As pervasive as the pandemic may be, it is not the only fraught challenge facing restaurants. In June, the deep-seated issue of systemic racism returned to the public forefront, briefly eclipsing even the coronavirus. Though the subsequent protests have since simmered, the movement toward inclusion and diversity has moved beyond the legal system and into all facets of society—including foodservice.
The restaurant industry may boast one of the most diverse workforces in the country, but it can only make such a claim at the ground level, not in the upper echelons of leadership. Most recently this disconnect was highlighted not by a restaurant but rather by an institutional giant within the fine-dining arena.
In mid-July, an anonymous group of James Beard Foundation (JBF) employees sent a letter to the senior leadership demanding both internal and external changes. A copy was shared with Eater, which broke the story last Friday. The letter writers described themselves as long-time employees who have remained dedicated to JBF “despite pay disparity, inadequate benefits, long hours, and challenging working conditions.”
This controversy comes on the heels of other, similarly charged news related to racial inequity—from restaurants like Fat Rice declaring themselves champions of social justice only to have past employees paint a very different picture to seemingly progressive institutes like Southern Foodways Alliance coming under fire for not stamping out inequity within its organization despite championing such causes in its rhetoric.
Racial disparity, specifically relating to Black Americans, has been at the forefront of many groups advocating for change, and the JBF employees also included appeals related to members of the LGBQT community. Overall the letter calls on leadership “to take immediate, measurable actions to address the systemic racism, inequity, and discrimination that continues to affect our Foundation.” It also lays out five wide-reaching changes to move the organization forward.
1. Diversify senior leadership team
Though specific numbers were not given in terms of diversity within the existing board nor a benchmark to meet, the letter called for an increase in the number of Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBQT individuals at the highest levels of JBF leadership.
2. Diversify board of trustees
As with the senior leadership, the group also called for greater diversity within the board of trustees, though this second point came with a more tangible direction. The letter stated that board members whose terms are expiring should step down; two BIPOC people should be added by year-end; and three more BIPOC board members should be elected by the end of 2021. The letter writers also said the board of trustees should establish an equity statement to guide it in the future and those who cannot agree to the provision should resign.
3. Incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion
Of the five key demands, the third is the only one to specifically address JBF’s external operations and how they affect the greater industry. In recent years, the nonprofit has come under fire for its award winners skewing largely white and male. JBF has taken some steps toward inclusivity on this front. In 2018 it waived the $150 submission fee for first-time award entrants as a means to broaden the applicant pool, and along the way it’s worked to diversify the judging committee, too.
These efforts have been lauded by many in the industry as a resounding success. In 2018, 11 women and/or BIPOC took home awards; last year 12 did the same, prompting The Washington Post to declare that the 2018 results “were no fluke. … Inclusivity would appear to be the new normal for the James Beard Awards.”
The letter from JBF employees voices a sentiment shared by many in the foodservice world: Although these measures are a step in the right direction, minority chefs and restaurateurs still face a disproportionate number of barriers. For example, chefs who are invited to cook at the Beard House must pay for their travel, lodging, and food and beverage to be served at the house. They’re also responsible for finding an on-site kitchen to prepare the food and partially staffing the kitchen for the operation. JBF does offer these chefs a stipend, but as the letter pointed out, the amount doesn’t always cover these expenses, forcing many chefs to fundraise on their own behalf.
The letter writers argue that all events and initiatives “support and demand equity within the food and beverage community.” They also called for the Beard House to add two BIPOC members to its programming committee once the restaurant reopens.
4. Full salary transparency
In addition to seeing more BIPOC and LBQT individuals in senior leadership positions and on the board, the employees wanted the foundation to be more forthcoming and equitable in terms of salaries and bonuses. They made a case for salaries to be transparent and for all employees to earn a minimum of $50,000 annually. The letter also pointed to the wide bonus discrepancies between upper leadership and other staff members; it countered that bonuses should be equally apportioned “to reflect an equitable, modern nonprofit pay structure which recognizes all labor as valuable.”
5. Hire a culture-focused HR representative
In their final appeal, the group called for a human resources representative whose role would revolve around company culture rather than benefits. This individual would field complaints made against managers, directors, and leaders within the JBF office, as well as the Beard House. Those facing charges of harassment and/or creating a hostile work environment would be put on administrative leave until the matter could be fully reviewed. The HR representative would also be responsible for bringing the employee back into the fold, if appropriate.
When asked for comment, CEO Clare Reichenbach told Eater that JBF was working with outside consultants to remove inequity within the foundation and be a positive force toward a more equitable industry overall. She also said that JBF was in the process of hiring a senior director of people and culture, whose responsibilities would include salary reviews that compare current employee pay to industry standards.