Making the Grade: Your Local Restaurant’s Labor Practices

| July 29, 2011 6:00 AM

If you see this sticker in the window, it guarantees that a restaurant maintains a fair and healthy work environment for employees. Photo courtesy of Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York

Since the city began stamping every restaurant in New York with a letter grade based on routine health inspections of cleanliness and food safety, many restaurant-goers say the letter grades posted in the windows influence where they eat — so many restaurant owners have cleaned up their act.

But did you ever come across this sign? The gray, turquoise and yellow circle to the right?

That new symbol notes a different kind of grade. It marks an establishment as a High Road restaurant, recognized for maintaining a fair and healthy working environment.

While many people make a point of shopping for local, sustainable or so-called fair trade foods, until now it’s been hard to know the working conditions of those who cook our food and serve it to us.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), a workers’ advocacy organization, has come up with a way to change that. They collaborated with restaurant owners, workers and city agencies to develop a system that grades establishments based on their working conditions.

Restaurants that sign the organization’s “Best Practices agreement” must comply with city, state and federal wage, overtime, health and safety laws and must guarantee certain considerations for the health and well -being of their employees.  Restaurants that do so earn the right to advertise themselves as High Road restaurants.

Former workers from Windows on the Word established the restaurant COLORS, which has been recognized as a High Road restaurant for its fair labor practices. AP/Bebeto Matthews

Many of the High Road restaurants pay employees 25 percent higher than New York State’s non-tipped minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for food service workers; offer affordable health insurance plans; provide paid sick leave and have opportunities for career mobility and advancement.

All of Danny Meyers’ restaurants in the Union Square Hospitality Group, which include popular spots like Shake ShakeUnion Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, made the grade. Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Good, Cowgirl and Craft’s Restaurant Group, which owns Craft, and Colicchio & Sons, did too.

Emily Sanders of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York said that the city’s customers are a conscientious bunch. “New Yorkers are concerned about sustainability,” she explained, “They are looking for where their food came from or if the restaurant is recycling.” But she said that until now, patrons had no way to really ascertain which restaurants were doing right by their employees.   Now, she said, they’ll know where to go.

People who want to be proactive about patronizing High Road restaurants can consult the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s latest NYC Diner’s Guide, which highlights 26 restaurants and bars that have signed onto a “Best Practices Agreement.”


  • bob

    Really interesting piece. I’m glad that there is a rating sevice promoting better restaurant working conditions. Too many establishments provide horrible work environments. Thanks Metro Focus.

  • harrison

    Great (and timely) piece! The ROC and COLORS arose from the tragic loss of restaurant workers at Windows on the World during Sept 11th, 2001. It’s inspiring to see what their almost 10 years of organizing has accomplished :)

  • Kathryn

    Thanks for bringing this issue to the fore! NYC restaurant-goers will want to patronize HighRoad establishments – spread the word!

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