The Ethical Guide to Eating Out


Written by Margaret Aldrich

Anyone who has waited tables or cooked in a restaurant kitchen knows the backbreaking work, the questionable conditions, and the meager rewards. Now, it’s easy to find the restaurants that treat their employees right with the 2012 National Diners’ Guide, presented by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). The guide outlines the pay and benefits of 186 of the country’s most popular eateries, from fast food to fine dining.

Before you look at the guide to see where your favorite establishment stands, check out some of the reasons why the ROC says the ethical treatment of restaurant workers is vital:

With a federal minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped workers and $7.25 for non-tipped workers, the median wage for restaurant workers is $8.90, just below the poverty line for a family of three. This means that more than half of all restaurant workers nationwide earn less than the federal poverty line.

90 percent of the more than 4,300 restaurant workers surveyed by the Restaurant Opportunities Center report not having paid sick leave, and two-thirds report cooking, preparing, and serving food while sick, making sick leave for restaurant workers not only a worker rights issue but a pressing concern in public health!

Women, immigrants, and people of color hold lower-paying positions in the industry, and do not have many opportunities to move up the ladder. Among the 4,300 workers surveyed, we found a $4 wage gap between white workers and workers of color, and 73 percent reported not receiving regular promotions on the job.

Jaeah Lee at Mother Jones has distilled the ROC’s guide into an excellent Zagat-like reference for diners. (See, at a glance, that Starbucks’ employees don’t get paid sick days, but Chipotle’s do.) And, also on MoJo, Utne Reader visionary Tom Philpott takes a moment to look on the bright side of the report, pointing out that the “ROC isn’t just dishing up the restaurant industry’s dark secrets. It’s also working with restaurant owners across the country to come up with fair labor standards.”

For me, waiting tables at the Tic Toc Supper Club at the end of my teenage years was a crash-course in a range of adult matters: wine bottles are harder to open with a tableful of people watching; wearing a skirt gets you better tips; and the boss will rarely give you more than the bare minimum of what is required by law. Thanks to the ROC, restaurants just might be encouraged to give that bare minimum a boost.

This post was originally published by the Utne Reader.


Related Stories:

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Home Care Workers Deserve a Fair Wage

Wisconsin Senator: If You Are Still Earning Minimum Wage, You’re a Bad Worker


Photo from Serenae via flickr


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Joe Beiter
Joseph Beiter5 years ago

I saw the word "ethical" in the title and thought it was gonna be about veg*n options in restaurants . . . Guess not

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener6 years ago

Thank you!!!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

food industry is a service industry, and sadly serving others doesn't pay out what it should. It's amazing how few people consider the wait staff

Christine Stewart
Christine S6 years ago

I always try to leave a decent tip and treat the wait staff well, because I know it is a hard job with not a lot of pay!

Brad J.
Brad J.6 years ago

Thank you

Diane L.
Diane L6 years ago

Kimberlee, I probably should clarify, I don't eat at McDonalds "off and on", just in a few "chain" restaurants "such as" Denny's, etc. when I was employed and had to go eat out at lunch, and sometimes, a few of us employees would go out to eat after work. Yes, often a wait person will ask if you want anything else, or would you like dessert, but I've never ordered a sandwich from a menu and been asked if I wanted a steak instead. Yes, at McDonald's, they ask if you want "fries with that" or do you want it as a meal, like if you just order a McCheese or whatever it is, they ask you if you want that as a meal which includes fries AND a drink. I've been asked that at Subway, which is the only place I ever go anymore, unless it's a "date" type thing. That isn't pushing food on anyone for more tips. It's to get more sales for the establishment, I think.

Diane L.
Diane L6 years ago

Wrong, Kimberlee. I had a 2nd job at McDonald's for quite some time and have eaten in them off and on during my entire life, which I can only guess is a bit longer than yours.

I've rarely been even ASKED by a wait person to "upgrade" to a more expensive food item, actually can't remember EVER being asked to do that. IF I ask what they recommend, yes, many times it IS one of the more expensive ones, but that usually is also in a higher class restaurant, not Denny's or McDonald's. Who goes in McDonald's and asks what they recommend, anyway?

Natasha Lopez
Natasha L6 years ago


Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W6 years ago

Dian L. - I'm guessing that you haven't worked in a chain restaurant. OF COURSE, they train you to convince customers to upgrade and order additional food!, NOT ONLY THAT, but while you're simultaneously pouring drinks into a customer, you also have to monitor that customer to make sure they don't get too drunk! Nice trick to be responsible for on sub-min. wage!

That's coming from someone who's spent close to 38 yrs. in the biz, doing everything from a hot-dog truck to catering weddings to chains and old-fashioned, pencil-in-the-hairbun diners.