The war on restaurants

Posted: January 21, 2013

By Lowman S. Henry

To many, Philadelphia's restaurant industry - with its diverse choices, burgeoning complement of BYOBs, and growing number of high-profile restaurateurs - is an asset to the city. Others, however, have set out to demonize it.

Last month, an organization called the Restaurant Opportunities Center released a report that deemed just nine local restaurants up to its standards as "ethical" eateries, and City Council adopted a celebratory resolution in the center's name. Before that, the group made headlines in The Inquirer and elsewhere by alleging that the local restaurant industry is "characterized by very low wages, few benefits, and limited opportunities for upward mobility."

While ROC revels in revealing the "hidden reality" of the industry, the organization has sought to shroud its own background.

It presents itself as a resource for restaurant employees by offering things like free training, including classes in English as a second language. And it leans heavily on its admirable original charter - to help New York City restaurant workers displaced by 9/11 - to secure financial support, including hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and philanthropic contributions. Philadelphia's own Samuel S. Fels Fund has donated $15,000 to the local chapter.

Unfortunately, the group's mission has evolved significantly to include threatening restaurant owners with very public outbursts if they don't succumb to its demands to make unprecedented wage and benefits concessions to employees. In fact, the ROC's picketing got so fierce that one New York restaurant operator had to file a restraining order. ROC's outrageous protests, which have also featured a giant inflatable cockroach and accusations of racism, were at one point deemed illegal by the National Labor Relations Board.

Its recent history of questionable methods has drawn scrutiny from federal lawmakers. Last summer, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House oversight committee, sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis asking why the Labor Department gave the controversial group $275,000 in 2009.

Given all that, it's puzzling that anyone would take seriously the group's claims that it's offering a "comprehensive" look at Philadelphia's restaurant industry. Consider the shoddy methodology of the report the group released last fall. Its 580 face-to-face surveys of restaurant workers were conducted by its own staffers and volunteers. In other words, the study was administered by an organization with a clear agenda.

Of course, more objective analyses have found that the restaurant industry has remained vibrant despite the Great Recession. The industry lost less than 4 percent of its national workforce even as Americans' restaurant spending decreased by more than 11 percent.

Restaurant jobs employ people with a wide range of experience and education levels. Though 58 percent of restaurant employees have not been educated beyond high school, those looking to advance in the industry have plenty of opportunities. Four-fifths of restaurant owners report that their first job in the industry was entry-level.

ROC's stated intentions - higher wages and better jobs - are essentially commendable. But the group's history of harassing restaurateurs and releasing shoddy surveys runs the risk of putting small businesses in the red and thousands of jobs on the back burner. Philadelphia's diners and elected officials should take the work of the Restaurant Opportunities Center with much more than a grain of salt.


Lowman S. Henry is the chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute and the host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.

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