking into employers’ backgrounds, and experts at Good Jobs First helped us identify the public data sources we could access. When gauging wages, we looked at recommended wage levels for single adults on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage calculator.
With that knowledge in hand, we ran thorough media scans for each restaurant, checking leading food publications; the Nexis news database; and Alt-Press Watch, an online database for alternative weeklies. If we didn’t see any news stories about workplace strife at the restaurants, we identified their legal ownership. Then we checked local, state, and federal agencies for complaints, judgments, or public hearings in the past 10 years against each restaurant with the federal Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and comparable local- and state-level agencies. We also searched the last decade of records available from PACER, the online database of federal court cases, and the appellate, criminal, and civil courts at the state, county, and city level.
We ultimately ended up checking records from 49 agencies and 108 courts, spread across 17 states and 18 cities, making multiple phone calls and emails to nail down each inquiry.
Due to time and resource constraints, this edition of the list does not include occupational safety and health records.
Restaurants are among the least regulated workplaces in the country, so while a lack of violations might mean the employer never breaks the rules, it could also mean that they haven’t gotten caught. What’s more, checking a paper trail doesn’t treat all businesses equally. The older a business is, the more likely it is to have had a problem with an employee. And if it is in a state with an active labor department, like California, it’s more likely to get caught breaking the rules than a restaurant in the South, where seven states don’t employ a single minimum-wage investigator.
Our concern as journalists was not whether an employer has ever run afoul of the law, but whether the record showed a systematic willingness to flout labor laws. In instances where we found an incident of concern, we discussed the issue with the restaurateur. If it appeared that the complaint represented a one-time problem, and the restaurateur still wanted to be included on the list, we reached out to workers involved in the dispute to check the restaurateur’s story. After all that, if we felt we could still responsibly recommend the restaurant as a great place to work, it is listed here.