It’s time to change workplace conditions

The restaurant industry is not particularly known for its fair labor practices and supportive work environments. The demands of the kitchen lead to long shifts, little breaks, and physically grueling work.

This edition of Weekly Bites summarizes three stories of industry leaders who are working hard to create a more fair, equitable, and safe workplace in the kitchen and front-of-house. 

Kitchens tend to be highly regimented workplaces that enforce hierarchies. With the pressures of keeping the business profitable, demanding guests, and quick turnaround times, it’s no wonder that substance abuse and mental health issues can be found in the kitchen. The past few years has seen increased awareness of the challenges of kitchen work, with shows like “The Bear” giving viewers a peek at what it takes to run a restaurant. 

The restaurant industry has been due for a reckoning for a while now, and the pandemic has provided the opportunity to reassess how things are already done. From taking care of tip worker’s healthcare to providing space for breastfeeding and restaurant provided knives, these three stories shine light on how we can change the restaurant industry for good. 

Access to healthcare isn’t just about costs 

Reproductive healthcare is an essential healthcare service for restaurant industry workers everywhere. While some services may be free or heavily subsidized, it’s not always easy for tip-based and hourly-based workers to take the time off they need to access healthcare. This is especially true of front of the house staff who rely on tips in order to make a living wage. 

Nonprofit One Fair Wage is seeking to improve the restaurant industry’s labor conditions, including access to healthcare. They partnered with I’ll Have What She’s Having, a Houston-based nonprofit for workers in the industry, to launch the Service Worker Reproductive Access Fund. This fund will cover travel for essential healthcare services like abortions, family planning counseling, and contraception. 

Easy and equitable access to healthcare is a systemic issue in virtually all industries, but it’s important that nonprofits are specifically seeking to make things better for workers in the restaurant industry. 

It’s not a cigarette break…  

When it comes to welcoming women in the kitchen in all positions, the restaurant industry has been making enormous progress over the past 20 years. 

Still, there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to accommodating new parents who are breastfeeding. 

Pumping milk is a physically demanding activity. Milk must be pumped every few hours in order to avoid a buildup of milk, and the parent must ensure they’re consuming enough calories and water to support lactation. Pumping is most successful if the parent has a private, comfortable space to express milk.

The ability to step away from the line for 15-20 minutes at a time and a quiet, private space? It sounds almost impossible to accommodate in the kitchen, but kitchens everywhere have adjusted to smoke breaks. So why not pump breaks that are actually necessary? 

Pumpspotting, a lactation support app, and Kalamata’s kitchen, a content platform introducing children to global cultures through food, are partnering to try and find a solution. Kalamata’s Kitchen co-owner Derek Wallace says that many new and expecting parents feel that they have to choose between having a family and being in the restaurant industry. 

The new initiative is both providing support to parents like lactation consultation, as well as providing logistical support for restaurants to figure out how to provide breastfeeding support for parents. Whether or not the initiative will be “successful,” just raising awareness about pumping will hopefully start to normalize it, just as the cigarette break has been normalized in the kitchen. 

You don’t have to BYOK(nives)

One of the most important tools for a chef, sous chef, line cook, or anyone else working the kitchen, is their set of knives. 

Many chefs take pride in their knives and are very particular about what knives they use. As such, having a set of knives is a prerequisite for working in most kitchens, especially in fine dining. With knives costing hundreds of dollars, however, being forced to provide your own basic tools for the job can be a major barrier for some who are just starting out in the industry. 
Some chefs are now taking an example from hotels — where knives are provided to line cooks — and are providing “shop knives” for anyone to use. There is the understanding that using a dull communal knife is less than ideal, but that this simple change can also make it much easier for line cooks to start their new job.


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