A FOH army demands a better industry to come back to
Since the Food Network launched in 1993 its focus has been on chefs. Over time, the spotlight served to expose a lot of the hardships and horrors of restaurant life, not that that changed anything, rather, it just braided inequity and harassment into the whole chef mythology. #MeToo pulled back the curtain on ever darker aspects of the restaurant business, but, much like in the rest of society, real lasting change has not exactly been sweeping.
A similar celebrification of servers has not happened. And maybe that is the reason that now, in the year where everything has gone to shit, the front of house (FOH) are the ones who have become the most vocal activists for change. Without the insanity of service, free and clear of the weeds for months on end, and with no media banging down their doors for interviews, the FOH got to work. An army of former servers, using unemployment as a catalyst, is taking the restaurant industry to task.
Over the course of her career, Kaitlin Doucette has risen through the FOH ranks, going from busser to server to manager to wine buyer. In the spring of 2020, she was laid-off and locked-down, stuck in her apartment in Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montreal. Unemployed and scrolling aimlessly— “I thought my life was over”—when she came across an article on Grubsteet about the crisis relief fund for restaurant workers in the States. “I wrote to them and asked how they did it,” Doucette tells me over Zoom. “The next day I posted on IG saying, ‘I want to help restaurant workers, who’s in?’ And it took off from there.”
Ms. Doucette has been working in restaurants almost her entire life. Her mother immigrated from Poland in the mid-’60s and opened Café Pot-Au-Feu in Wakefield, Quebec. “I started as soon as I could hold a plate. I know what restaurant ownership looks like, my mom is on the line, cooking six days a week.” Which is another way of saying that she didn’t come into this business with stars in her eyes. “We were very firmly embedded in the working class.”
It’s that background that makes her an ideal advocate for one of the largest and most underserved groups of workers on the planet. She started with the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund (MRWRF). “It’s a mutual aid organization, and because it’s non-controversial, folks can see that it’s a good thing, without thinking of the implications of why we have to do mutual aid.”
She understands the issues facing the restaurant industry are complicated and won’t be fixed in a day, but while unemployed she’s been working non-stop with an aim to have a better industry to come back to. “What did I do with my eight months off? I helped a thousand workers. I feel pretty good about that.”
Through crowdfunding, she was able to distribute almost $200k to out of work restaurant folks in need. She could have left it at that, but Doucette knew there was more to be done.
The majority of restaurant workers face some kind of marginalization. For starters, just being in this particular workforce means employees are often living below the poverty line. The huge numbers of women and BIPOC employed in this sector, as well as the substance abuse and mental health issues created by the relentless grind of the job, only serve to magnify this undervaluation. “Few folks realize how inequitable this work can be. It’s a heavily unregulated sector,” says Doucette.
Around the same time that Doucette was mustering forces in Montreal, other FOH across the country were doing the same: Ariane Persaud, creator of the #changehospitality hashtag, started the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund. Ariel Coplan and Hassel Aviles’ Not 9 to 5 and Glenda Ann Robertson’s Kitchens4Missions
“I had thought for years about how little awareness there was around legal rights concerning wages, harassment, etc. in the industry,” says Bailey. “When the pandemic hit, I knew this needed to happen now.” She started the Full Plate to feed out-of-work restaurant staff and address mental health issues. “I do think it says something about the industry that all these organizations popped up independent of each other during the pandemic. And the fact that they’re all run by women, and FOH, that’s something to think about.”
Doucette and Bailey began talking this past summer. By October the two had created the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition (CRWC). “As hokey as it sounds, this is about unifying the industry and showing a progressive way forward for owners and workers together,” explains Doucette. “Because workers’ movements throughout history are so leftist, a lot of people see ‘workers coalition’ and they’re like, ‘you crazy Marxist, get out of here!’ Which is not at all what we’re about.”
“There are over two million restaurant workers in Canada who’ve been left by the wayside,” adds Bailey. “People see this as an in-between job until you figure out your life. That isn’t the case, but it makes people resistant to the fact that we deserve fair wages. This is Canada’s fourth-largest employment sector. One in twelve Canadians work in this industry. This is a career and it deserves respect and basic protections.”
On December 18th the CRWC launched a petition asking the government for three things on behalf of Canadian restaurant workers:
- Permanently adapt the rules of EI to include precarious workers.
- Define and enforce fair work hours and wages.
- Adequate health protections for restaurant workers.
Back when Doucette was a teenager in Wakefield, she rebelled against the family business. “At eighteen I was this jaded old granny.” She turned her back on restaurant life and moved to Montreal for university, planning to become a journalist. She began interning at the CBC. “I absolutely fucking hated it.”
Grumman’s 78 had just opened, making a huge splash in the Montreal scene. Doucette applied to work in their food truck, selling tacos. That was over a decade ago. She’s worked at Vin Papillon and Olive + Gourmando since. During her career, she noticed a few things.
“I’m a queer woman, but I’m also white, able-bodied and straight passing. If (the work) is this tough for me, it must be infinitely harder for my peers.” That realization woke up her political side, but she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it until 2020 forced her into unemployment. “The fear is very real when speaking up about anything, but being untethered from restaurants has allowed me to speak my mind,” Doucette explains, noting that not working a sixty-hour week helps too.
“These more concerted, worker-led movements are happening now because when you’re able to pause you can really see the issues. If you’re in service, if you’re in the juice, you don’t have the capacity to help yourself, let alone others.”
Bailey took some time away from restaurants to do campaign work for the NDP in 2019. She experienced a similar awakening. “The pandemic just exposed what any server, hostess or cook already knows. We’ve always known these things exist,” she says. “Because of the transient nature of the business people didn’t know we could mobilize like this. I hope that more people join our fight for decent wages and protections; stuff that is basic to any other industry.”
“We are not an owner-exclusive organization,” adds Doucette. “We’re hoping to align with the people that power this industry, and figure out a better future together.”
The forced unemployment that swept through 2020 has had devastating, and dynamic, effects on huge swaths of the population. For so many, work has been put on pause. For restaurant workers, this pause could forever change the work.
The CRWC petition currently has almost 18k signatures. You don’t have to be a Marxist to add yours.