This week’s head-spinning moment: A special say-it-ain’t-so edition

Could it be true? The co-founder and longtime leader of Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, one of the industry’s loudest bashers and most conniving opportunists, a union that denies it is one despite being funded by Service Employees International Union, is being honored by the James Beard Foundation for her contribution to the business.

Consider what a slap this is. 

In October, ROC convened a press conference to accuse the restaurant industry of encouraging sexual harassment of female servers, the natural outcome, it alleged, of expecting waitresses to work for tips.  The charges were over the top, a blanket condemnation of restaurants with table service, or about half the trade.

In April, ROC tried to undermine an event held in Washington, D.C., by the National Restaurant Association, its sworn enemy (it has a special initiative entitled #StopTheOtherNRA). The NRA was holding its annual Public Affairs Conference, where members are taken to Capitol Hill to lobby for industry causes and hopefully become active participants in the democratic process. ROC threatened to thwart visits to the Hill by blocking intersections and major roads. It did not want restaurateurs talking to their elected representatives.

Last month, ROC interrupted one of the most-anticipated events of the NRA’s annual convention, an address by media star Arianna Huffington. A few days later, it tried to rally support among McDonald’s shareholders to force the chain to drop out of the NRA.  Usually, being part of your trade’s association is viewed as a good thing for all stakeholders.

The list of guerrilla attacks on the restaurant business goes on and on. And yet Saru Jayaraman, ROC’s co-director, will be presented with a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, an honor whose previous recipients include First Lady Michelle Obama, nutrition activist Marion Nestle, local-sourcing agitator Alice Waters and true believer Fedele Bauccio, who proved fresh, local ingredients could be used in onsite foodservice. Jayaraman, a Yale-trained lawyer, will be joined by fellow recipients Sam Kass, the chef who convinced the White House to improve school lunches, and Don Bustos, a farmer pushing for diversity in the restaurant supply chain.

All of those honorees are disruptors to one extent or another. It’s brave and laudable of the Foundation to bestow its award on rebels and iconoclasts. But ROC is the industry equivalent of the Weathermen, a firebomb thrower looking to tear down rather than reshape and build. Worst of all, it slanders the business with a broad brush to fool people about its true mission, promoting the agenda of its union backers.

Honoring ROC is not a positive for the industry. 


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