Let’s do fast casual right


Termed “fast-casual” restaurants, eateries like Chipotle has given rise to the popularity of high-end fast food. (Photo by Bethany Krupicka | Staff Photographer)

By Will Schulman | For The Pitt News

Students at Penn State one morning in 2014 were shocked to find the Chipotle in State College, Pennsylvania, closed. On the door a sign read: “Ask our corporate offices why their employees are forced to work in borderline sweatshop conditions,” followed up with “People > Profits.”

Constant pressure to meet budget and time management demands led employees to shut down the restaurant’s Penn State location in September 2014. Brian Healy — one of the managers involved in the closing — told Onward State, a Penn State student publication, that the Chipotle was constantly understaffed and employees were forced to work 10- to 12-hour shifts without breaks.

The Chipotle location reopened later the same day with new management. But even though they had new staff, the same fundamental problem remained — the restaurant’s basic labor structure.

Poor treatment of workers in fast food restaurants shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but Chipotle is different from just any fast food joint, such as McDonald’s or Burger King. Chipotle is at the forefront of a new trend in the restaurant industry. Termed “fast-casual” restaurants, eateries like Chipotle, Shake Shack and Panera Bread have given rise to the popularity of higher-quality fast food.

Elevating the integrity of the food we eat deserves praise, but we shouldn’t compromise working conditions in the process. Working in fast-casual restaurants is difficult and stressful — it’s immoral and unethical to continue to push workers past their limit every shift. Employees are essential to this highly profitable industry and their hard work should be rewarded with adequate wages, opportunities to learn valuable skills and chances to showcase their own creativity.

Americans have become more and more concerned with where their food comes from and what’s in it. Our country is largely abandoning greasy, processed food that contains ingredients we can’t pronounce and replacing it with healthier options made from locally sourced ingredients.

We’ve elevated our palates as well. How many college students even knew what pad thai or quinoa was 20 years ago? Few, if any.

This revolution in our conception of food has created a demand for quick and affordable high-quality food options. Companies have realized that standardized and choreographed cooking processes can slash labor costs dramatically. Experienced line cooks making over $15 an hour can be replaced with an assembly line of minimum wage workers. Everything is optimized for efficiency — workers find themselves completing the same simple task over and over again. Downtime and creativity are things of the past.

Chipotle has a position known as the linebacker — an employee whose sole responsibility is to refill food containers so that line workers only concern themselves with one task. In this sector of the food industry, monotony replaces variability in a worker’s job.

I experienced this myself when I worked for Shake Shack from May to November 2015. It involved working seven-hour shift after seven-hour shift of the same thing over and over again. Even worse, I learned few to no transferable skills. Walk into most fast-casual restaurants, and you’re likely to see the same thing — an assembly line with workers doing the same task again and again.

Whether or not laborers know this kind of work is in store for them when they apply for the job, the movement toward minimum wage workers on an assembly line doesn’t have to be the norm. We’ve already seen progressive fast food chains like In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys offer higher wages and more generous benefits than their competitors. Fast-casual restaurants can and should provide a better work environment for their employees.

Clover, a vegetarian startup that began as a food truck in my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers a more progressive approach to fast-casual employment. Employees are provided free cooking classes, offered advancement through a plethora of kitchen and community outreach positions and encouraged to create recipes and make menu decisions. While this level of employee control might not be entirely feasible at a large chain like Chipotle, it nevertheless makes for a better work environment.

Another startup restaurant, Honeygrow, started in Philadelphia serving innovative salads, stir-fries and “honey bowls” and recently opened up a new location in Pittsburgh on Highland Avenue in East Liberty. Much of what they do embodies this employee-conscious ethos, according to Jen Denis, chief brand officer at Honeygrow.

“Honeygrow employees are trained in all modern culinary practices as everything is prepped and made from scratch in house. ” Denis said in a phone interview.

The restaurant’s ever-changing menu provides opportunities for employees to learn about new cooking techniques, new ingredients and the local farms where their ingredients are sourced.

“We encourage employees to become certified in all kitchen positions, eventually becoming cross-trained [and] certified.” Denis said.

She added that not only does this certification come with a pay raise, anyone with this certification could easily get a job in an upscale kitchen.

Clover and Honeygrow have both expanded rapidly since their foundings. Honeygrow opened its first location in 2012 and now has 20 locations in nine different states. Clover began as a food truck in 2008 and now operates 13 brick and mortar locations in the Boston area.

Both of these restaurants demonstrate that affordable, fast-casual dining can thrive when employees are given adequate wages and opportunities to grow. Fast-casual restaurants should aspire to this model: to treat their workers like humans beings, not just cogs in a machine.

Write to Will at [email protected].

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