Saru Jayaraman to open New Orleans restaurant, help workers move up _lowres

Photo by Sekou Luke - Saru Jayaraman is an author, leader of the food labor movement and director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

The appetite for insight into the restaurant world seems bottomless, with chef profiles, competitive kitchen dramas and food fantasy travel shows all served up daily.

But Saru Jayaraman has long been shining a light on a different aspect of the industry: how restaurants treat their workers.

She’s director and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a New York-based organization with a chapter in New Orleans. She’s a leader in the steadily growing food labor movement, one who challenges the idea that the low wages, tenuous benefits and high turnover endemic to some parts of the restaurant industry are simply a fact of life.

“Having one of the largest industries creating the absolute lowest paying jobs holds everything back,” Jayaraman said in an interview last week. “It’s absolutely not inherent, not necessary or effective and it’s not the only way of doing business.”

She’s bringing that message to New Orleans in more ways than one, with a visit next week to discuss her ideas and a new restaurant under development to help workers move up.

The impact of business-as-usual for employees and the possibilities of what Jayaraman calls the “high road” alternative for restaurant operators is the subject of her latest book “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining.”

On Monday, she’ll address these issues during a talk at Tulane University, and on Wednesday, she’ll appear at Octavia Books (see details below).

She’ll likely be making more visits soon, as plans for her group’s own New Orleans restaurant take shape. It’s an expansion of a restaurant concept called Colors that the organization runs in New York and Detroit. These are pitched as “socially conscious restaurants,” with higher hourly pay for tipped workers, health care and a commitment to promote from within.

Like its predecessors, the New Orleans version of Colors will be full-service with a gluten-free menu, and it will double as a training program for restaurant workers seeking new skills. For instance, workers who might now find only offers for lower-rung restaurant jobs could get experience and training for fine-dining wait staff, bartending or management positions.

“It will be a school, hopefully training hundreds of workers to move up to higher paying jobs in the industry,” Jayaraman said.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United got its start in New York in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, specifically to support surviving employees of the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.

It has grown into a workplace justice advocate for food service workers nationwide, and it’s known for some high-profile lawsuits against restaurants and demonstrations at their doorsteps.

More recently, its work has focused on policies and labor laws in food service, and Jayaraman has particularly taken aim at the lobbying power of the National Restaurant Association on behalf of large companies.

She said restaurant workers in New Orleans approached the group after Hurricane Katrina seeking help and also suggesting that the organization start a Colors restaurant here. The local chapter formed in 2008, and it has been small, with never more than two staffers at any time, she said.

But now the organization overall is growing. It has new Colors restaurants planned for Oakland, California, and Washington, D.C. as well.

In New Orleans, Jayaraman said her group is now looking for a location and beginning fundraising. She expects Colors to open here before the end of the year.

“Really, the mission for Colors is to use this restaurant as a path of change for workers, to create the ladder for them to climb in an industry that doesn’t have a structured career path,” she said.

On Monday (March 14), Saru Jayaraman will speak at Tulane University at Richardson Hall, as part of the school’s NewDay Speaker Series, from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Get details here.

On Wednesday (March 16) she will discuss and sign her book at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St., beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.