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There Really Is No Ethical Restaurant Under Capitalism

Building an equitable restaurant — where all workers are paid fairly, have benefits, and work without discrimination — will require undoing the way most restaurants are run

TheThe only eth­i­cal restau­rant I have ever heard of is on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Saxena is is im­me­di­ately con­cerned with the en­tire process of restau­rant, and iden­ti­fies that she’s never even heard of a restau­rant com­ing close to eth­i­cal out­side of utopian fic­tion.

Building an eq­ui­table restau­rant, a place where all work­ers are paid fairly, have ben­e­fits, and can work in an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tory en­vi­ron­ment, is go­ing to take a near-un­do­ing of the way most restau­rants are run.

This ap­plies to com­pa­nies and agen­cies that make the in­ter­net func­tion as well.

Living in a coun­try that pro­vided uni­ver­sal health care, fed­er­ally man­dated paid child leave and sick leave, and a liv­ing min­i­mum wage, as well as in­cen­tivized sus­tain­able farm­ing, en­cour­aged unions, and got rid of at-will em­ploy­ment, would go a long way to­ward cre­at­ing en­vi­ron­ments within restau­rants (and all busi­nesses) where work­ers had power over their own liveli­hood.

Again, this ap­plies to the ba­sic func­tion­ing of how we build the in­ter­net. The struc­ture around how we make what we make di­rectly in­forms and is in­ex­tri­ca­ble from what re­sults and ethics of what we make.

…but Vartan con­tin­ued to bring it up with em­ploy­ees, and even­tu­ally worked with Project Equity, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for and con­sults with com­pa­nies to pivot to em­ployee-owned mod­els, to be­come a worker co­op­er­a­tive.

Employee-owned com­pa­nies are a step in the right di­rec­tion. However, places like Amazon give their op­tions stock op­tions that vest. This is a com­mon model for start-ups (Github).

A Slice of New York al­lows em­ploy­ees to be­come co-own­ers af­ter they’ve spent at least a year at the com­pany; as of now, about 45 per­cent of the em­ploy­ees are co-own­ers.

However it sounds like hav­ing ac­cess to stocks and be­ing a true ESOP like this Pizza Joint or Miller Paint is a dif­fer­ent deal.

The restau­ran­t’s gov­er­nance is what’s re­ally af­fected: Every co-owner has an equal share of the busi­ness and a vote on a board. Board mem­bers all have an equal say in de­ci­sions about ben­e­fits, safety pro­ce­dures, menu changes, and is­sues deal­ing with the gen­eral fi­nan­cial well­be­ing of the com­pany.

This is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea for the tech in­dus­try. This is what eth­i­cal starts to look like.

No mat­ter how kindly run and com­mu­nity-fo­cused a restau­ran­t’s struc­ture is, wages are of­ten the stick­ing point. After all, it’s a job; get­ting paid is the goal. And as much as co-op or non­profit struc­tures help with the over­all work cul­ture, they do not solve the prob­lem so many restau­rants face: It costs money to pay peo­ple a liv­ing wage.

The re­al­ity is, even though Charmington’s is pay­ing as much as it can while en­sur­ing it can stay afloat, work­ers could prob­a­bly make more else­where.

Does ethical” need to be com­pro­mise in this way?

… when it comes to restau­rants, it’s hard to change one thing un­less you’re chang­ing every­thing.

There are sys­temic forces at work that pre­vent any in­di­vid­ual, or even any small com­mu­nity from truly reach­ing a place of eth­i­cal be­hav­ior. This makes me think that there has to be a split be­tween acting eth­i­cally” and being eth­i­cal”. We can all act eth­i­cally, work­ing our way up­stream against the sys­tem forces ar­rayed against us, but that’s no guar­an­tee that we will, at the end of the day, be eth­i­cal.

Of course, not every meal can re­al­is­ti­cally be $195 per per­son. The cost of pro­vid­ing every em­ployee with a liv­ing wage and ben­e­fits — not to men­tion pay­ing rent and in­sur­ance, and serv­ing a good prod­uct af­ford­able enough for most peo­ple — is nearly im­pos­si­ble with the way restau­rants, co-op or not, must run.

Why is this? We live in a time of un­prece­dented ef­fi­ciency, un­be­liev­able abun­dance, and mas­sive wealth but if a restau­rant is called to truly ac­count for its ex­ploita­tion to charge its true price, it’s im­me­di­ately un­ten­able. This feels like it must be true across many in­dus­tries — Uber would rather cease ser­vice in California than treat it’s dri­vers like em­ploy­ees. What would it take to truly un­der­stand what the net­work of costs, val­ues, debts, and the real price of things?

The prob­lem of good” food be­ing pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive can’t be com­pletely solved by restau­ra­teurs turn­ing those knobs. Depressed wages and in­fla­tion are prob­lems for every­one, not just restau­rant work­ers

Are those re­ally two is­sues at work? I get the sense that those are both symp­toms of an un­der­ly­ing dis­con­nec­tion be­tween la­bor & re­sources and con­sump­tion.

Now, value” can in­clude not just cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence, but the knowl­edge that em­ployee well-be­ing is part of the plan.

Is that a value add?? Are we now just sell­ing eth­i­cal choices, and let­ting the con­cept of the mar­ket de­ter­mine how we can work? Because than we’re just play­ing the same game with the rich be­ing able to choose” eth­i­cal con­sump­tion meth­ods and pur­chase the abil­ity to do the right thing, which ab­solves them of re­spon­si­bil­ity to change the sys­tem and sup­port sys­temic re­form. I guess this is the clas­sic re­form vs rev­o­lu­tion prob­lem, and the source of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies at­tack­ing re­form­ers for mak­ing a bro­ken sys­tem more bear­able in­stead of truly fix­ing it. Again tho — the sys­tem is­n’t bro­ken but de­signed. Getting out of that polemic means iden­ti­fy­ing the de­sign.

But every­thing restau­rants can do on their own is a few drops in a bucket com­pared to what gov­ern­ment sup­port in the form of things like uni­ver­sal health care, or real aid for small busi­nesses, could achieve.

Thats the dream that ar­tic­u­lated by Star Trek — gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties who have the abil­ity to make real change do.

Sustained change will take a greater un­der­stand­ing of what equity” means, and what it will re­quire from both restau­rants and cus­tomers. As bad as the pan­demic has been, it has put us in a great po­si­tion to do that sort of reeval­u­a­tion, and reimag­ine a restau­rant as a place where suc­cess does­n’t mean profit, but rather that the whole com­mu­nity, farm-to-table, is cared for. And to maybe even fight for a day when it won’t be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of restau­rants to solve these prob­lems at all