March 26, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Savvy restauranteurs already ahead of the curve when it comes to offering hardworking employees things like paid sick leave and better wages, are gearing up to debut a special weeklong event designed to showcase both their culinary skills – and their successful business models for the rest of the city.
The first-ever “High Road Restaurant Week” will take place April 23-30, and involve some of the most popular and socially-conscious restaurants operating in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan today. A small sampling of chefs and business owners representing the dozens of restaurants taking place in this year’s inaugural event joined with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York [ROC-NY] at One If By Land, Two If By Sea, in the West Village on Tuesday to help launch the upcoming festivities.
“I think that it is assumed in New York City that there are fair labor practices in our restaurants – and that’s an incorrect assumption,” said Rosanne Martino, general manager, One If By Land, Two If By Sea.
Each year, The New York City Restaurant Industry Roundtable, a collaboration of restauranteurs, workers consumers and ROC-NY, recognizes “High Road” employers like Martino, based on an extensive six-point worker-friendly criteria.
The guidelines look at those restauranteurs who provide employees with paid sick days; access to affordable health care options; other employee benefits, such as paid time off and retirement plans; opportunities for career mobility and advancement, so that at least 50 percent of the workforce has been promoted to a higher-paid position; and a lowest non-tipped wage that is 25 percent higher than the New York State minimum wage of $8 an hour.
According to Martino, her restaurant has been on the “High Road” for the past two decades. But as a result, even Executive Chef Colt Taylor, had to be “converted” when he joined the staff three years ago.
Back then, the 30-year-old, French-trained chef possessed a very “militaristic” and “nose-to-the-grindstone” approach to running his kitchen. However, when Taylor attempted to implement those same strategies to his new job in the West Village, he found that the staff's turnover rate became “exceptionally huge.”
He knew he had to change.
“It took me awhile to get there,” Taylor said. “But since I’ve gotten there, the over all feeling is that there is a way to maintain high standards without abusing your staff. Turnover has gone down drastically, while the overall sense of teamwork has gone up. Which means the quality has gone up, too.”
Steven Picker, chef and owner of Good, located at 89 Greenwich Avenue, conceded that New York City’s rough and tumble restaurant industry makes it difficult for some cost-obsessed owners to relinquish their self-defeating ideas about management.
“It’s not necessarily an easy transition for some,” Picker said. “Your brain fries at the idea of actually having to pay more money to do the right thing. But if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes. That has to be part of the plan from the get go.”
Mary Cleaver, owner of The Green Table, located at 75 Ninth Avenue, has been in business for 30 years, all the while maintaining a “triple bottom line” consisting of “people, planet and profit.”
“It’s just as important to me to invest and value the staff who serve and cook our food, as it is to value the farmer who grew the carrots, or the rancher who raised the beef or the family fisherman who caught the fish,” Cleaver said.
Chef Evan Hanczor of Egg, located at 135 North 5th Street in Brooklyn, believes that it’s important for restauranteurs like him and his Roundtable colleagues to consistently talk about ethical employment practices.
“The biggest thing for us is trying to make our employees feel excited, fulfilled, empowered and inspired to come to work every day,” Hanczor said.
Nancy Romer of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, welcomes the advent of “High Road Restaurant Week” and the dialogue she hopes the event will foster.
“I think justice for food workers tends to be the part of food justice that falls off the table,” Romer said. “'High Road Week' gives us an opportunity to talk about this.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer – just awarded an “A” on the 6th Annual NYC Council Human Rights Report Card – said that diners also need to be more aware about how workers are treated.
“I think that the reason that we’re here today is to remind others that as consumers, we need to be more discerning,” Brewer said. “We need to pay attention to the restaurants and workers, and the places that work together in a holistic, family fashion.”
In addition to all the ethical concerns, Taylor warned that increasing competition from surrounding states for qualified and motivated workers, is rapidly making it impossible for some hard-nosed New York restaurateurs to keep doing business as usual.
“Moving forward, the overall goal is to set a new standard of treatment,” Taylor said. “That really needs to happen first in New York City because this used to be the culinary apex. But as other cities catch up, we no longer have that edge that says, ‘We can treat you however we want – we’re New York.’ People in this business know that getting a capable and competent staff is very difficult. It’s time we step back.”
A complete list of establishments participating in the inaugural “High Road Restaurant Week” can be found at www.highroadny.org.