It’s no secret that workers—particularly low-wage ones—are undervalued in almost every industry. Food service, though, is notoriously killer. Kitchens are often staffed with immigrants and people of color working long hours for very little compensation. (The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has stayed stagnant at $2.13 since 1991.) That may help explain why over one million workers fled the restaurant industry during the pandemic. However, in 2022, California saw more than a few eateries become worker-owned or develop a worker-first mentality, and at a time when labor unions are one of our best hopes for vitality, the shift is exciting.
While culinary trends come and go, equity is a development we want to see stick around.
Bette’s Oceanview Diner, a cozy ’50s-style eatery on Berkeley’s Fourth Street, was set to permanently close in January 2022. It was the restaurant’s workers and staff who quickly sought out a way to keep it going. What is now simply called the Oceanview Diner opened back up in March of this year with financial support from the landlord and his partner and under the direction of its workers, who are busy serving up the same menu, including the diner’s iconic and delightfully fluffy soufflé pancakes.
Oceanview is not the only restaurant to undergo such a shift this year. Other California outlets are making similar transitions or opening for the first time to join a rich tradition of culinary collectives in the Bay Area in particular. Genwa Korean BBQ in L.A. (previously the subject of a labor-violation fine) did not sell to its workers, but its staff did succeed in unionizing. Collective action has allowed them to raise their wages to $20 an hour and secure bargaining power around issues like healthcare and retirement. Good Good Culture Club, which has been serving up a wide variety of regional and cultural flavors since it opened in San Francisco this January, is departing from the traditional restaurant hierarchy, revolutionizing the hiring process (by not accepting résumés), and reducing its opening hours to prioritize the lives of its workers. Understory Oakland (Filipino, Mexican, Moroccan, and Lao food) opened in 2021 and has continued to flourish under a worker-led model this year, so much so that it won the James Beard Foundation’s 2022 Emerging Leadership Award. Worker-led businesses offer a way to redistribute wealth and allocate money toward what workers are able to recognize as one another’s living needs, and worker-collaborative businesses are making it possible for restaurants to make decisions that are actually good for employees. In both case scenarios, employees are able to thrive, and customers benefit from a more committed and supported staff.
California kitchen crews are leading this charge for change, and between chopsticks full of sizzling meat and gorgeous vegan fusion dishes, we’ll be there to support them with every bite.
One More Thing: The great bagel battle
In 2022, California continued to win the Bagel War with New York, a.k.a. the Battle of the Bulge. Boichik Bagels, an East Bay shop, was crowned the maker of the best bagels in all of America in 2021 by a small, regional paper called the New York Times and expanded into Palo Alto this year. Courage Bagels kept fans of its sandwiches, including celebrities, lining up on Los Angeles’s Eastside. (Courage’s retro-logoed hats and sweatshirts are covetable streetwear as well.) Next year, California’s gonna claim Best Pizza and really cheese off the East Coast.•