The American Way of Eating
The truth about money and class at Applebee’s.
In a particularly sadistic (if lucrative) affront to restaurant workers everywhere, the calendar has placed President’s Day on the day after Valentine’s Day, which fell the day after Saturday. Three straight days of whirling plates, high-strung servers and endless fry grease. So while school children and office workers luxuriate in their day off, I head back to the kitchen on Monday.
By the time I finish my stint at Applebee’s, I’ll have learned how to spot the other members of my tribe on the subway: heavy-lidded eyes, blank stares, black pants bespecked with grease, hard-soled black shoes. I see them frequently on my commute, a scrappy crew of warriors heading to battle so that the rest of the city can eat. As a new inhabitant of the Applebee’s kitchen, I can verify that my fellow workers live up to restaurant kitchens’ reputation for being a haphazard melting pot. Luis, a runner, just came to the states from rural Oaxaca few months ago; the dishwasher Amadou used to run several businesses in his native Senegal; Tony was a musical theater devotee in high school in Puerto Rico; Hector ran an event production company with his wife before falling on hard times; Eric is paying tuition at a local college.
I’m the only white in the kitchen, one of a handful of non-immigrants, and the only woman putting in regular hours with the line. Although about 38 percent of restaurant jobs are in the back of the house, whites are relatively unlikely to work there, with 17 percent of white restaurant workers in those positions; I notice that of the five white people on our staff of several dozen, two are managers. Women seem to do okay here; there aren’t any consistent female managers in our store but a few come in from corporate now and then. The balance of management is black and Latino, though, which is noteworthy given how rare it can be elsewhere in the restaurant industry. In 2007, famed New York chef Daniel Boulud settled with Mexican workers who filed a federal discrimination case against him; a buser from Mexico claimed to have trained four different French bus boys and watched each get promoted ahead of him.
But even if I move up the ladder, from expo to line, it doesn’t guarantee much improvement when it comes to wages. When Freddie hired me, he told me I’d make $8 an hour for training and $9 an hour after that, putting me on the lower end of kitchen workers, whose median wages range from $8.69 for prep and $10.09 for cooks. Geoff, who cooks the burgers on mid, and Calixto, who does steaks and sides on broil, tell me they earn around $12 an hour, which sounds like a lot until I calculate what it means in annual salary: $24,000.
The wages I hear about at Applebee’s are fairly consistent, starting around $8 and going up into the low teens, and are always well within the law, but this belies its status as a corporation more than it exposes any norms within restaurants. While Applebee’s is the biggest “casual dining” operator in the country, the 1,868 American restaurants bearing its name in 2009 represented less than one percent of America’s full-service eateries, the majority of which are independently owned or members of small restaurant corporations running a few boutique eateries. As in agriculture, enforcing labor laws among a vast, decentralized army of employers is difficult, making it easier for employers to skimp on pay.
At Applebee’s, I never encounter the systematic wage theft I saw in the fields, but adherence to wage and hour laws seems to be as contingent on my currying personal favor with management as anything else. I was so intent on getting to work on Valentine’s Day, for instance, that I forgot to clock in and out, despite spending 12 hours at work; a manager assures me he’ll take care of it, but the hours don’t appear on my check until I cajole Freddie—a different manager—into doing so a couple weeks later. A training I’m called in for never shows up on my checks, either. The management doesn’t hand out paystubs unless we ask, and so it takes a couple paychecks before I know that I’m being paid $8 an hour instead of the $9 Freddy had lured me here with; he promises to take care of the problem, but never does. In the wonky terms of social science, this is a “partial nonpayment,” or, optimistically, “a backlog.” Either way, there’s another word that researchers who examined New York City’s restaurant industry in 2007 would likely use to describe it that I find even more disheartening: common.
From The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Copyright © 2012 by Tracie McMillan. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.
Tracie McMillan, a freelance journalist whose work centers on food and class, is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her first book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, was published in February 2012. Learn more on her website.