Behind the kitchen door: sweet potato wontons

Unless you’ve worked in a restaurant, or are really close to someone who has, you probably have no idea what goes on behind the kitchen door.

Serving, bussing tables, dishwashing—these are all physically demanding jobs but they can be rewarding if the restaurant treats its staff equitably. Unfortunately, too many don’t.

I had my eyes opened recently when I attended a program, sponsored by seven local Jewish organizations, at Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) Michigan.

ROC Michigan, along with 14 similar state organizations, is affiliated with ROC United. The first ROC, in New York, was started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to provide support for restaurant workers who lost their jobs when the twin towers fell.

Guaranteed wage: $2.13

I knew that servers are paid below minimum wage, with the expectation that they will make it up in tips. But I had no idea the federally guaranteed “tipped wage” is only $2.13 an hour, an amount that hasn’t increased in 22 years! (In some states it is higher. Michigan’s tipped wage will rise to a whopping $3.10 this year.)

It is possible to make a decent living from tips, especially in higher-end restaurants. But I didn’t know that there are no laws guaranteeing tips, and that few restaurants even have policies about tips. Unscrupulous managers can easily skim their staff’s tips with impunity.

I didn’t realize that bussers can be paid the same “tipped wage” as servers but without the opportunity to get a fair share of the tips.

Nor was I aware that restaurant workers don’t have to be paid overtime, or that managers can make the staff stay on the premises but clock out when the restaurant is empty so that they don’t get paid for all the hours they’re on duty.

Like most minimum wage workers, most restaurant staff don’t get paid sick time.

Saru Jayaraman, one of the founders of ROC, has written a book on the difficulties of restaurant workers, Behind the Kitchen Door (Cornell University Press).

Generally, servers and bartenders make more than those who work “behind the kitchen door,” said Alicia Renee Farris, director of ROC Michigan. That’s why she’s developed an innovative training program to prepare adults for careers as bartenders and servers in nice restaurants.

For six of the 10 weeks of the course, the students work at Colors, a full-service restaurant run by ROC Michigan in downtown Detroit.

ROC Michigan says their raisons d’etre are organizing for workplace justice in restaurants, research and public policy advocacy, and “high road practices,” which means fair and sustainable work practices for restaurant staff. At Colors, for example, the wait staff are paid $10.10 an hour and all staff share the tips.

(Last Thursday I heard a piece on NPR’s “On Point” program about how the tipping economy is changing. Bob Donegan, the president of Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants in Seattle said his company increased its menu prices by 21 percent, asks that customers do not tip, and pays all hourly staff at least $15 an hour. It hasn’t hurt them; indeed the number of diners and the chain’s revenue have skyrocketed, but Donegan admitted that could be due to all the good publicity they’ve been getting!)

One of the speakers at our program, a graduate of the Colors training, had a few suggestions for diners. First, ask your server if he or she is happy with the job. If the waiter hesitates at all, you’ll know that working conditions there are not what they should be; you might want to avoid that restaurant in future.

He also suggested handing your server the tip personally, rather than putting it on your credit card, to ensure that the server receives the entire amount. If you want to put the tip on your card, he said, ask the server if he or she will get the full amount if you do so. Again, if you see any hesitation you can suspect some fishy business.

Colors provided program participants with a lovely vegetarian soul food luncheon, which included sweet potato wontons, one of their signature dishes. Chef Alex Amdemichael was kind enough to share the recipe. It’s great as an appetizer, a party food or even as a savory dessert.