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Surprised? Metro Detroit Restaurant Industry Harbors Inequalities

ROC United releases a damning report detailing the injustices within Metro Detroit's restaurant service industry.

Erik Saunders, community organizer for ROC-Michigan presents at a press conference at Colors restaurant in downtown Detroit on Wednesday, Oct. 22.
Erik Saunders, community organizer for ROC-Michigan presents at a press conference at Colors restaurant in downtown Detroit on Wednesday, Oct. 22.
Brenna Houck

Metro Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the country according to census statistics, and the divisions regularly result in racially charged incidents. So it should come as no surprise to Detroiters that inequality also plays a role in the area's restaurant industry, where people of color are far less likely to land higher-paying, front-of-the-house jobs.

Take a look inside the kitchens of any number of restaurants throughout the region and you're more likely to find whites handling the serving, bartending, and management duties, while blacks, Latinos and other minority groups are in the back of the house, cleaning out dirty dishes, busing tables or working as line cooks, away from the public's eye. So says the report The Great Service Divide: Occupational Segregation & Inequality in the U.S. Restaurant Industry released Wednesday by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), a national organization that advocates for improved wages and working conditions for food service workers. The findings from the 43-page study that focused on issues of inequality in three metro areas—Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago—were presented at a press event at Colors restaurant on Wednesday morning.

Researchers hired by ROC United collected data from "matched pair" audits of 88 fine dining restaurants in the metro region—many of which were located in the suburbs—as well as focus groups, informal surveys, and interviews. Among the study's many findings, ROC uncovered that workers of color experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of white restaurant workers.

Testers of color were only 75 percent as likely as white testers to receive a job offer, and were less likely to receive a job interview in the first place.

Matched pair teams made up of one white individual and one person of color were instructed to apply for the same front-of-house position on the same day. In some cases, the resumes of minority applicants were even improved to make them an ideal candidate. Overall, the Detroit audit found that testers of color were only 75 percent as likely as white testers to receive a job offer, and were less likely to receive a job interview in the first place.

According to Dr. Alicia Farris, ROC-Michigan's state director, "In some cases [the minority applicants] were told that the opening had already been filled," while an hour later when the white applicant applied the position was suddenly open again.

The notion that whites occupy the best jobs in the restaurant business is nothing new. Litigation fighting for fair hiring and promoting practices has been filed against the likes of Restaurant Daniel in New York and McCormick & Schmick's in Chicago. Detroit's no stranger to these issues either. In 2011, ROC United successfully represented workers in a fair wage dispute against Dearborn's Andiamo restaurant.

Nevertheless, the findings are especially troublesome for living wage advocates like Farris, who say wages in Michigan's restaurant industry are deplorable. An hourly wages for a server here start at $3.10 an hour, plus tips. Though with few people of color receiving the best tipped positions, these wages rarely meet the needs of the worker. "There's no economic equity there-no economic security there," Farris says.

A panel of activists, industry workers, and restaurant owners offer their take on the issues facing Metro Detroit's workplace inequalities. Among them was Ben Hall, co-owner of Russell Street Deli. Reflecting on his business, Hall recalls that when he took over the Eastern Market eatery only one out of the business's 27 employees was black. He's since tried to make the restaurant better reflect the diversity of the city and provides benefits to his workers.

"The report is not meant to be a statement on individual employers, but an audit of conditions throughout the industry." However, Farris urged attendees to be "cognizant of who you see working in a restaurant" next time they dine. The obvious disparities, she said, might be alarming.

Eastern Market

2934 Russell St, Detroit, MI 48207 313-833-9300

Russell Street Deli

2465 Russell Street, , MI 48207 (313) 567-2900 Visit Website

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