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Madland: Just Dining restaurant guide returns to help steer Madison diners to better workplaces

Many more restaurants participated for the second edition of the Just Dining guide.
Credit:Catherine Capellaro
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We all want our food to be delicious, but many of us also want conditions to be fair -- for the people who grow, cook and serve it.

Madison diners concerned with the working conditions of restaurant workers as well as the quality of food might want to try Restaurant Muramoto for high-end sushi or Ian's Pizza for a slice.

In addition to being yummy (although I'm skipping Ian's mac and cheese pizza), those two restaurants scored the highest marks in Just Dining: A Guide to Restaurant Employment Standards in Downtown Madison, a project of the Workers' Rights Center and the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin.

The two organizations released the second edition of the guide yesterday at the Central Library. Just Diningfocuses on downtown establishments because of the legwork involved in collecting information, and due to the concentration of 182 restaurants and coffee shops along the isthmus.

When the inaugural edition was released, officials from Downtown Madison Inc. questioned whether the guide was helpful, given that many downtown restaurants are locally owned. But according to the folks who produce the guide, consumers and workers have a right to know how employers fare on some common measures. And some small businesses -- including coffee shops -- are doing a stellar job compared to their peers.

What's different from last year's guide? According to Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers' Rights Center, many more restaurants participated this year. So the guide provides a more complete picture of what it's like to work in downtown restaurants. And Hickey says some businesses, including the Food Fight restaurants, are doing a better job.

The guide scores restaurants on their starting hourly wage, health insurance, sick day pay, time off with pay, written records, and retirement savings options. It's a simple premise. They either get a star, a question mark, or a "NO." Out of seven stars, Ian's Pizza on Frances, Muramoto, and UW-Madison food services (for "classified employees," not students) scored home runs. Other standouts: Starbucks (on State Street and the Square), Ancora Coffee, Amy's Café & Bar, State Street Brats, the Shamrock Bar, Argus Bar Grille, and Tornado Steak House.

According to speakers at a press conference for the guide's release, workers in the fast food industry often get the shaft.

Deandrea Hardman, a manager at Taco Bell on East Washington (which falls outside the geographical constraints of Just Dining), says fast food workers are continually "screwed over" by the large corporations that increase bottom lines at the expense of workers. She is taking a risk by speaking out about working conditions at Taco Bell. Hardman says she has trouble paying rent with her $10 per hour salary, and worries about the people who work under her for even less. That's why she took a chance and walked out on strike last week, along with hundreds of fast food workers around the country.

The guide has also been published in Spanish as well as English this year, which will help serve immigrants, who often get "raw deals," according to Rabbi Renee Bauer, director of the Interfaith Coalition.

By the end of December, the guide will also be available as an iPhone app, for people who use smart phones to help make their dining choices.

The two organizations that put Just Dining together hope that restaurant patrons will congratulate restaurants that treat their workers well, and let them know that working conditions matter to them.

"It's important to recognize that many employers aren't just trying to do the minimum and increase their bottom line," says Bauer. "We need to keep reinforcing that."

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