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Dining ethically: A guide for foodies in LA and nationwide

In-N-Out Burger is one of the most ethically sound restaurants for workers.
In-N-Out Burger is one of the most ethically sound restaurants for workers.
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When you dine out, you may watch what you eat to stay healthy, but have you ever considered the ethical implications of what you’re consuming from that restaurant? How do the nation’s major restaurants treat their employees? Do they get paid sick leave? Benefits? Fair wages? Good working conditions?

These are just some of the details to be found in a report the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) compiled and released to the public. In the 2012 ROC National Diners’ Guide, consumers can find wage, benefit, and promotion practices of 150 of the most popular restaurants and chains in the United States.

Among the good are In-N-Out and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. And some of the worst restaurants for workers are California Pizza Kitchen, Taco Bell, and Cheesecake Factory just to name a few.

Jot Condie, President and CEO of the California Restaurant Association said that ROC United is trying to smear the reputation of the food industry by generalizing.

"If there are laws that are being broken, then certainly restaurants and restaurant owners should be held accountable for that. But to say that this is industry-wide and ubiquitous just is not true, and that's what they're trying to convey," he said.

Condie said the restaurant industry works at a very thin profit margin, averaging 2 to 3 percent. He added that the monetary constraint and hope to keep menu prices low means restaurant owners have to make budget cuts in other places.

"There's not a lot of room for movement, particularly in the independent segment of the industry, which is the vast majority of the restaurants in the L.A. area, 51 percent are minority owned. If they could offer health benefits and paid sick leave and other benefits, they absolutely would. The industry is passionate about their employees," he added.

ROC United Co-Director and Co-Founder Saru Jayaraman said that chain restaurants have no excuse for providing unethical working conditions when the restaurant industry as a whole has been one of the few industries not as badly hit by economic strain. According to Jayaraman, the chains have announced record profits of $630 billion this year.

"The restaurant industry right now is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the economy, and the Department of Labor has reported that seven of the lowest paying jobs in America are restaurant jobs, and the two absolute lowest paying jobs are restaurant jobs," she continued.

Jayaraman argued that restaurants make decisions not based on how much profit they'll receive.

"I don't think that's a matter of profit. It's a matter of choice, in terms of what people decide to prioritize with regard to long-term sustainability, in terms of sustainable employment conditions and/or sustainable profits," she said. "We've got restaurants in every segment – fine dining, family style, casual, and fast food – that do well by their workers, so they seem to prove that you actually can do better."


Saru Jayaraman, Co-Director and Co-Founder, Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United); Director, Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley

Mr. Jot Condie, President & CEO, California Restaurant Association