The interdependence between Philadelphia’s restaurant industry and its immigrant community is impossible to ignore. Yet many of the workers on whom Philly diners rely remain out of sight, living without documentation and hiding from authorities or else working long hours for low wages. For the first time in a quarter-century, however, major change is coming in the form of a federal immigration reform bill now being hammered out in Washington.

In Forefront this week, Next City Fellow Allyn Gaestel talks with immigrants, activists, cooks, chefs, owners and others to find out what Philadelphia’s restaurant workers can expect of the future.

Brightly painted skeletons, elaborately dressed and grinning, welcome you into the Los Catrines Tequilas restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. Inside, ornately carved dark wood offsets traditional Mexican paintings and a bar sparkles with bottles of tequila. There are dozens of varieties, inspired by owner David Suro-Piñera’s love for tequila culture and history — when I met him he was fresh back from a trip to Mexico, where he was studying early signs of distillation technology with academics and bartenders. Since following his ex-wife from Cancún to Philadelphia in the 1980s, Suro-Piñera has ridden the wave of Philadelphia’s restaurant renaissance. With his heart split between Philadelphia and Mexico, he is in a prime position to explain the other side of the restaurant surge.

He remembers one day in the mid-’90s when a man named Efren wandered into his restaurant, asking for directions to New York. Efren had just crossed into the U.S., heading to New York to meet his cousins. His coyote, the guide hired to take him, dropped him in Philadelphia instead. He walked the streets, lost, until he stumbled across the Cocina Mexicana sign outside Tequilas.

Dionicio Jiminez left his home in a small town in Mexico in the 1990s. Now he is the Executive Chef at Stephen Starr’s El Rey Restaurant.

Instead of sending him along to New York, Suro-Piñera offered him a job, and Efren stayed. It was a win for Suro-Piñera, who had struggled to fill his back-of-the-house jobs. “Those jobs, they are tough jobs. A lot of restaurants, they have a hard time finding good people,” he explained. Soon he told a couple friends in the restaurant industry about his good luck, “and they asked me if he can bring some friends… so he called friends and 10,000 friends later, you see what you see in Philadelphia.”

To hear the restaurateurs speak is to hear them wax poetic about a city on the rise. “We’ve got one of the most vibrant restaurant cities in the country,” said [Jeff] Benjamin of the Vetri family of restaurants.

Some of Vetri’s expansions have been adventurous. The partners built a pricey restaurant on North Broad Street, in an area on the fringe of Center City best known for hosting the abandoned Divine Loraine Hotel and other decaying relics of Philadelphia’s late 19th-century and early 20th-century heyday. Vetri’s move to North Broad inspired a spate of copycat investment. A developer last year announced plans to turn the Divine into high-end condos.

“We don’t credit ourselves with changing the neighborhood,” Benjamin said, “but adding a vibrant restaurant to the neighborhood has said [to potential residents] ‘we can live here, we can open a restaurant here.’”

Benjamin isn’t shy about recognizing that none of this would be happening without immigrant labor. “We do have a pretty decent-sized immigrant population working for us in the front and back of the house,” he said.

The company is known among immigrant workers as one of the better employers, the kind of people you want to work for. “Marc helps a lot of people, illegal people, people working in the restaurant,” Jiminez said. It was chance that he ended up at Vetri, but it changed his life. “If you get lucky like I did, the restaurant will really appreciate you and some can get lucky and get the papers, a green card or a visa.” But, he explained, “It depends on where you work and who you work for.”

Vetri offers all its workers health insurance after six months, as well as benefits like a 401(k), and bonuses, auto reimbursement and a dining allowance as the employee grows. “Paying a decent wage is always good but so are benefits… to entice people to stay,” Benjamin said. “The restaurant industry has a bad rap as a transient industry, people come and go, [but] I don’t think you need to if you have a good environment.”

Not all of the restaurateurs who employ immigrants are held in such high esteem.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of restaurants in the city grew by 39 percent and the Mexican population by 150 percent. Photo Credit: Alan Chin.

[Domenic] Vitiello, who was formerly on the board of Juntos, said that Philadelphia’s restaurant boom and the food industry in general was built on “subsidized labor,” meaning that many workers confront low wages and low benefits. Fabricio Rodriguez, of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, said of one of the city’s other major restaurateurs, “he’s just a rich dude who got extremely rich paying people $2.83 per hour.”

For workers in restaurants that don’t honor their rights, Rodriguez said, immigration reform presents a huge opportunity.

Isidro Ramos (right, in apron), orginially from Veracruz, Mexico, takes a break outside Los Taquitos De Puebla, where he has worked for over a year. Photo Credit: Alan Chin.

“People have rights. They don’t understand that, they’re not using them,” he said. “Giving a path to citizenship will clarify the rights they do have, on a public stage, in a mass sort of way.” That point is important to employers as well. Current laws put them in precarious limbo, dependent on illegal workers and facing an ever-present possibility of a crackdown and loss of their workforce. It is a functional but tenuous balance, and the Pennsylvania Restaurant Coalition has sent members to Washington to lobby for the reform.

Their support echoes the National Restaurant Association, which portrays reform as streamlining a patchwork of confusing local immigration policies. The organization’s official line is that a“ reliable system would help employers manage the hiring process in a timely, efficient and respectful manner, and give employers certainty about their legal obligations.” Many restaurant owners now employ workers with false documentation, so they are on the books but with a different identity. In those cases, little would change if those workers were qualified for the “pathway to citizenship” offered through proposed legislation. Reform is a way of bringing what is already happening into “the light of day, with legal standing,” said Patrick Conway, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“Why don’t we wave the carrot instead of shaking the stick?” Benjamin said. “We should reward the people who are doing well.”

— ALLYN GAESTEL

Want more? This in an excerpt from Next City’s weekly long-form magazine Forefront. Click here to continue reading.


Next City is a non-profit media organization dedicated to connecting cities and informing the people who work to improve them. We write about public policy and current affairs from an urbanist perspective at nextcity.org.