Racial Disparity and Food Equity in the American Restaurant Industry

By Jamie Cooley

When the average diner goes out to eat in America, they may think of traveling to Europe as they engage in “Conge’ Eggs” and cheese grits. Or they may think of traveling to a beautiful Northern coast as they dine at a fine seafood restaurant while enjoying “The Oyster Rockefeller” with a side of coleslaw. But they may never think of traveling to the countryside or inner city homes of the African woman, modernly identified now as the Black woman, one who created these noted dishes while enslaved in a plantation kitchen to serve the wealthiest families of the world, from presidents to businessmen from Europe. These kitchens on the plantation served as the blueprint of the layout of the restaurant experience we enjoy at our convenience today. Black people have been colonized out of the historical and present history of hospitality dining services in America. Black American food is misappropriated and automatically labeled “Southern,” “low country,” or “American” food. Black Americans are hardly ever thought of as a people or appreciated when it comes to the intellectual property of the $900 billion American restaurant industry, which profits off Black food, utensil, and hospitality creations. This writing out of history negatively affects the present-day working experience of many Black restaurant workers across North America. I am a witness to this racist experience, and have suffered in silence because of a fear of losing my job and connections to a skill I’m spiritually tied to, which is to serve others.

While serving at various restaurants throughout Atlanta, Georgia and being one of the top gross salespeople for their owners, I’ve been harassed and put under duress. Like many of my Black colleagues, I’ve experience harassment on three levels. First, I’ve often worked for management that displays anti-Black bias in their rules around dress and their double standards around conduct. The “perception is reality” philosophy is used against many Black people who cook and serve: we can be deemed “too Black” if we talk a certain way, look a certain way, or wear our hair in African styles, especially when it’s not the typical pressed straight hair for women or low cut fade hair for men. If we’re caught not smiling for a second too long, we are perceived to have “attitudes”.  Unconscious bias is extremely dangerous. In the restaurant industry, it can cost hardworking Black workers their income.

Second, Black workers also face tip harassment. The American restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the economy, employing nearly 10 percent of the workforce. Yet it is also the lowest paying industry, with the highest proportion of workers earning wages at or below the federal minimum. For Black workers consistently going through tip harassment, this wage is even lower. One solution would be for management to recognize patterns of customer bias against Black servers and compensate them when tips are lower than a standard percentage of sales.  My sales often outweigh what I have been tipped.

Third, we also experience harassment from coworkers who are allowed to express their disdain for serving Black families who are wrongly stereotyped about for not tipping before the check even hits the table. Tipping and harassment go together. While tipping remains a favored practice in the US, it has created a system of unfair pay that disproportionately affects Black women and men — a system that has roots in America’s ugly history of slavery and racial discrimination. I’ve personally have had “we don’t tip n•ggers” written on my store copy receipt while working at a restaurant in Midtown, Atlanta. Even still I show up and show out for every guest I get to serve, because I love what I do. I am deeply connected to the work.

When the tipping practice was brought to the US in the 19th century, the American public was deeply uncomfortable with it. Many saw tipping as undemocratic and therefore un-American. A powerful anti-tipping movement erupted, fueled by the argument that employers, not customers, should be paying workers. But American restaurants and railway companies fought particularly hard to keep tipping, because it meant they didn’t have to pay recently freed Black Americans, who were prisoners of war and enslavement, now employed by those industries.

Though I have witnessed extremely hard work ethic amongst my Black peers in food, we are rarely promoted to management or to head chefs. Though our food is highly represented on the millions of plates dished out annually, we have very little representation in restaurant management and ownership.

On May 19th, 2019, I recently spoke of my experience in a safe space, The Living Color “Racial Equity Dialogue Dinner” created by Chef Zu of Kings Apron of Atlanta, There, I had the honor to serve over a hundred people a five course farm-to-table menu which included foods that traveled to North and South America with enslaved Africans on slave ships. Our ancestors were able to save this intellectual property while living in terror. They gifted the Americas their cuisine, sustainable agriculture knowledge, iron, clay, and wood craftsmanship to create the utensils used to prepare and eat the food, and the culture of hospitality–the fine dining techniques of how to set the table and moving so as not to interrupt the guest. These are gifts from Africa, innovated in the Americas by the surviving children of people kidnapped from their native lands. But because of the lack of resources for Black American food innovators and startups, and lack of truthful lessons spoken in American classrooms, the contributions from Black people in the diaspora do not get the same respect and cultural recognition as those of the people and food from Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia. Black Americans’ equity in the food industry and their cultural identity as founders of American cuisine continues to be discounted and diminished.

We can all help fight our current system by properly educating and empowering consumers to make informed dining decisions. We also need to offer resources to platforms such as Chef Zu’s “Living Color Racial Equity Dialogue” dinners, and other “safe” spaces that have brought restaurant owners, organizations and consumers together to listen to cries from food workers who are mistreated unconsciously or consciously. We can all work together to help turn this negative into a positive.

 

Jamie Cooley was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. An Afro-Carolinian daughter of the shores. A communicator of her Gullah Geechee elders and ancestors whose desires are to continue to create the ultimate dining experience for all people, preserving the gifts of agricultural food science from Africans during slavery which are served on plates everyday throughout every American restaurant, and showcasing the original hospitality culture of African women living in the diaspora. Jamie is a mother, a wife, writer, musician, and local winemaker who now resides in Decatur, Georgia. Jamie has built over 10 years of food service knowledge while creating high quality dining memories for over a hundred thousand families, serving throughout the Buckhead, Roswell, and Midtown neighborhoods of Atlanta, Georgia.

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