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New York City restaurant workers and owners join call for change and equity in the industry

Photo by Jacob Robbins

Over 50 local restaurateurs and workers gathered in Harlem to call for the state to address concerns in the restaurant industry.

Many New York City restaurants are struggling to stay afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On Aug. 6, restaurant workers and owners gathered at Reverence, a Black-owned restaurant in Harlem, to enact a symbolic ‘handshake’ on an agreement for the “Safe and Just Reopening” plan, a statewide relief policy that will allow for both workers and employers to survive and thrive.

The Safe and Just reopening is a four-part plan that aims to help restaurants reopen while creating more equity among the employees. The plan includes:

  • Adoption of One Fair Wage, thus eliminating the subminimum wage for all New Yorkers — a legacy of slavery and a source of ongoing racial inequity for restaurant workers
  • Allowance for tip sharing with kitchen staff
  • Payroll tax relief for struggling restaurants
  • Establishment of a 5% safe reopening surcharge restaurants can charge if they commit to safe and equitable protocols

So far a number of restaurant owners have signed on to support the plan, including renowned Chef Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer. Michael Fuquay, owner of The Queensboro in Jackson Heights, also signed on to the call.

Alongside partners Tony Liu and Dudley Stewart, Fuquay has been working to try and bounce back during the pandemic.

“Right after the shutdown, we decided to stop take-out and delivery because it was the most intense in our area of Queens,” said Fuquay. “We didn’t feel comfortable bringing our employees into work and putting them at risk.”

The Queensboro was ultimately able to stay afloat by providing meals to Elmhurst Hospital, food pantries, homeless shelters, schools, and other feeding programs throughout the city. Queens residents saw what the Queensboro was doing for the community and ultimately started to give them money to help the restaurant out and keep going.

“We were able to keep ourselves going by mass-producing meals for these feeding programs,” said Fuquay. “We were able to get a lot of people fed and because of the donations, we were able to pay the bills.”

The Queensboro started to shift gears with the demand for take-out and started to create daily family meals that were available for delivery or pick-up. When outdoor dining was cleared for the city, the Queensboro was able to take advantage of their corner location and set up seating. However, Fuquay says that if they break 50% of the pre-pandemic sales, they’ve had a good week.

For Fuquay, signing on to the Safe and Just Reopening plan was a no-brainer. In the early days of opening the Queensboro, Fuquay toyed with the idea of going in the direction of no tips for the restaurant.

“There are things about the current system that don’t work,” said Fuquay. “As a new restaurant, it was too much of ‘swimming against the stream’ to do what Danny Meyer did. But the system of tips and the system of wages doesn’t work well for workers or restaurants.”

After New York increased the minimum wage to $15, Fuquay says that a lot of restaurants had to raise some prices, however he acknowledged that most people will still tip the same regardless. This raises the floor for how much money a server could make, but did not change how much someone working as a cook could make.

“The disparity between the front of the house and back of the house is bigger than it’s ever been, and there are racial and gender issues based on who works where,” said Fuquay. “It’s like we’re valuing one set of skills highly and not valuing other skills. Speaking English ends up being worth more than being able to perfectly cook a steak. We really want to emphasize creating more equity — disparity has always been there but it’s getting worse.”

For more information, visit www.fightdontstarve.com.

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