The High Road Was Less Traveled, Until Now
"We owe it to ourselves to advocate for the world we want to live in."
By Andrea Borgen Abdallah
It’s been six months since I closed my restaurant of six years, barcito. When we closed at the end of June, I sought my own personal closure, and penned a piece: part-tell-all, part-cathartic-exercise, detailing the highs and lows of restaurant ownership, and my desperate need for a new chapter. My burnout had been the result of many things, but I felt particularly exhausted by what felt like a missed opportunity for our industry — to take the pandemic as a moment to rethink, and reset so many of the flawed systems that had made our business so precarious to begin with.
It’s important that I’m clear: I empathize with the thousands of small business owners and operators who were effectively backed into a corner, forced to choose between their own lives and livelihoods, and those of their staff. But I am disappointed in the institutions, the corporate restaurant groups, lobbyists and legislators who wasted most of the pandemic lockdowns demanding re-opening rather than relief. They failed to provide us with the buffer we so desperately needed to take a step back and build a better business model from the ground up.
Since that time, I’ve been thrilled to see how quickly the tables have turned. And I have to admit, I’d underestimated our employees. I spent so much time focused on the inaction of our industry at-large, I failed to predict the mass exodus of our workforce. And it was so, so predictable. These jobs are thankless, the pay is volatile, there are rarely benefits (healthcare or otherwise), and the physically rigorous and often unsafe working conditions were exacerbated in the wake of this global pandemic. Tips are down, sexual harassment is up, and as restaurants have attempted to re-open, staff has refused to come back to work, and our industry has finally been forced to grapple with all of it. Our workers’ courage, to demand more of us, has re-ignited my excitement about what’s possible.
Restaurants across the country are raising wages, re-thinking their benefits packages, and getting creative about how to recruit and retain employees. It’s easy for folks to advocate for these changes, it’s a lot harder to reckon with what the real implications of that will be — on small businesses, on consumers, on an industry that has historically skated by on the thinnest of margins. That’s where I come in.
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I’ve recently joined the team at RAISE High Road Restaurants, a coalition of progressive independent restaurants, dedicated to wage, racial and gender equity. As a restaurant consultant and training coordinator, I focus on providing support for our members, helping inform the transition to alternative compensation models, and implementing better, more sustainable business practices. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to improving wages, but with our guidance, we’re hopeful we can help businesses of all shapes and sizes adapt to this changing landscape, and make changes that will have a lasting positive impact on their employees, and their restaurants. Because this isn’t a moment, it’s a movement.
And it’s up to all of us to keep the momentum going. Restaurant owners, consumers, workers — we owe it to ourselves to advocate for the world we want to live in. And our legislators, they’ve taken notice. There is a surge of interest in raising wages (and eliminating the tipped minimum wage) nationwide, most notably in the states of New York, Michigan, and Massachusetts. All three are considered enormous dominoes to topple as we take this fight federal. And, as impactful as these changes may be on a state-by-state basis, they demand a level playing field to ensure all our independent restaurants are given a chance to thrive. Because I want to live in a world where everyone is paid a fair, living wage, where healthcare is a right, and where independent restaurant owners, and their employees, do more than just survive.
Andrea Borgen Abdallah is a hospitality consultant (with a focus on training and wage models) based in Los Angeles. She owned and operated barcito in Downtown Los Angeles for six years, where she made headlines for implementing a no-tipping policy, was named a 2016 Eater Young Gun, and has been featured on Zagat Los Angeles' 30 under 30. @aaborgen on Instagram and Twitter