Racism in restaurant's "back of the house"

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 01, 2010 3:35 pm
Race gap seen in restaurant hiring
Nearly 80 percent of white employees work in the front; nearly two-thirds of Hispanic employees work in the back, survey finds

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-m ... full.story

By Oscar Avila, Tribune reporter

8:42 a.m. CST, February 25, 2010

Kitchen worker Carlos Garcia envies the waiters who make more money and suffer fewer aches than those like him in the "back of the house." The very term, common in restaurants, speaks to a divide that is conspicuous yet often overlooked by diners.

The division of labor plays out in Loop steakhouses and Wrigleyville sports pubs: Taking the order or seating the clients is the girl next door, most likely white, while a cadre of young Mexican men construct the meal behind the scenes.

In a first-of-its-kind survey released this month, a Chicago labor advocacy group detailed the segregation of restaurants and the unequal pay and working conditions that exist between the front and back of the house. It found that nearly 80 percent of whites work in the front, nearly two-thirds of Hispanics in the back.

Highlighting the issue, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago teamed with the Working Hands Legal Clinic this month to file its first federal lawsuit, against an Andersonville eatery that allegedly mistreated its kitchen staff. Meanwhile, the McCormick & Schmick's chain recently paid $1.1 million to settle a class-action suit by black employees who said they were passed over for jobs as hosts and servers.

But alleged bias explains only part of the story. For restaurateurs, choosing which employees are their establishment's public face involves complex perceptions of race and class. In some cases, they also are searching for a precise skill set necessary to help a customer pair the right Pinot with the filet mignon.

Sometimes, that process holds back not only minorities but white workers who don't have a model's good looks. Many immigrant busboys and dishwashers cannot realistically hope to become servers because they lack legal status or haven't mastered English.

Even as Chicago Restaurant Week showcases the city's culinary ambitions, Garcia has his own dreams. Next week, he will begin a course that teaches the basics of becoming a waiter, skills such as taking an order clockwise around the table.

"I would have a new path, a way to keep moving forward," said Garcia, a legal immigrant.

At Pequod's Pizza, owner Keith Jackson said he hates that other Lincoln Park restaurants want servers to look like fashion models. Jackson, who wears a ponytail and tattered T-shirt under a sport jacket, says servers can sport tattoos as long as they are personable.

But Jackson echoed the frustration of other restaurant owners, that young U.S.-born workers do not want the demanding jobs of dishwasher or line cook. He watched scores of applicants swarm a recent hiring fair: The prospective servers came in all ages and races; the young Spanish-speaking men on a side bench hoped to work in the kitchen.

Still, Jackson tries not to fall into stereotypes, using his own scruffy exterior as an example.

"You look at me and you'd think I couldn't pay my bill. I could probably buy your business 10 times over," Jackson said. "I don't want to follow all the other places who make a judgment based on how you look."

In a unique industry snapshot, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a labor advocacy group with chapters nationwide, surveyed nearly 600 Chicago workers. Beyond the racial disparities, it found that salaries in the kitchen are 40 percent less. Meanwhile, kitchen workers were more likely to be injured and denied overtime.

Matt Lindner, who owns Junior's Sports Lounge, a restaurant cited as a model for hiring by labor groups, Asaid he likes promoting from within but finds that English is often the barrier keeping many kitchen workers back.

Those who are bilingual can actually thrive, he said, citing the example of a Mexican line cook who worked his way to kitchen supervisor and now fills in at the front of the house.

Jose Oliva, national policy coordinator for the Restaurant Opportunities Center, said he worries that other restaurant owners mistakenly believe that customers prefer white servers to get the "butler experience."

Meanwhile, Oliva said the "hard-working Mexican" has become a stereotype, an apparent compliment that even immigrants embrace.

"It's hard (for them) to make that distinction, that this compliment isn't getting them to the next level," Oliva said.

Labor advocates hope to strike a blow for kitchen workers with their lawsuit against Ole Ole, a pan-Latino restaurant in Andersonville. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that the owners did not pay minimum wage or overtime. They are seeking back pay.

One of the plaintiffs, Victor Vega, said in an interview that he typically worked 12-hour days, six or seven days a week.

The restaurant is now shuttered and the owner, Regina Pavone, has filed for bankruptcy. Pavone could not be reached, and a message left for a business partner was not returned.

McCormick & Schmick's, a seafood chain with six Chicago-area locations, settled the costly class-action lawsuit in 2008 after African-American workers alleged that they were denied jobs at the front of the house.

The chain did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to set hiring and promotion benchmarks for black employees that would be overseen by an outside diversity monitor. A spokesman said the company preferred not to comment, and previously it has addressed the matter only through written statements committing to a fair workplace.

Still, experts agree it can be hard to determine when restaurants are discriminating and when they are merely hiring staff that best fits their image and can interact well with the public: Would an old-school French bistro hire a waiter who looks like a heavy-metal roadie? Would a Bucktown cocktail lounge hire Grandma?

Carol Miaskoff, assistant legal counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said restaurants are an especially gray area because they involve "soft skills" that don't demand specialized training. When restaurant owners talk about "people skills," that taps into deeply held social constructs.

"All of us use stereotypes and social psychology in pegging new people that we are meeting. If you allow this use of stereotypes to run amok, if you don't have procedures in place, you can have a situation that is discrimination," she said.

Still, even white applicants grumble that restaurants are weeding out job seekers based on aesthetics, a subjective analysis that can overlap with race. The Craigslist classified site is full of want ads for waitresses that request an e-mailed picture.

At the Shameless Restaurants Web site, set up to let workers vent, one Chicago-area poster complained: "In this biz, over 30 = over the hill. They want beauty, not brains. And if the vacuous mannequin of female specimen happens to be efficient, what an added bonus."

Despite the barriers, Garcia, 49, said he remains optimistic that he can make the leap after nearly two decades in kitchens. He is unemployed after quitting last month when a manager mocked him for burning his thumb on a scalding pot.

He plans to tout the kitchen experience and, if he makes it to waiter, pledges to share his tips with the guys making the meals.

"I want to be fair," he said. "Without their help, I can't look good in front of the customer."

oavila@tribune.com
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PostPosted: Sun Apr 14, 2013 10:29 am
"The division of labor plays out in Loop steakhouses and Wrigleyville sports pubs: Taking the order or seating the clients is the girl next door, most likely white, while a cadre of young Mexican men construct the meal behind the scenes."

:shock: Wow, restaurants would rather use good-looking women as hostesses, than Mexican guys with mullets & little to no English..

It kills me, when 'labor advocates' (translation: La Raza activists), bemoan lack of opportunities. Their approach is always a one-way street.. give us better jobs.. even if we can't speak English, even if we're here in violation of immigration laws, etc. If 'labor activists' want better opportunities for Mexicans, than they should be encouraging a practical path to them.. like legally immigating & mastery of English. Millions of immigrants have succeeded w/that formula.
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PostPosted: Tue Apr 16, 2013 9:30 pm
Ok, hehe, here's an ironic ringer I'll throw into the mix:

How many Whites, Blacks, or Hispanics has anyone EVER seen working at Chinese Resturants in the US??? Or, how many Whites, Blacks, or Asians has anyone EVER seen working at authenic Mexican Resturants in the US???
Hint: It's some number less than one. Hahaha... gotta love the duplicity! :shock:

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 18, 2013 1:10 am
It's only racism when the "white" man does it though...
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PostPosted: Thu Apr 18, 2013 3:44 pm
elric92 wrote:It's only racism when the "white" man does it though...


Sad, but usually true.
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PostPosted: Thu Apr 18, 2013 4:05 pm
gregster wrote:
elric92 wrote:It's only racism when the "white" man does it though...


Sad, but usually true.

It's not only in the "back of the house" either. I saw it many times and experienced more times then I liked or would have thought possible while I was in the military.
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PostPosted: Sun Jun 23, 2013 2:47 pm
my place is 100 percent white, but so is 98 percent of the state
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