Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In a divisive climate, restaurants across the U.S. are dishing up a serving of activism.
In recent weeks, restaurants and chefs across the country have put politics on the table.
Coffee shops are funneling donations to the ACLU; bodega owners rallied against President Trump’s stance on immigration; celebrity chefs are piping up; restaurants across the country are carving out a code of conduct that prizes dignity, decency, and a livable wage.
As one of the primary employers of immigrants, the restaurant industry is well positioned to amplify the voices of workers who might be particularly vulnerable if the Trump administration pushes forward with earlier proposals to deport millions of undocumented people. The Bureau of Labor Statistics places the restaurant workforce at about 12 million workers, some 1.7 million of whom are immigrants. It’s tricky to pinpoint the share of those workers who are undocumented; according to a 2009 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented immigrants are most likely to be employed in low-wage gigs such as dishwashing.
Many in the industry have decried the effect Trump’s stance on immigration could have on the food sector. Last year, during Trump’s campaign bid, the chef and gastronome-about-town Anthony Bourdain commented that “every restaurant in America would shut down” if the then-candidate forged ahead with a plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. The repercussions of stanching immigration would reverberate throughout the food system, all the way back to farm labor.
But there’s also just something about food. Sharing a meal is a near-universal symbol of building community; gastrodiplomacy imagines each bite as a chance to connect with another culture—or at least put the kibosh on arguing for as long as diners’ mouths are full. Here are some of the ways that the food industry is imagining its role right now:
A coffee campaign
This past weekend, whenever someone ordered a coffee at Wright Bros. Brew & Brew, the East Austin shop earmarked $1 for the ACLU. The café signed on to a campaign launched by the coffee news site Sprudge in response to President Trump’s executive order on immigration, which halted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and revoked tens of thousands of visas.
“Like a hot mug of drip coffee spilled on a crisp white apron, these actions are a dark stain on our national conscience,” the site’s writers wrote in a statement. “As Americans, we feel compelled to stand up against them.”
More than 800 cafes joined in, spanning 41 states and dotted all through urban cores and suburban reaches: Verve Coffee Roasters enlisted its seven locations in Santa Cruz; La Colombe tapped its 22 outposts across New York, Boston, Chicago, D.C., and Philadelphia; stand-alone shops enlisted in Maryville, Tennessee; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Lansing, Michigan. Sprudge promised to match the first $500 raised by each the first 26 roasters or shops to register. Other companies, including Blue Bottle and Peet’s Coffee, pledged matching funds or bulk donations, too.
Activism isn’t encoded into Brew & Brew’s mission, says the co-founder Matt Wright. But to him, the campaign doesn’t feel particularly partisan. The immigration order “felt like it crossed a line with regards to the fundamental American values,” Wright says. Joining up, he adds, “didn’t feel like we were harping over politics.”
It’s the not the first time in recent weeks that the shop has waded into political territory. More than 200 people crammed into its 1,500 square feet before the Austin Women’s March on the heels of Trump’s inauguration last month. One of the baristas asked to use the café as a meeting point, since it’s within walking distance of the state capitol; the shop poured $1 cups to fortify the crowds. An events space joined to the shop has played host to gatherings of the Austin Young Democrats and Progress Texas. “Living in Austin, living in Texas, you’re always aware that there are undocumented folks or people who are vulnerable,” Wright says.
Bodega owners strike
Last week, New York City bodega owners challenged other locals to imagine what the city’s blocks would look like without their shops. These catchall stores, which dispense necessities like coffee, cat food, toilet paper, and sandwiches at odd hours, are convenient and reliable in a city where it often feels that almost nothing is. “Given the chance,” wrote my colleague Adam Chandler, “most any New Yorker will tell you that bodegas are a city institution, like libraries or the subway.”
The shops are also often immigrant-owned, and on Thursday, around 1,000 Yemeni managers and employees shuttered their shops in protest of President Trump’s recent executive order, which counted Yemen among those countries from which travel was stalled.
Most of the participating bodegas went dark by mid-afternoon. (“Originally, we considered starting the shutdown at 8 a.m., but the grocers they made it clear they wouldn’t be willing to close if that meant their regulars wouldn’t get their morning coffee,” the Yemeni-American activist Debbie Almontaser, one of the strike’s organizers, said in a statement.) Mohammed Murbaz, the 25-year-old owner of Zaytoon Mediterranean, told me Thursday morning that he would close at 3 p.m. His shop is in the thick of a thriving Yemeni community in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where many fluorescent signs are in English and Arabic and bodegas sell boxed falafel mixtures, fig jam, and pitted dates.
When I visited him at his shop, Murbaz explained that he doesn’t oppose all of President Trump’s propositions—he hopes, for instance, to benefit from the promised tax cuts for small businesses—but he’s concerned that American citizens may encounter visa issues while trying to bring family members to the country. He says he’s been to two protests at JFK, and is heading to Yemen at the end of the month to visit his aunt. He reached over the counter to hand a glassine-wrapped sandwich to a customer, and told me that he worries he will experience redoubled scrutiny or delays trying to return to the U.S., where he grew up. “I don’t know how it’s going to be for me,” he said.
That evening, thousands of Yemeni bodega owners and their allies knelt in prayer at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall as night started to rake across the concrete. Then, they blew wheezing vuvuzelas, hoisted American and Yemeni flags, and chanted “U.S.A.,” sometimes drowning out the activists and elected officials behind the microphone.
The strike and rally were an effort to demonstrate the extent to which bodegas keep New York vital and steeped in caffeine. Temporarily shutting down the stalwart shops, by extension, was an invitation for locals to imagine what their daily routine would look like if an entire demographic suddenly disappeared from it.
Designing “sanctuary restaurants”
Other campaigns are intervening against cultural tides, as opposed to a specific federal policy. The Sanctuary Restaurants movement has enlisted more than 120 establishments across the country—from Oakland to Louisville to Fish Creek, Wisconsin—to commit to preserving an environment free of sexism, racism, and xenophobia, for both customers and employees. The campaign also calls on diners to report incidents of harassment via email, tweet, or text message.
Unlike sanctuary cities or sanctuary campuses, Sanctuary Restaurants won’t necessarily intervene in issues around someone’s immigration status. Their focus “is about getting a safe place at the table—a safe place for the entire workforce and customer base, to the extent that they are capable of doing so while complying with all laws and regulations,” says Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder of the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which launched the Sanctuary Restaurants campaign in partnership with Presente.org. “Our goal here is to have a unified voice of employers and workers who basically are saying, ‘Our industry includes everyone, we stand up for the humanity, dignity, and respect of everyone,’” Jayaraman adds.
Creating that space, though, might mean agitating for policy changes, says Jayaraman, who is also the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Before the new administration took office, “the industry was already going through an internal revolt, when employers were saying, ‘The old way of doing business, trying to get the most for the least out of our workers, isn’t working for us,’” she says.
Tipping and wages were battlefield issues across the industry in 2016, with some restaurants opting to nudge the hourly pay higher to make servers less dependent on fickle gratuities. Now, Jayaraman says, managers and owners might channel a sense of anger into something productive by “learning about the high road to profitability.”
A path forward, on scales large and small
Many restaurants are making space for immigrants and their cuisine. As thousands of protestors swarmed airports last weekend to raise their voices against President Trump’s immigration moratorium, the chef David Chang—founder of Momofuku—took to Twitter to announce his intention to dig in to cuisine from the countries identified in the executive order.
Studying the delicious food of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan & Yemen. Plan to see more of these food cultures on @momofuku menus— Dave Chang (@davidchang) January 28, 2017
Other companies are responding on a more macro level, taking the long-term view. Starbucks recently pledged, over the next five years, to hire 10,000 refugees across its branches in 75 countries.
Meanwhile, Jarayaman says that single-city strikes, such as the bodega protest in New York, could kindle other efforts. She points to the “fight for $15” campaign, which mobilized workers around a push to increase the minimum wage. Jayaraman was actively involved in ROC’s arm of the work in New York; then, workers declared strikes in Chicago, L.A., and other cities. From a single nerve center, influence rippled widely.
“Local is where it’s at right now,” Jayaraman says. “Every effort has started somewhere and inspired people elsewhere to do the same.”