“Just Dining” rates downtown Madison restaurants as workplaces

Inside Graze across the street from the Wisconsin Capitol

An interior view of Graze, which earned a laudable four stars in the Just Dining guide, including ones for health insurance and time off with pay for workers. Photo by Proxy Indian (Steve Browne & John Verkleir) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As reported by Doug Erickson in the Wisconsin State Journal, yesterday saw the release of Just Dining: A Guide to Restaurant Employment Standards in Downtown Madison, a project of the Workers’ Rights Center and the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice in South Central Wisconsin.  As Erickson describes,

The guide awards up to seven stars [though no restaurant earned all seven] based on factors such as starting wages, health insurance coverage and sick pay. Food quality doesn’t play a role.

The big winners: Ian’s Pizza, Ancora Coffee, the Dayton Street Grille, the Plaza Tavern, all of the Food Fight restaurants and the numerous public dining establishments operated by UW-Madison.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t have great people and treat them well, it’s hard to grow or be successful,” said Greg Frank, a Food Fight managing partner who said he was pleased with the company’s rating….

“We’re really holding up those employers that go above and beyond,” [Workers’ Rights Center director Patrick] Hickey said. “Hopefully by highlighting them, the other restaurants will see something they can aspire to.”

The guide is not without critics, or at least folks who question its focus and methods. As Erickson reports,

Pete Hanson, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, called the guide “well-intended” but questioned whether the methodology was sound. He took strong issue with the wording of much of the guide’s introduction, which calls the quality of restaurant jobs “often distressingly poor” and says racial and gender discrimination is widespread in the industry.

The guide “is filled with erroneous information and plays on stereotypes about the restaurant industry” that are not true, he said.

The report is definitely partial. In July, Nick Brown of MadTable wrote,

Hickey says that some employers are naturally skeptical of the project, and are less willing to release information such as wages, citing proprietary reasons or saying they don’t want such information leaked to competitors. But he says restaurants from all categories — from fast food chains to fine dining — have largely been cooperative in supplying data.

Pushback from employers decreased “once we explained to them that we’re not asking, ‘Was this a good job?’ and instead ‘what is the wage for a line cook?’” Hickey says.

Nevertheless, the State Journal notes that “Fifty restaurants in addition to the 139 rated ones got inconclusive grades — denoted by question marks — because the guide’s authors could not confirm certain policies. About 30 percent of the total 189 restaurants cooperated with the researchers, Hickey said.”

Further, as Jay Rath reported for Isthmus when the project was announced in the spring,

While the goal of such a project is laudable, some question its methodology and focus.

“If you want to reward good operators, I don’t know if this is the way to do it,” says Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. “To have a good business, you need good people working there, and to retain them you have to take care of them. If you don’t, your product will suffer. It’s kind of basic. It just is.”

She also questions why the guide will look only at restaurants downtown, which for the purpose of the “Just Dining” project is defined as the area bounded by Randall Avenue to the west, the Yahara River to the east, Lake Mendota to the north and Regent Street to the south.

Schmitz argues that all restaurants across the city should be looked at, “especially when this city likes promoting — and appropriately so — locally owned businesses. About 85% of the businesses downtown are local. This doesn’t make sense.”

Mary Carbine, executive director of the Central Business Improvement District, agrees. “I am unclear why downtown restaurants are the focus of this effort, as I am unaware of any data suggesting that downtown restaurants have subpar working conditions or compensation,” she says. “I am unclear why a primarily locally owned and independent business district is the focus of this effort.”

Time will tell what kind of impact Just Dining has on Madison restaurants, but the guide itself outlines some plans for the future:

We are already thinking about next steps. As a follow-up, the ICWJ is interested in launching an effort to gather a set of local restaurateurs who have worked to offer quality jobs in the industry to foster this dialogue. The group will identify and help promote ‘high road’ paths in restaurant employment. (If you are a restaurant owner or manager who would be interested in learning more about this follow-up initiative, please contact ICWJ Director Rabbi Renee Bauer at director@workerjustice.org.)

In addition to restaurant ratings, the guide sets out to bust six myths about restaurant industry workers. Take, for example, number 4:

The industry is too competitive and the profit margins too small to provide the wages and benefits that the owner might want to offer. Either labor costs have to be kept to a minimum, or meal prices have to go up – if meal prices go up restaurants lose business.

Not all businesses, restaurants included, see an unavoidable tradeoff between supporting their workers and providing value to their customers. Managing the costs of running a business includes strategically controlling a range of expenses – including purchasing, menu design and marketing, – not just labor costs.xvi And, as high road businesses continue to demonstrate, providing quality jobs can create higher productivity: better quality (and higher sales-yielding) service, and workers who are engaged partners in informing and implementing business strategy from the front lines.

Head here to order print copies of Just Dining or access it online.

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