How do You Salvage a Broken Industry? The Restaurant Sector Post-COVID
Updated: Aug 8
By Midori Kurts
Themes: Economy, Food Security, Anti-Racism, Enterprises, Organizations, Social Justice
On April 2, just a few weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown in Canada, activist/writer Naomi Klein, in conversation with author/activist/philosopher Angela Davis, observed that, “crisis blows open the sense of what is possible” (The Rising Majority, 2020). Months later into the lockdown, this sentiment that addresses the ability of resistance movements to organize when crisis invites us to question the logics of capitalism has manifested through the mobilization of racially marginalized people in an effort to resist state-sanctioned violence. State violence that disproportionately and strategically targets BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) is systemic and embodied through detrimental housing and health care policies, issues of food sovereignty, homelessness, policing, the school to prison pipeline, and incarceration, and is in many ways furthered by a capitalist logic that rewards compliancy with a racialized and gendered hierarchical system that privileges some people through the oppression of others.
How can we take this moment as patrons, owners, and workers at all levels of power and privilege to re-examine the structures of the restaurant industry we uphold?
This moment presented by the pandemic, in which the virus of economic capitalism is experiencing an identity crisis, has allowed those resisting and those now engaging in informal learning on systemic racism and economic oppression to reflect on their contributions to these practices and examine the existence of these issues in all the institutions they interact with on a daily basis. As restaurants, for some a once common privilege, desiring desperately to reopen, it is important to consider what we can learn and absorb from the prefigurative movements emerging around us (Vieta, 2020, p. 342). How can we take this moment as patrons, owners, and workers at all levels of power and privilege to re-examine the structures of the restaurant industry we uphold? What can or should be salvaged? In the wake of COVID-19, we need to reimagine the restaurant industry.
In order to reimagine a new restaurant industry, it is important to dismantle the hierarchy that upholds Whiteness in the industry by silencing aggressive voices amplified through White supremacy, to listen and learn, in order for the existing powerful voices of BIPOC to be received.
With this in mind, I would like to look at reimagining the restaurant industry by appealing to the work of food writer/chef Tunde Wey and their article “Let it Die” (Wey, 2020). In Wey’s piece, they argue that restaurants, as they exist as one part of a value chain in the industrial capitalist food system, cannot be made less exploitative through the existing marginal economic changes offered by relief packages and small wage subsidies like those barely afforded by the Trump administration’s restaurant aid package. Wey argues that the restaurant industry is built upon supply, labor and products that are imbued with exploitative, segregated and appropriative practices along lines of race and gender that structurally embeds restaurants as a feature of racial capitalism.
In this article I will look at the foundational history of White supremacy in the industry through practices like redlining and gentrification that are strategically enforced to spatially erase businesses owned by BIPOC to the periphery, to concentrate poverty into marginalized communities as well as enable spatialized state violence. I will also attempt to understand/learn how the industry immortalizes racial segregation through restaurant roles, tipping, and the appropriation of marginalized cultures for profit in a continual colonial process of dispossession. Looking at both marginal economic and so-called “radical” alternatives of economic democracy, this paper will conclude by considering what the critical Afro pessimist lens and other scholars understand as the racist problem with a strictly economic reductionist perspective (Wang, 2018).
Violent Disposession, Precarity, Segregated Restaurant(s) and Labour: “Let it Die?”
In Tunde Wey’s piece, “Let it Die”, they underscore how the restaurant sector is “[a]n industry where labor is segregated by race and gender, underpaid and uninsured. And on the lower scale, working poor people, making barely enough to keep them going, serve low nutrition meals to other working poor people, who can’t afford quality housing because of predatory development. Let it die” (Wey, 2020). The sentiment by Wey provides an explanation into not only how the restaurant industry operates to exploit racialized people through its labour practices, but also how this exploitation, and violence against BIPOC is spatially segregated within the restaurant space and within the spaces/cities/urban centers that restaurants operate in.
Within most restaurants in North America, labour is segregated along lines of race and gender to funnel BIPOC and women into lower wage, uninsured, precarious positions at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy. In my experience, people from racially marginalized groups frequently obtain roles in what is called “back of house,” out of visibility, or in secondary support positions where upward, as well as spatial, mobility is hindered. All of these practices serve as a process of erasure and the creation of segregated spaces of power within the restaurant. This relegation of BIPOC to low paying restaurant work is upheld by Wey’s exploration of the New Orleans restaurant industry, where, they argue, “Black workers are more likely to be clustered in low wage paying jobs while the highest paid occupations in the full-service restaurant industry are disproportionately filled by white workers” (Wey, 2020).
Within the restaurant itself, workers who are relegated to back of house cooking and support positions succumb to abusive, grueling physical hours, while front of house servers/support staff/hosts all make up the most precarious, uninsured positions in the restaurants (Bull, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has further shed light onto the precarity and exposure to violence in the restaurant sector as many restaurant workers, particularly in some U.S. states with weaker lockdown measures, were forced to expose themselves to the virus at work. As one New York City server commented:
‘I don’t wanna be here. I wanna go home.’ Guidelines from the city, both around personal protective gear and sanitation, had been unclear and contradictory. The staff was terrified. ‘We were watching people cough into their napkins, and I had hives on my hands from washing them so much,’ she said. ‘I was scared out of my mind.’ (Bull, 2020).
As food writer Eric Holt Gimenez has observed, our capitalist industrial food system has “common roots of exploitation” that are structured around “racial caste and whiteness” (Holt-Gimenez, 2017). Even the foundation of tipping was originally adopted in the United States as a way to exploit the labour of previously enslaved Black people as a tactic to circumvent paying black people, as well as reinforce hierarchies of power between Blacks and Whites. In 1902, a journalist at the time when speaking about Black servers in restaurants commented: “Negroes take tips, of course; one expects that of them, it is a token of their inferiority. But to give money to a white man was embarrassing to me. I felt defiled by his debasement and servility” (Segrave, 1998, p.10-11).
Spatialized Violence, Gentrification, Redlining, and the Creation of a Restaurant
While it is easy to hone in on Wey’s words and advice in “Let it Die” to end the precarious labour that disproportionately disadvantages BIPOC, it is important also to understand the persistence of systemic racism within the industry more specifically through capitalist labour tendencies. Yes, capitalism is dependent upon the accumulation of wealth in the hands of owners through the surplus value created by labourers (and through a readily available labour pool provisioned by an army of surplus labour), and yes, this disparity is visibly racially segregated, but it is also important to look beyond to see how systemic racism operates within the industry in a continual colonial process of dispossession (Parker et al., 2014). In this case, segregation moves beyond the space of the restaurant and precarious labour, and is manifested through redlining, the appropriation of food culture and recipes, and gentrification processes that create highly condensed racialized neighborhoods across the urban landscape.
As it stands, food cultures represented in the restaurant industry are hierarchical and highly eurocentrized. Restaurants that produce food from French, New-American, or Italian cuisines are highly lauded, whereas food cultures representative of racially marginalized groups are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy, and associated as low-end, grimy, or cheap. That is until this food culture is “adopted” or rather appropriated by White chefs/restaurateurs and produced at a significant mark-up in higher end, White spaces and newly gentrified neighborhoods. The food is then frequently referred to as “elevated” in this context, also signifying that food from racially marginalized cultures can only be improved through appropriation by White chefs or restaurateurs.
While White chefs/restaurateurs flippantly continue to open these “superior” concepts in newly gentrified neighborhoods, displacing existing businesses, and residents (contributing, in effect, to an erasure of BIPOC from the city), businesses owned and operated by BIPOC experience redlining that prevents them from establishing themselves outside of highly segregated racialized neighbourhoods. Wey touches upon the implicit racism and colonial dispossession of these practices by pointing out that this is “an industry where on the higher end is great food at fat prices in spaces that drive up real estate values, pushing property prices higher and poorer people further. And all over the spectrum, a white man gets paid off of all of that. Let it die” (Wey, 2020). What can be understood from these processes of appropriation and gentrification fueling the restaurant industry is that this “violent dispossession is an ongoing structural feature of capitalism” (Coulthard, 2014).
Conclusion: Alternatives via Economic Democracy, and Decolonizing Work beyond Economic Democracy
The past few weeks of the lockdown have been witness to the mobilization of BIPOC to address existing issues of systemic racism and state violence via police, food and housing insecurity, and so on, the effects of which in many ways have been amplified by the economic ills of the COVID-19 pandemic. While organizing has manifested in many ways through protesting, mobilization has also occurred, within the context of food, by members of the movement highlighting and building open existing organizations that endeavor to provide alternative economic democracy solutions for BIPOC through community farming and other food programs that aspire to food sovereignty. These movements, which are a part of the social and solidarity economy are “[p]refigurative because these new forms of socially infused economic practices contain the seeds of a new society, foreshadowing different, less exploitative, and less alienating forms of economic organization” (Vieta, 2020, p. 342).
While some more hopeful scholars can view economically democratic alternatives like co-operative organizational structures as an attractive option for the restaurant industry to adopt, it is also important to be cautious of a singularly economic reductionist view, one that argues that “economic democracy would possess all the efficiencies of the market system without the profound injustices and disenfranchisement” (Malleson, 2014). This perspective and “analyses that focus on how racism is incentivized by capitalism and instrumentalized for monetary gain can sidestep the intractable psychological dimension of racism” (Wang, 2018). To refer back to Tunde Wey, the new industry will require more than marginal government interventions. It will require a shift in perspective (Bull, 2020). In Wey’s words: “This historic moment calls for a complete retooling of our economic system, not a cheap resurrection of the old master. It calls us to leave this long decayed but now dying industry (and economic system) unrisen” (Wey, 2020). You have to let the old industry go. “Let it die” because “There is no improving something that is constitutively anti-Black” (Price, 2020).
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