NYC Opportunity
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NYC Opportunity

The Restaurant Revitalization Program: Helping the Restaurant Industry in the Age of COVID-19 and Lifting Wages for Tipped Workers

“What I realized is people were hungry to eat and people were hungry to help.”
- Mikey Knab, Strategy Director, RAISE: High Road Restaurants

Khachik Simonian, Chinatown NYC | Unsplash

The Restaurant Revitalization Program (RRP) was launched in July 2020 to provide relief to one of New York City’s key industries and ensure that equitable employment practices are at the heart of the restaurant industry’s recovery.

RRP supports New York City restaurants and communities by subsidizing employee wages, advancing equity in the restaurant industry, and facilitating meal donations to those in need. To date, over 350 restaurant employees have been hired or brought back to their jobs with RRP funds and over 35,000 free meals have been provided to people in need.

The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) designed RRP to do two things: (1) meet the immediate, short-term need for relief in the restaurant industry, and (2) use its funding to promote greater equity in the restaurant industry over the long-term. To participate in RRP, the 68 restaurants that are receiving funding committed to equitable employment practices and higher wages for tipped workers.

While the RRP is not big enough in scale to meet all of the urgent needs in the restaurant industry, it was designed to be a model for how local governments can forge strategic partnerships that meet the immediate needs of struggling residents and businesses, while also addressing longer-term structural issues. The $2 million program is funded by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and NYC Opportunity and is administered by the Human Resources Administration.

This post will focus on One Fair Wage (OFW), an invaluable partner in RRP, and discuss how its work improving equity within the restaurant industry has inspired and supported RRP as the program provides crisis relief to NYC restaurants while building a more equitable future for NYC’s food industry. It includes excerpts from a recent conversation with Mikey Knab, the Strategy Director of RAISE: High Road Restaurants.(RAISE: High Road Restaurants is an affiliate of the One Fair Wage campaign).

What is One Fair Wage?

“If you are a Black woman, you are [very] likely to make less than white men.”

OFW is a non-profit organization working to help all service workers achieve a guaranteed “one fair wage,” a full minimum wage with tips on top, by advocating for policy at the local, state, and federal levels. Currently, several states — including New York State — allow employers to pay tipped restaurant workers a subminimum wage.

Knab is optimistic that New York could soon see major advances in equity in the restaurant industry.

“Last year, Governor Cuomo made it illegal to pay a sub-minimum wage in [a number of] industries…nail salons, car washes, the gig economy — but he left out restaurants.

In New York, it’s illegal to share tips with the back of the house. New York is one of the only two states in the whole country where that is illegal. Most places it’s illegal unless you pay one fair wage.

We’re really hoping to show the state legislators and the governor that New York restaurants are willing to pay good wages and commit to highroad practices and they’re open to a bright future where these restaurants can thrive, but they can’t do it on their own. They need it to be the law.”

As Knab says,

“Our goal is to make the sub-minimum wage illegal and to make ‘minimum’ actually mean ‘minimum’ and say that is the least you can pay an employee regardless of whether they collect tips or not.”

Knab also explained how this issue and the larger matter of raising wage standards in the industry intersects with both racial and gender equity.

“If you were to go into a fine dining restaurant pretty much anywhere in the country, you’re more likely to see white people in the front of the house in the service positions — waiters and bartenders. The further you get towards the back of the house into the kitchen, the darker people’s skin gets. If you were to go to a fine dining restaurant, the wait staff and the bartenders are more likely to be men but if you were to go to a lower-priced diner, chain restaurant, or dive bar, they’re more likely to be women.

That’s throughout the country, but this is just as true and sometimes more true in New York than anywhere else. If you are a Black woman, you are [very] likely to make less than white men. This is in terms of wages but it’s also in terms of professional possibilities, a ladder of professional engagement. It’s also true if you’re a [male] person of color.

Nationally, Black women in the restaurant industry make an average of $4 less in tips per hour than white men. In New York, it’s almost $8 an hour. To me, that is like, what more do you need to illustrate why this is a race issue and a gender issue?”

What are High Road Kitchens?

“When this crisis ends, we want there to be good jobs, not just jobs.”

OFW’S High Road Kitchens (HRK) initiative began as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. HRK leverages public and private partnerships to provide funds to independent restaurants in the form of wage subsidies for workers. In return, these High Road Kitchens agree to pay a living wage and implement “high road” employment practices like a commitment to race and gender equity, financial education, paid leave, and opportunities for professional advancement. They also agree to provide free or low-cost meals on a sliding-scale payment model to healthcare workers and people in need, and to complete equity training and assessments.

HRK first launched in California and launched in NYC in partnership with the City’s RRP in June, 2020.

Knab laid out the three main challenges HRK was created to address:

1. Hunger

“One is to feed people who were food insecure. There were a lot of people who were food insecure right away. This just goes to show how low wages put people in such a horrible position. Any emergency immediately put people into food insecurity. Within 2–4 weeks it was home insecurity too.”

2. Job Insecurity

“The second issue is to re-employ people who were either laid off or furloughed or had their hours significantly decreased as a result of the crisis. We wanted to find a way to bring them back to work safely and also to feed their communities, including out-of-work service sector employees.”

3. Raising Industry Standards

“The third goal was to support and highlight restaurants that commit to the high road to profitability. . . These are the restaurants that are going to have the jobs going forward. When this crisis ends, we want there to be good jobs, not just jobs. Jobs that only pay $2.13 an hour — those aren’t good jobs.”

Knab highlighted how the program is able to address multiple needs at the same time.

“What I realized is there were people who were hungry to eat and people who were hungry to help. Through the scaled payment model, it allows folks to meet both of those hungers. It also can make the program more self-sustaining.”

What makes us hopeful?

“People are seeing how important their workers are to the fabric of the industry.”

The success of the HRK and RRP model shows that building resilient community businesses goes hand in hand with breaking down race and gender inequities. The overwhelming response these programs have received from both restaurants and private- and public-sector partners points to a brighter future for the restaurant industry.

Knab shared the experience of his own California restaurant with HRK.

“At my restaurant, we were the first highroad kitchen. In April of [2020], we started doing the scaled payment model. We were initially committed to 500 free meals being served but within one month, so many people had simply donated or paid extra to pay meals forward that we committed to 2,600 free meals. We were able to do that because my community, my guests, my regulars, just wanted a way to help.

When we announced the program we said we wanted to get to 100 restaurants . . .We had over 300 restaurants apply within the first week. That’s amazing. People are seeing how important their workers are to the fabric of the industry. You cannot have a good restaurant without a good staff, and you can’t have a good staff if they’re starving.”

Knab also highlighted the inspiring stories of two RRP grant-recipients: Skål, a Brooklyn cafe, and Reverence, a Harlem restaurant.

“Restaurant comes from the word ‘restore’. You come in and you restore your energy, your compassion, your connection with your community and the physical restoration because you need to eat…Jesus [the owner of Skål] is constantly telling me about someone who came in and they brought in their whole family so they got to feed the whole family of six and that felt so great. It fits all the goals of the program. They’re feeding people in need and he’s engaging with his employees in a way that feels genuine and that’s going to have long term value for him and the community.”

“Reverence in Harlem is a super high-end restaurant…But the chef has shifted towards packing bento boxes for the High Road Kitchens and Restaurant Revitalization Program and he’s also filling up the community refrigerator. He speaks very eloquently about how it’s not just about their employees. It’s also about the employees at the local farms that he sources produce from and the fishermen they buy fish from and the wine distributors and wineries who make the wine and the local breweries.

He’s like look, it’s not just that the restaurant industry is the second largest industry. All these adjacent industries grow with us and fail with us.”

HRK’s success in California and NYC, including the RRP partnership, has built momentum for its mission across the country. The mayors of Boston and Chicago recently launched HRK programs in their cities. OFW expects to announce even more partnerships with state and local governments, and is hopeful for the future of this important movement.

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