Employment and Jobs

Open to Good Jobs: Now is the Time to Improving Equity and Job Quality in Restaurant Work

June 9, 2020  • Economic Opportunities Program

Event Description

Restaurants and their workers have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the crisis, food and drinking establishments were an important part of the business fabric in communities across the country, and these businesses employed over 12 million people. But as food businesses lost business, millions of restaurant workers lost work. The most recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows employment in restaurants and bars has been cut in half, with industry observers estimating even greater job loss. And among those who continue to work, many still endure limited hours, low wages, and poor benefits that have characterized the industry for far too long.

Food and drinking establishments have been an important source of employment for women and people of color, who are over-represented in the industry’s lower paid occupations. As recent events demand attention to systems of racial injustice, we must acknowledge the interconnection of racial justice and economic justice. As we start to emerge from this crisis, can we reimagine restaurants, and restaurant work, so that workers, businesses, and communities all thrive?

In this conversation we talk about ideas for business practices, public policies, and partnerships, including an innovative public/private effort that’s addressing the interests that workers, small business owners, and communities all share in a thriving restaurant sector.

Featured Speakers

Nikki Cole

Nikki M.G. Cole
National Policy Campaign Director, One Fair Wage

Nikki M.G. Cole is the national policy campaign director of One Fair Wage. Nikki worked in the hospitality industry from the time she was a child, through high school, college, and post-college. A former tipped worker in the DC Metropolitan area, Nikki personally knows the financial, physical, and emotional challenges that come along with working in sub-minimum wage industries. She began organizing restaurant workers in 2009 with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, DC. There she learned the basics of workplace organizing, policy advocacy, and base-building through political education and leadership development. Later she worked in deep coalition as the executive director of DC Jobs with Justice, where along with ROC-DC and many other community, labor, faith, and student organizations, they were able to win historic legislative advances for workers in DC, including paid sick days for all, wage theft protections, and an increased minimum wage. She also has eight years of experience with developing grassroots leaders to run for local office and engaging in progressive grassroots electoral campaigns.

Saru Jayaraman

Saru Jayaraman
President, One Fair Wage ; Director, Food Labor Research Center, University of California, Berkeley

Saru Jayaraman is an academic at UC Berkeley and president of One Fair Wage, a national service workers’ association. She was named one of CNN’s “Top10 Visionary Women,” a White House Champion of Change, a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award winner, and the San Francisco Chronicle “Visionary of the Year.” Saru authored Behind the Kitchen Door (Cornell University Press) and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining (Oxford University Press) and has appeared on MSNBC, HBO, PBS, CBS, CNN, and at the Golden Globes.

Mutale Kanyanta

Mutale Kanyanta
Owner, LOCALS Food

Mutale Kanyanta is the owner of a business called LOCALS, located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York. Kanyanta is an immigrant who has lived in that community for 28 years. In that time, it transformed from a food desert to a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, in which a large number of its Black working-class residents were displaced by an affluent, mostly white-collar demographic. The remaining working-class community has been left in poverty, feeling marginalized, and with limited access to affordable, non-processed foods. Located at the intersection of these two worlds, Kanyanta saw the need to repair the widening schism between the two. His solution was to create LOCALS, a new form of food business, one that centers the need of people and the planet alongside the pursuit of profit. LOCALS functions as a cafe/community kitchen and grocery store during the day. In the evenings, it is a community and event space with the programming around the culinary arts, food justice, and events that highlight conversations around community, equity, and sustainability, using food. In the near future, it will offer culinary arts education to the community as a gateway to sustainable employment.

Dan Simons

Dan Simons
Co-Owner, Farmers Restaurant Group

Dan Simons is the co-owner of the innovative Farmers Restaurant Group — majority owned by American family farmers — with a mission to earn farmers a larger share of the food dollar while delivering thoughtfully sourced, scratch-made food and exceptional hospitality. Farmers Restaurant Group operates seven restaurants and one distillery throughout the DC, MD, VA, and PA area and most recently pivoted their business model to include a Founding Farmers Market + Grocery, selling everything from prepared dinners to hand sanitizer made in their DC distillery, Founding Spirits. Passionate about the health of the planet, Simons founded the non-profit Our Last Straw, a business-led coalition working to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics, and is on the Advisory Board of Conscious Capitalism DC.


Maureen Conway

Maureen Conway
Vice President, The Aspen Institute; Executive Director, Economic Opportunities Program

Maureen Conway serves as Vice President at the Aspen Institute and as Executive Director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP). EOP works to expand individuals’ opportunities to connect to quality work, start businesses, and build economic stability that provides the freedom to pursue opportunity.


Waging Change (documentary featuring our guest Saru Jayaraman). “Waging Change shines a spotlight on the challenges faced by restaurant workers trying to feed themselves and their families off tips with the growing movement to end the tipped minimum wage. Featuring Saru Jayaraman, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the film reveals an American workers’ struggle hidden in plain sight — the effort to end the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 and the #MeToo movement’s effort to end sexual harassment.” wagingchange.com

Watch: https://vimeo.com/424672236 (password: waging2020).

Screening at the Reel Work Labor Film Festival on June 9: reelwork.org

Register for Q&A with filmmaker Abby Ginzberg, June 9, at 10 p.m. ET (7 p.m. PT): click here.


June 9: Now is the Time to Improve Equity and Job Quality in Restaurant Work. Feat Nikki M.G. Cole (@onefairwage), @SaruJayaraman (@onefairwage), Mutale Kanyanta (LOCALS Food), and @DanSimonsSays (Farmers Restaurant Group).

Millions of restaurant workers have lost jobs due to #COVID19, and those still employed endure limited hours, low wages, and poor benefits. How can we make food jobs good jobs?

Restaurants are an important source of employment for women and people of color, who are over-represented in the industry’s lower paid occupations. What role can restaurants play in advancing racial and economic justice?

As we start to emerge from the #COVID19 crisis, can we reimagine restaurants, and restaurant work, so that workers, businesses, and communities all thrive?

Opportunity in America

The Economic Opportunities Program’s Opportunity in America discussion series is taking a pause as we all do what we can to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the conversations about the changing landscape of economic opportunity in the US and implications for individuals, families, and communities across the country remain vitally important. We hope you will participate as we bring our discussions to you in virtual formats, and we look forward to your feedback.

We are grateful to the Ford Foundation, Prudential Financial, Walmart, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, and the Surdna Foundation for their support of this series.

Learn More

The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.