An unusual new guide to downtown restaurants is being created, and it's raising some eyebrows. It's meant for connoisseurs -- not of good food, but of good employment conditions.
The "Just Dining" guide will inform customers and workers about downtown restaurant wages, hours and working conditions. The project is being carried out by the Workers' Rights Center and the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice. It's to be released online and as a free printed publication this fall.
"Probably the largest group of workers we see coming in with problems are restaurant workers," says Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers' Rights Center. "They make up probably around 28% of the people we see, year in and year out."
Reported problems citywide, he says, include not being paid for overtime, not being paid at least minimum wage, unpaid wages, discrimination, harassment and unsafe working conditions. That's the main impetus for the guide.
"The other thing that motivated us is that over the years we've always pointed out to our supporters and to the community at large the problem employers -- places where there are these violations," says Hickey. "But we'd always get questioned by folks saying, 'You've told us where we should avoid, what we shouldn't support. Where should we go?' And we've never really been in a position to say, 'Well, these restaurants are better.' It's just not information we've had."
That information is now being gathered, via street surveys of current and recent employees. The effort is underway and will continue through the summer, at community festivals and other gathering spots. Written documentation is also being sought, such as employee handbooks, personnel policies and paycheck stubs.
Rather than castigate restaurants that don't treat employees fairly, "we really want to be in a position where we lift up those places that are doing well, because there are a lot of business owners out there who go above and beyond what the legally required minimums are," says Hickey.
While the goal of such a project is laudable, some question its methodology and focus.
"If you want to reward good operators, I don't know if this is the way to do it," says Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. "To have a good business, you need good people working there, and to retain them you have to take care of them. If you don't, your product will suffer. It's kind of basic. It just is."
She also questions why the guide will look only at restaurants downtown, which for the purpose of the "Just Dining" project is defined as the area bounded by Randall Avenue to the west, the Yahara River to the east, Lake Mendota to the north and Regent Street to the south.
Schmitz argues that all restaurants across the city should be looked at, "especially when this city likes promoting -- and appropriately so -- locally owned businesses. About 85% of the businesses downtown are local. This doesn't make sense."
Mary Carbine, executive director of the Central Business Improvement District, agrees. "I am unclear why downtown restaurants are the focus of this effort, as I am unaware of any data suggesting that downtown restaurants have subpar working conditions or compensation," she says. "I am unclear why a primarily locally owned and independent business district is the focus of this effort."
According to Hickey, "The reason for focusing on downtown is just an issue of [the center's] capacity. Just in that area there are about 200 restaurants. For us as a small nonprofit it's a pretty big undertaking to be able to gather the information and make sure that we're thorough with it."
While Hickey believes that having employers review the final text will solve any problems with disgruntled, anonymous workers sharing incorrect information, Schmitz still has concerns: "All of us who've owned businesses before know that sometimes you get a disgruntled employee, and sometimes it just isn't a good match for them, so maybe they need to move on."
Current or recent restaurant employees who would like to take part in the "Just Dining" project can contact the Workers' Rights Center at 608-255-0376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.