Regional Spotlight: Mideast
The Labor Issue: How New York restaurants are embracing the wage increase
By Amanda Faison
In the Mideast (a region the Bureau of Economics defines as New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.) no conversation about food can be had without first talking about labor. And given that all six of the Good Food 100 participants hail from New York City, that discussion is centered around the minimum wage increase to $15, which took effect on December 31.
The shift is significant for restaurants large and small and all are grappling with how to honor the increase without sacrificing quality or raising menu prices. Concerns about passing the increase along to the guest is especially relevant to casual restaurants where the difference of a dollar or two an entrée will cost a restaurant customers. “We’ve always aimed to be ahead of the curve to pay better than industry average even though we’re a casual, single-operation restaurant,” Evan Hanczor, chef of Egg (6 links) says. The daytime restaurant, which opened in 2005, is known across the industry as an excellent place to work and a force for social good. (To wit, Egg was recently named by Food & Wine as one of the 19 Best Restaurants to Work For.) “We’re trying the find that balance that doesn’t force us to raise prices. We’re affordable but not cheap. Can we really present this kind of ideal of good quality food, affordable prices, great work environment, and tick all those boxes fully?” Hanczor says.
At Untitled (6 links), which is part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group but functions as an individual business, the concerns are similar. “Our prices are reasonable and we didn’t feel we could pass those increases to the guest in the same way a [restaurant with a] set menu or tasting menu might be able to,” executive chef Suzanne Cupps says. This has forced Cupps to get creative because she’s insistent about not sacrificing the quality of the final dish or compromising on sourcing, which would have a domino affect on farmers and producers. “A lot of it is good practices that we should be mindful of, like less food waste,” she says. “Your food costs drops if you take care of your produce and if you buy smaller amounts. [We need] dishes that make sense with items that will last a day or two versus having to throw it out that day.”
Because the minimum wage increase is across all industries, Cupps worries about the effect on small farmers and producers. At the green market recently she spoke with farmers who were wondering if people are going to buy less. But, she says hopefully, “I think there’s a demand for good food and people are smart diners.” Nicholas Poulmentis, chef of Akrotiri Taverna (six links), in Astoria also sees this shift toward good food. “People are learning about better quality food, better ingredients, and why they should go more local,” he says. But it can still be a struggle to convince them to pay for it.
At Noreetuh (5 links), a modern Hawaiian restaurant in the East Village, chef and co-owner Chung Chow speaks to another labor issue: a decrease in skill and longevity. It’s not uncommon for him to hire someone, train them, and then have them quit just a few days later. “Work is easy to come by,” he says, which makes it easy for employees to jump for another job that might pay a dollar more an hour. Chow, who was a former sous chef at Per Se, is concerned that many restaurants hire cooks and give them very specific tasks that don’t necessarily teach them the ways of a working kitchen. “We bring cooks in and have them multitask and clean, which is within the whole scope of back of house work, but people aren’t wailing to pay their dues anymore,” he says. This ever-changing workforce puts a strain on small restaurants, often leaving them with a skeleton crew and a dining room full of expectant diners.
Labor is, and will continue to be, a major factor for the restaurant industry. It is only through dedicated chefs and educated, outspoken diners that the good food system will prevail in an arena where less expensive, lower-quality ingredients could become financially enticing.