Doing Good By Dining Well

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Fork_&_knife.svgIt’s Restaurant Week in Maine. Actually, Restaurant Week this year is twice as long, March 1-14th, because apparently Maine Restaurant Week “is so epic it’s two weeks this year.” Dozens of restaurants across the state are participating from Kennebunk to Auburn to Orono, and as part of the festivities they are offering special three-course menus for set prices starting at $15.

So with all these options, how to choose? Of course, you could turn to whatever your go-to source is for restaurant reviews, be it Yelp or Zagat or a culinarily sophisticated neighbor. I, for one, usually have to take my three-year-old’s input into account, which typically means I look for menus that include mac and cheese (ok, I’ll admit, I often want mac and cheese too).

But good food and atmosphere is not the only thing that matters when you’re picking a restaurant. Restaurants are notoriously tough on workers.

Restaurant servers are more than three times as likely as the rest of the workforce to receive sub-poverty-line pay. Restaurant workers in many states receive far less than minimum wage, on the assumption that they’ll make up the difference in tips. In Maine, servers currently earn just $3.75/hour from their employer, half the state minimum wage. (That could change soon, though – there’s currently a bill before the state legislature, with a hearing scheduled for next week that would make tipped servers subject to the general minimum wage requirement.)

Alongside low wages, sexual harassment is far more prevalent in the restaurant industry than in many other workplaces. Forty percent of sexual harassment claims come from restaurants, according to Maine AFL-CIO director Matt Schlobohm.

Race discrimination is also prevalent throughout the restaurant industry. People of color often work in lower-wage restaurant jobs (such as cooking, dishwashing, and bussing), but hold only twenty percent of higher-paid, front-of-the-house and managerial positions. According to Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), “While women and people of color make up the majority of the restaurant industry’s workforce, they are continually shut out of the restaurant industry’s limited living-wage opportunities.”

So what to do if you’re interested in enjoying a night out, but would like to support a restaurant that treats its workers fairly? Well, there’s an app for that. A newly updated app, the ROC United Diners’ Guide app, has been called “a kind of Yelp for labor rights.” The app lets you search local restaurants and learn about their policies on important issues, like whether they pay a living wage. The app rates restaurants on four “high road” criteria: whether the restaurant pays non-tipped employees a living wage of at least $10/hour and non-tipped employees at least $7/hour; whether employees have paid sick days; and, whether the restaurant has a program for nondiscriminatory promotion, to address the problem that qualified employees of color are often confined to lower-paying positions.

And, if your favorite dining spot isn’t rated yet on the Diners’ Guide app, you can investigate it yourself. The app encourages you to talk to the manager about their policies and submit the information to be included in the app. Next time we’re thinking about going out for dinner, I’m going to check out the app. And, of course, also make sure they have mac and cheese.