My only experience in foodservice was during the summers on either side of my freshman year at Cedarville College. (That is, unless you count wiping tables in the cafeteria between breakfast and lunch my senior year so I didn’t have to go to chapel). Yankee Food Market was an upscale tourist trap off the highway exit for Pawtuckaway State campground in southern New Hampshire. It was a butcher shop, where I learned the difference between a T-bone and a porterhouse.
We also prepared foods like submarine sandwiches and fried chicken, and during my second summer there, the owner Dave had a deck built outside so he could start serving dinners like his famous steakhouse marinated tips. Dave would grill right out there on the deck, and I would make up plates of beef and red-bliss potato salad and serve them to the customers.
Dave knew we were musicians, so he hired my family to provide live entertainment one weekend night. I was still working, and that was Dave’s plan: He wanted me to sing out in the parking lot, wearing my white (and faintly bloodied) butcher-shop apron, because wouldn’t the customers think that was so quaint? I don’t know if non-human primates have feelings, but my level of pride was somewhere around that of a monkey playing an accordion.
For a long time, this indignity captured my general understanding of foodservice: It was something you did because you couldn’t do anything else. Maybe you were a student, like me, just waiting to get a real job. Maybe you were an artist or musician just trying to support your real work. Maybe you were a mother who didn’t have enough hours to work full-time. Hell, you couldn’t even count on your paycheck – your income depended on the kindness of tipping strangers.
Over the years, though, my perspective has shifted. I’ve had barista friends who take their work very seriously and have taught me to tell good coffee from bad coffee. In younger days, I thought of food as something to salve hunger. These days, I dream of the now-unattainable risotto at Pop’s Trattorio (R.I.P) here in Durham, not because I’m hungry but because it was a work of art. I’ve reported on churches across the nation who cook for people as part of their regular worship because they’ve come to see that food, especially when eaten in community, nourishes souls as much as it does bodies. I married a hospitality-management major, who has taught me that foodservice is a symphony of seemingly menial tasks that come together to create some of the most important experiences of humanity.
Food is an instrument of Communion. Meals bring families together. Friends show friendship by cooking for one another. Here in Durham, as in other creative-class cities, a foodie revolution has coincided with my own theological evolution: I have come to believe that giving and receiving hospitality is where we meet God. I have come to see foodservice as one of the most important vocations on the planet, so much more important than other jobs we pay people a lot of money for. Cooks, servers and dishwashers help people to be together, and what is more important than that?
And, yet, the fact remains that foodservice is the leading employer of low-wage workers in the U.S. Our economy pays people based not on the value they bring to communities but on scarcity, replaceability. Outside of my family and friends, some of the most important people in my life are my kids’ teachers, artists who create and provoke, farmworkers, restaurant people and the guys who pick up my trash. These folks might get by, barely – nourish yourself on the intangible benefits! But you can make bank if you can get me to see a pop-up ad for stuff I neither need nor want.
I’m happy to report that here in Durham, as in other places, people are doing some things to recognize and affirm our foodservice workers. The Durham Living Wage Project asks businesses voluntarily to bottom-out their hourly wages at $12.33. Among dozens of businesses who have signed on are Cocoa Cinnamon and Monuts, both on the national food media’s radar for the quality of their coffee and pastries. Based on a similar program in Asheville, the DLWP is part of a broader national movement. In Seattle, the city recently enacted a $15 minimum wage, which helps foodservice workers more than anybody. You might be glad to know your server is making an alternative minimum wage, but it’s even more important for the back-of-the-house employees you never see – the cooks, the dishwashers.
Monuts co-founder Lindsay Moriarty actually forwent PhD study on the impact of small businesses on job-quality and public health in order to create good-paying work serving donuts and some of the most decadent breakfast sandwiches I can imagine.
“In a place where food matters so much, how can we get people to care about workers as much as they care about the farm-to-fork movement?” Moriarty said at the DLWP launch last month.
Sean Wilson hosted that event at his Southern-flora-inspired Fullsteam Brewery, another living-wage business. I met Sean a decade ago at Holy Family Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, where we also attended with Celeste Gardner, who is helping a local Cuban sandwich shop to host a church service on Monday nights for foodservice workers who work Sunday morning shifts.
Most of us won’t get as creatively helpful as all this. But we can at least tip them well.