When Chef Russell Jackson opened fine dining restaurant Reverence in 2019, his goal was to bring to the Harlem community the same types of amenities, luxuries, and resources found in other New York City neighborhoods. He couldn't have imagined that within the first year of operations, he'd be fighting for the rights of his own — and his competitors' — restaurants in the middle of a pandemic
But just a few days prior to Reverence's official first birthday, that's exactly what he did.
A group of restaurateurs, restaurant workers, and activists gathered at the intersection of 138th St. and Frederick Douglass Blvd. outside of Reverence on Thursday to unveil the "Safe and Just Reopening" plan.
The plan, presented to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo by industry insiders in partnership with the advocacy group One Fair Wage, relies on four main pillars. It aims to eradicate the subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers; reduce the pay divide between predominantly white front-of-house workers and back-of-house workers, who are often people of color, by permitting tip sharing; introduce payroll relief for restaurants and their employees; and, finally, approve a 5 percent reopening surcharge that would help ease the burden of pivoting to new operating models for many cash-crunched restaurants.
Jackson said the plan has support from thousands of restaurant workers and more than 50 restaurateurs, including some very high-profile personalities like Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, David Chang of Momofuku fame, and Tom Colicchio of Crafted Hospitality.
Meyer has himself been a very vocal supporter of eliminating the subminimum wage. He eradicated tipping altogether in Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants in 2015 but reversed course on the policy in June. He cited pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic as the reasoning behind ending his "Hospitality Included" program, according to an article he wrote on LinkedIn,
"It's against that precarious and unpredictable backdrop that we are concluding the chapter on Hospitality Included, and reopening with tips, all the while advocating for policy changes that will introduce much-needed equity into the compensation system," he wrote.
As Meyer's legacy goes to show, many of the big asks in the "Safe and Just Reopening" plan are nothing new. And although the plan was made more urgent by the pressures of COVID-19, many of the solutions offered to go beyond attempting to reverse the course of the pandemic. Indeed, they seek to address systemic issues that have plagued the industry for some time.
"COVID is tearing us down to the stud right now," Jackson said. "Now that it's being torn down, we get to rebuild it in a way that is really efficient and proper."
That's not to say restaurants aren't in a very tight position. Jackson said Reverence's business is down 95 to 98 percent — in spite of all the work the team has put into pivoting to pickup and, soon, delivery.
"This restaurant wasn't designed to do takeout," he said.
Reverence isn't the only one struggling. According to data compiled by POS company Toast, restaurants' average daily revenue was down about 80 percent at peak pandemic. As of August 6, it was still down about 40 percent. Eater, which maintains a running list of restaurants that have permanently shuttered amid the pandemic, has tallied more than 50 closures just since late July.
It's unclear how the proposal will go over politically — Cuomo had left tipped restaurant workers out of the $15 minimum wage hike, Gothamist reported. And restaurateurs like Jackson are imploring lawmakers to consider the cultural fabric of a future when many of the restaurants they know and love have gone under.
"My hope is that they do the right thing. My hope is that they think about all those restaurants, and all those people, and all the down line industries," Jackson said. "This is the right thing to do ... [these are] the imperative steps we have to take as a community, as a society, as an industry to make things better."