The week long event celebrates establishments that support their workers
New York City Restaurant Week: been there, done that, right? The dining deal that allows city dwellers to get a taste of haute cuisine at a softer price point debuted in the early ‘90s and has since inspired many spinoffs, including Brooklyn Restaurant Week, Chinatown Restaurant Week and Queens Restaurant Week. Next month, the city will add yet another dining deal to its annual roster, but this one has a conscience behind it.
High Road Restaurant Week will run from April 23 to April 30. Participating restaurants are those that have been recognized by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY)—a labor organization that promotes improved working conditions for restaurant workers—for providing sustainable wages and safe working conditions for their employees. Twenty restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including several well-loved downtown restaurants like La Palapa and Good, will serve special dishes at somewhat gentler prices, but don’t expect a traditional three-course prix-fixe: those cranked-out meals tend to lead to longer hours and lower tips for the restaurant workers that cook and serve them. High Road Restaurant Week was announced last week in front of a group of participating restaurateurs and organizers who gathered at the historic West Village restaurant One if by Land, Two if by Sea.
New York City diners’ standards are higher than ever, but few consumers think beyond what’s on their plates to consider what working in a restaurant is like. And the reality, ROC-NY representatives say, is sobering. Both front- and back-of-house staff “are forced to work long hours for low wages, they often work in unhealthy and hazardous working conditions, they are denied basic benefits such as paid sick days, vacation days, and healthcare, and they often face unlawful practices such as workplace discrimination and wage theft,” a section on the organization’s website reads.
“There is a way to maintain high standards without abusing your staff,” said Colt Taylor, executive chef at One if by Land, Two if by Sea, who was instrumental in organizing the restaurant week. Like all High Road restaurants, One if by Land pays its workers a rate above minimum wage; provides benefits such as healthcare; affords workers both sick and vacation days; and promotes from within the restaurant as opposed to hiring from outside.
If New York—a premier culinary destination for most of its history—wants to hold on to its restaurant workers, it needs to step up its game, Taylor said. Over the past few years, the city’s restaurant workforce has eroded as the cost of living continues to skyrocket and underpaid, overworked chefs and cooks bring their talents to fast-growing culinary destinations such as Denver, Austin and Portland, Ore., where the cost of living is lower and the quality of life higher.
“This needs to happen in New York first,” he said. “We no longer have that edge that says, ‘We can treat you however we want because we’re New York City.’”
Many foodies strive to pinpoint the origins of their organic produce and learn about the diets of their free-range chickens, but talking labor conditions just isn’t as “sexy,” Taylor said.
Steven Picker, the chef and owner of Good Restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, agreed that it’s high time diners paid some attention to the people who create and serve New York’s phenomenal food.
“In addition to talking about carrots, it’s great to be talking about people,” he said.
High Road Restaurant Week runs from April 23 – 30. For more information, visit highroadny.org.
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