City Tech’s Department of Hospitality Management, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) and the Brooklyn Food Coalition sponsored the “Justice and Sustainability in Restaurants” panel discussion on April 28 at the College as part of the first-ever NYC High Road Restaurant Week. Panelists included Catherine May Saillard, owner of Ici, farm-to-table restaurant; Colt Taylor, chef of One if by Land, Two if by Sea; George Constantinou, chef and owner of Bogota Latin Bistro; and Daisy Chung, executive director of ROC-NY. Nancy Romer, founder of the Brooklyn Food Coalition and a Brooklyn College professor, made the opening remarks.
While awareness of the sustainable food movement around issues of animal welfare, organic and green foods is growing among restaurants and consumers, sustainable employment practices in the restaurant industry are still an invisible aspect of the conversation. As part of the High Road Restaurant Week discussions, restaurateurs and food activists on the panel shared their experiences and challenges implementing sustainable employment practices.
Chung started the discussion by emphasizing the goal of the High Road project: “We want to achieve one simple objective—improve the working conditions in the restaurant industry, an industry that is marked by exploitative practices. To do this, we need to engage every stakeholder, employers, employees and consumers.” The other panelists—all restaurateurs—agreed, and talked specifically about how they do this in their business practices.
Saillard, who grew up in the French countryside with a grandmother who had a garden “the size of a football field,” said that after working in the industry for a number of years, she wanted to return to her roots. She honors her grandmother in her philosophy toward food, which is reflected in the local and sustainable food she serves at Ici. “When you start caring about food that deeply, you can’t help but to care about the people too,” said Saillard.
Taylor and Constantinou talked about how their values are translated into good business practices by paying their non-tip employees $11 an hour, which, even though higher than most restaurants, is more profitable for their businesses because their employees stay longer. Constantinou has instituted a daily “family meal” at his restaurant and has found that it generates creative discussion about new menu items. He has also organized day care for his employees. Taylor sets up competitions for his employees with cash prizes and gift certificates and said, “It’s important to value your employees and to make an effort to get to know them.”
The panelists emphasized that while it is necessary to change policy regarding how employees are treated in the food industry, it is even more important to change the culture. “We have a duty to our employees and customers to treat people with respect,” said Constantinou. “We are all working to make sure this culture change happens as the next generation comes through the industry.”
It was fitting, then, that the panel discussion was hosted by City Tech’s Department of Hospitality Management since the College is educating the next generation of hospitality leaders. More than 30 students from the department’s Hospitality Workplace Management and Professional Alliances courses were in attendance and actively engaged in discussions with the panelists.
The New York High Road Restaurant Week is a celebration of culinary mastery and good labor practices in the restaurant industry. For more information visit www.highroadny.org.
City Tech (New York City College of Technology), of The City University of New York, is the largest four-year public college of technology in New York State and a national model for technological education. City Tech has an enrollment of nearly 17,000 students in 65 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs.