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Now's the time for restaurateurs to band together

In a trying time for the restaurant industry, banding together may be operators’ best hope.
protest crowd mob

Forget Mom’s blather about eating your veggies and traveling in clean underwear. If you want to succeed as a restaurateur in today’s social and political climate, the lone pearl of wisdom to heed is her admonition to join a gang.

Actually, she might have put it a little differently, like insisting you play nice with others. Those “others” being fellow restaurateurs, of course. Only in numbers can operators come out on the right side in any screw-or-be-screwed struggle. And those us-versus-them situations are arising daily, particularly on the labor front. Unity is the sole way to make sure the “us” can beat back the “them.”

The telling proof: When minimum wages were rising last year at the speed and altitude of a NASA rocket, St. Louis held its rate to a level the business community could accept. It wasn’t because of apathy on the part of labor and social forces. Unions descended on the pro-labor town to hammer through the $15 living wage. They were helped by local white-hat groups like Black Lives Matter, the activist organization formed to protest ill treatment of minorities in the wake of a policeman’s shooting of a young black man in the suburb of Ferguson. Opposition to the group carried a definite risk of being labeled racist.

Yet, the business community prevailed in the face of daunting odds, in no small part because of the restaurant industry’s unity and collective action. “In my 25 years of politics, this was one of the best efforts I had ever seen,” said Jane Dueker, an attorney with Spencer Fane LLP, who was hired to work against the moonshot wage increase.

Bob Bonney, CEO of the Missouri Restaurant Association, coordinated a strategy with other business groups, then mustered his members in a concerted grass-roots effort. It was, said Dueker, strategic, unrelenting, multifaceted—and nearly unbeatable.

“The burden they had to bear was relatively small because there were so many of them involved,” says Dueker. “We said, ‘If you’d rather write a letter to the editor, do that. If you want to testify, do that. If you want to meet with your representatives, do that.’”

The restaurant-participants’ fervor spread to their employees, Dueker recalls. “They were all vocal in saying, ‘I don’t want to see my job go away,’” she recounts.

She doesn’t hesitate to say the $15 wage was defeated because restaurateurs joined the fight and stood united. Even Antonio French, an alderman and high-profile supporter of Black Lives Matter, came out against the living wage.

“It was a cautionary tale” for restaurants everywhere, she added. “And I say that as a prominent Democrat.”

It’s not just in politics that restaurateurs have proven the super-human power of collaboration. At a town hall meeting last month in New York City, four restaurateurs who dropped tipping to compensate servers with a fixed wage said they garnered the knowledge and courage by speaking with like-minded operators.

In particular, they picked the brains of executives at Union Square Hospitality Group, which all but opened its books to the competitors to help them discontinue gratuities. USHG had done considerable spade work before announcing that it would drop tipping at one of its restaurants, and it didn’t hesitate to let other restaurants benefit from that effort. Gabe Stulman said it saved him thousands hours of work in developing an alternative compensation model for his Fedora restaurant.

It wasn’t altruism. As the town hall participants stressed, helping fellow operators switch to new server compensation models helps all converts by educating guests on the advantages to themselves and the servers.

It’s a classic read of strength in numbers. Mom would be pleased.

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