Transcript from the 4/27/17 show of APEX Express on KPFA 94.1FM
For our May Day/Day Without An Immigrant show, we wanted to explore the restaurant industry and specifically immigrant restaurant workers.
LO: There’s a certain shame I carry from working at restaurants. I love cooking, I love when people receive immense enjoyment from food that’s been crafted with care. I love eating at restaurants, but I know a lot of worker exploitation happens there. I was a line cook, working hours off the clock because my head chef asked me to. The job paid $15 an hour in San Francisco. No tips, very little overtime pay. A superior told me to work through my breaks. How could I love something that was so toxic? And so toxic for myself? I couldn’t resolve this inner conflict. It grew into anxiety. So I quit.
I turned to Diep Tran for her thoughts. She is the owner and head chef of Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles. She shared a similar experience to mine.
DT: I think ever since started the restaurant have had endemic depression. I pay workers more than minimum. I show up for my staff and my staff shows up for me.
But at the end of the day, I still don’t feel like it’s proper compensation. Everyday I feel that. Every payroll I feel that. And I pay above minimum. I don’t have anybody clock in for free, and I still feel that way.
But I’m even at the top end of industry. There’s an entire industry of underpaid, undervalued ppl. Even though the American public has a seeming apparent love affair with food—everyone likes to say they love food. But they do not really care about the hands that make it.
LO: These are Diep’s reflections after the eighth year anniversary of Good Girl Dinette. She calls her ethics on restaurant labor and food a lifelong passion.
Diep is a refugee from Vietnam, who grew up in the restaurant industry starting at the age of ten. Her family opened several pho businesses throughout Southern California, all called Pho 79. She watched her relatives put long taxing hours into Pho 79. They charged cut-rate prices for their food.
When she opened Good Girl Dinette, she wanted to create a business model that saw employees as an asset. Her menu prices, higher than most Vietnamese restaurants, reflect her payroll figures. She crafted a system to give workers enough breaks throughout lunch and dinner shifts. She avoids labor intensive dishes, to keep labor costs low, and wages high.
But she still meets customer criticism for the prices of her food. Why?
DT: They’ve never had to pay more than $9 for a bowl of pho before. So I started asking, where is this coming from? I started to see the only place immigrant food is featured is in those cheap eats lists.
LO: You’ve probably seen the like. Where to find a meal under five dollars. Go here for $3 tacos. $4 bun mi. $1 baos.
Diep writes about her beef with these lists in an NPR article titled: Cheap Eats, Cheap Labor: The Hidden Human Costs Of Those Lists.
DT: For me, liberating immigrant cuisines from a strict narrative of how much it can cost creates opportunities for us to have better paying jobs in the kitchen.
LO: What do you say to people who find immigrant restaurateurs at fault and not media or eaters who love cheap immigrant foods?
DT: I don’t want to blame immigrant restaurants. They are doing what’s expected of them, what they have to do. The focus is how food writers normalize cheap food in immigrant community. They glorify that immigrant food—it’s biggest value, it's biggest asset—is in its cheapness. It suppresses wages from increasing in those restaurants.
No one is bragging about getting a shirt from Bangladesh that is made by children. No one is bragging about getting some sweatshop clothes. When someone brags about getting this bun mi for $3, do you know what that means? It means someone didn’t get paid well for this bun mi to happen.
LO: In the article, you acknowledge a history of cheap immigrant labor in this country: African Americans on plantations, Chinese immigrants built railroads, Latino migrant farm workers in California agriculture. You then call the assumption that "immigrant food should be cheap because its labor is cheap" racism. Do you think this association is subconscious for food media and eaters?
DT: I don’t think consumers are malicious. It’s normalized, they don’t even think about why associating cheap food and Asian food is wrong or is problematic.
LO: What is the response from eaters to your article?
DT: I think it’s hard for people to wrap their head around. They want a list of restaurants they should eat at. No, let’s start to stem the tide of the demand for cheap eats. Don’t support those cheap eats lists. If you see a cheap eats list, write in the comments "Dude don’t do this." If you see a restaurant that is charging what you didn’t expect, say "Oh that’s interesting. I’m not gonna write it off because it’s above price point I’m not sued to." And not to shame immigrant restaurants for doing what market is requiring of them.
LO: I wanted to close this segment with news about FuseBox, a Korean fusion restaurant opened by an Oakland couple Ellen Sebastian Chang and Sunhui Chang. FuseBox closed last Sunday after five years in West Oakland.
FuseBox had four members of their staff evicted from Oakland homes. Ellen, like Diep, felt awful for not being able to pay her staff $50 an hour. What they need to live a decent life in the Bay Area.
FuseBox closed at the end of their five-year lease. They cited the economic climate as the reason. In order for a small business to survive in the Bay Area, the owners have to be extremely wealthy or expand business, like a second location. FuseBox decided against the later.
Rarely in the restaurant industry do we get owners like Diep, Ellen, and Sunhui—the kind that want to invest in and take care of employees. When we do, multiple forces threaten their ethics. In Diep’s case it’s the racist notion that immigrant food should be cheap. For Ellen and Sunhui, it’s capitalism—you expand or die.
I don’t want to detract from immigrant restaurant workers themselves, but their fate is directly linked to their employers. So if we want equity for these immigrant restaurant workers, we have to ask: How do we create a business model, an economic climate, a consumer culture that allows ethical restaurateurs to exist?