High Road Kitchens keeps restaurants open and feeds thousands during pandemic

While the program provides grants to restaurant owners where needed, the ultimate goal is to move the equity needle in the industry.

When the pandemic first broke out in the United States nearly two years ago, restaurants were sent into a tailspin that many are still struggling with today in Omicron’s new wake. According to the 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, more than half of restaurateurs believe it will take a year or more before their business returns to normal. Additionally, food, labor and occupancy costs remain high, squeezing already thin profit margins.

High Road Kitchens is determined to turn this crisis into an opportunity for an equity revolution in the industry. The initiative, which was launched in California in March 2020, is managed by One Fair Wage, a national advocacy organization dedicated to pay equity. High Road Kitchens has provided grants to thousands of restaurants from California to Massachusetts through a combination of public and private funding and partnerships with state or local municipalities. The grants not only help them survive the pandemic and keep service workers employed, but also provide subsidized meals on a scalable scale to low-wage workers, first responders and more.

“One of the goals was to help people who are food insecure, especially those on the front line like nurses. The second was to provide financial assistance to restaurants to keep the door open,” says Julio Rodriguez, program manager for High Road Kitchens.

Grants range from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on local need as well as parameters established with funding partners like the Kellogg Foundation in Detroit. High Road Kitchens has ultimately provided around 45,000 meals across the country since the pandemic began. Typically, restaurants are asked to provide one meal for every $10 they receive. It’s up to the restaurant to decide how, whether to donate meals to homeless shelters or offer them at discounted prices.

When Janel Inouye, the owner-operator of Sacramento’s Magpie Cafe, joined the High Road Kitchens network in the summer of 2020, she used the restaurant’s roughly $2,500 grant to partner with a local school and distribute heavily discounted food boxes for families when schools were closed. . “On the restaurant side, it was nice to have something stable that we knew we were going to do,” Inouye says of the six weeks they provided meals.

But, because One Fair Wage is working to end tipped minimum wage, High Road Kitchens didn’t stop there. The question quickly became “how can we relate this to paying a fair wage?” Rodriguez said.

The answer came in the form of equity training and advice designed to help restaurants transition to better wages without having to simply raise prices. The afternoon Zoom trainings break down the numbers to illustrate how tip sharing, service charges and hospitality expenses work, but also offer alternatives for diversifying income through apparel and hospitality services. restoration.

The equity element of the training, which was developed in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation, covers things like racism and implicit bias. It also helps restaurant owners and operators assess the racial makeup of their front and back staff.

Each participating restaurant has six months to complete the training and must commit to paying fair wages within five years. “There are 2,000 members that we have in our network who either pay fair wages or are in the process of doing so,” Rodriguez says.

One of the strengths of the High Road Kitchens process has been the flexibility it brings to the process, finding individualized ways for each city and each restaurant to participate. In Boston, for example, High Road partnered with then-mayor Martin Walsh to fund about 75 restaurants that had to pay fair wages for a month.

“In Chicago we have a private funder while in Michigan we have the Kellogg Foundation and they wanted to prioritize Detroit,” Rodriguez says of the adaptable model. “Depending on the funding, we determine the number of people we want to reach, and then we work with our allies like the workers’ organizations on the ground who make recommendations to us.”

Now, with much of the initial funds exhausted, High Road is focusing on areas like Maine and other parts of Michigan where they haven’t worked yet and are also considering slightly different funding models. “We’re trying to partner with New York State on a forgivable loan program. It would be the same program – the restaurant employer does what it’s supposed to do, then the loan is forgiven instead,” says Rodriguez. “In Michigan, we’re trying to create a subsidized loan, like a 1% interest loan program.”

While High Road Kitchens began and operated as a means of providing resources to restaurant owners in times of need, the ultimate goal is to move the equity needle in the restaurant industry. Although Inouye has found the High Road formation to be somewhat redundant for her as a small-scale landlord and minority woman, she understands that it serves the larger political agenda of the organization.

“The restaurant industry has some really racist and sexist policies and history. In some states, tipped employees are still being paid $2.13 an hour — that’s really screwed up,” Rodriguez says. At this time, we are asking Congress that if they pass relief for restaurants, an increase in worker wages be included as well.”

This article is part of Elements of an Equitable Recovery, a series on solutions that help small businesses, especially those owned by women and minorities, survive and thrive. This series is generously guaranteed by LISC.

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in National Geographic, US News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds a master’s degree in social design, with a focus on intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology and fine arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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