Reflecting on a Lecture by New Day Speaker, Saru Jayarama

Jayarama started off her presentation with a three-minute video that highlighted many of the problems with the restaurant industry. The clip was set to happy, up-beat music that was at odds with the ideas the video conveyed. It covered issues such as unlivable wages in the industry, the race divide between the front of house and the back of house, as well as the severe sexual harassment women in restaurants face every day. None of this really surprised me, which is sad because these are all very terrible problems that everyone encounters every time they go out to eat. People choose to ignore these issues because it is easier to enjoy your meal if you don’t have the weight of the problems of every person who had anything to do with producing what you are eating weighing down every forkful you put into your mouth.

Most of my information and knowledge of the industry comes from my sister, who worked at two different restaurants before she graduated college. The first place she worked was Chilli’s and the second was a small local chain of mid-priced restaurants. After a day’s work at either establishment, she would come home with stories about her day and the experiences of her co-workers that were often unbelievable. She stopped working at Chilli’s because she realized she was almost spending her entire paycheck on gas to get to and from work. She was paid so little, $2.13 an hour to be precise, and couldn’t make up her wage in tips because the majority of her work hours were graveyard shifts. Additionally, the most of her outrageous stories came from the more upscale of the two restaurants. I remember one day in particular when my sister came home practically in tears because of the way a customer treated her. To put this in perspective, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen my sister cry on one hand. This specific customer treated her so horribly, as if she weren’t human, but my sister had to put up with it because she needed the tips. All of these stories are coming from a student who was working part time to earn a little extra cash and could quit if the working conditions or pay did not justify the work itself. However, as Jayarama said, the majority of restaurant workers are women who have bills to pay and mouths to feed and who have no other option.

I had heard all of these stories from my sister, so when I watched Jayarama’s video I wasn’t surprised at all. The one part of the video, however, that did make me realize something I had never though of before, was the beginning that explained that all of the food in this restaurant that perpetuated a hellish existence for its employees, was locally sourced, organic and sustainably grown. Why do consumers care so much about where their food comes from and what affect the produce they are eating has on the local economy, but they don’t give a second thought to the poor living and working conditions of the people preparing that food? The tomatoes and chicken don’t have feelings or need to go home and feed their kids at night, but people seem to care more about the asparagus and fish in their mouths than the people cooking, preparing, serving and cleaning up after it. Jayarama’s talk defiantly served its purpose and gave me some food for thought.

Jayarama is only in New Orleans for a short time, but her work here isn’t done. She is opening her third restaurant with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), here in New Orleans. The restaurant, COLORS, will be the third of its kind, with predecessors in New York and Detroit. COLORS is part restaurant, part training-facility, part worker-owned cooperative incubator. The New Orleans location has many opportunities available, including volunteer work and internships. If you want to learn more about working with the organization, email If you want to lean more about Jayarama and the work she does, head to the website of her latest book here or read an amazing article The Advocate wrote about her here.

By Hunter Clark, Marketing Fellow