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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

Behind The Kitchen Door- State of US Restaurant Industry

“Sustainability is about contributing to a society that everybody benefits from, not just going organic because you don’t want to die from cancer or have a difficult pregnancy. What is a sustainable restaurant? It’s one in which as the restaurant grows, the people grow with it.” from Behind the Kitchen Door.

I got interested in reading this book after I saw the very well made and inspiring TEDX video presented by Saru Jayaraman. Being an Indian woman, I felt very proud to learn about another Indian woman supporting such a worthy cause and working hard to change a federal level policy  by sheer perseverance and leadership.

The cause I am referring to hear is the fact that: Tipped workers which includes many positions in the restaurant industry have a minimum wage of only $2.13 per hour and this has been the figure for the last 20 years.

The solution that Saru and many workers of the restaurant industry came up with was creating a non-for-profit organization called ROC United (Restaurant Opportunities Centers) to help reverse this issue by first of all bringing attention to it. The book does a wonderful job of describing the terrible and unfair working practices many of these workers have to go through.  Besides low wages, she also touches upon poor working conditions such as discriminatory labor practices, racial and gender exploitation and inequality as well as unsanitary kitchens.

Behind the Kitchen Door is a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out. Increasingly, Americans are choosing to dine at restaurants that offer organic, fair-trade, and free-range ingredients for reasons of both health and ethics. Yet few of these diners are aware of the working conditions at the restaurants themselves. But whether you eat haute cuisine or fast food, the well-being of restaurant workers is a pressing concern, affecting our health and safety, local economies, and the life of our communities. Highlighting the roles of the 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring their passion, tenacity, and vision to the American dining experience, Jayaraman sets out a bold agenda to raise the living standards of the nation’s second-largest private sector workforce—and ensure that dining out is a positive experience on both sides of the kitchen door. (

Our role: Her last chapter covers some of the steps we can take to support these workers:

1. Use the ROC National Diner’s Guide to support restaurants that treat workers well and boycott those that don’t. (similar to the fossil fuel divestment strategy being followed by many universities these days).

2. Adopt a definition of ‘sustainable food’ that includes sustainable labor practices.

3. Talk to both workers and restaurant managers when we eat at restaurants. Even if we may not be too comfortable taking this step, at least we can decide to get involved if the need arises instead of turning our heads the other way and think it’s none of our business!

4. Help raise federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Tell policy makers and restaurant managers that $2.13 is really unacceptable. You can do that by joining ROC’s online campaigns to support workers all along the food chain. Here’s the link to learn more about this organization.

If nothing else, we can be more aware and make sure we always tip our restaurant workers and realize that they are the people who need our support the most.

If nothing else, we can be more aware and make sure we always tip our restaurant workers and realize that they are the people who need our support the most.

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