The restaurant putting workers in charge – and inequality on the chopping block

A rotating menu of Filipino, marroquí, and Mexican cuisine underpins an ambition to uplift the food industry labor structure

A Understory, a new restaurant in Oakland, diners can sample Kare Kare empanadas stuffed with peanut braised beef stew and Kefta sliders made with spiced lamb, all while sipping on a passion fruit margarita.

But alongside its rotating menu of Filipino, marroquí, and Mexican cuisine, Understory is also hoping to serve up a side of change.

As a worker-led collaborative, all decisions – including pay, benefits, and policies – are made by staff, while pop-up menus will allow refugee and immigrant chefs to hone their skills and test out menu ideas.

The restaurant opened its doors last weekend in the California city’s historic downtown district, and follows in a tradition of well known worker-owned Bay Area collectives such as the Cheese Board, which opened in Berkeley in 1971. Understory is hoping to go a step further by addressing the restaurant industry’s long standing inequities, in a region with one of the widest earning-gaps between white restaurant workers and workers of color.

The eatery is the latest embodiment of the Bay Area nonprofit Oakland Bloom’s vision to build equity and opportunity through food. The project also comes at a critical moment for an industry that has been devastated by Covid, and offers a vision for how it can rebuild.

“We see Understory as a way to create and uplift the labor structure that we want to see,” says Diana Wu, a member of Oakland Bloom’s board of directors who helped bring Understory to life. “I think it is an ambitious goal, given that the food industry operates on such small margins,” she adds, “but we also know [the industry] is built on so many problematic labor practices and sourcing practices – so we are trying to have an intentional intervention there.”

Named for the diverse ecosystem that blooms underneath rainforest canopies, Understory’s organizers have set out to create a space for workers, chefs, and members of the local community to grow and thrive. Wu says the name also evokes the unseen layers of work and sourcing that go into restaurants and highlights their intent to be a platform for sharing those stories.

Its vibrant jungle-themed décor and brightly colored walls are intended to accent food that “evokes the comfort and nostalgia of a home kitchen and inspires the excitement of a fresh, hot snack from a street market”, the restaurant’s website says.

Along with a rotating menu, the restaurant, bar and commissary kitchen offers a pop-up menu each Sunday from a different chef through Oakland Bloom’s incubator program.

The restaurant’s grand opening on Saturday “felt like a community coming together” says Wu, with groups of local organizers mixing with neighbors. A digital artist enticed visitors as they waited for to-go orders, and local jewelry and pottery makers displayed their wares outside. Donated p lants added the final bit of ambiance that brought the space to life. By the end of the day, hundreds of people had come by.

“It has been amazing to see it come into fruition and also see how it is reflective of the people doing the work,” Wu said. The team members all have dual backgrounds in both food and community organizing she says, and have jointly developed the vision for what Understory has become.

That vision has been in the works for a while. But it didn’t come to life until Oakland Bloom, launched as a nonprofit collective in 2015, was given part ownership of the 2,000 sq ft space that Understory now calls home.

The pandemic, which has devastated the restaurant industry, provided an urgent backdrop.

“People are energized to see new models emerging in this moment when there’s so much hardship and so much loss,” says Lily Fahsi-Haskell, a chef and worker-leader at the restaurant. “The pandemic has further exposed all the injustices that we have been seeing more widely in society, especially within the food systems.”

The restaurant industry has seen roughly 2.37m jobs disappear over the last year, according to reports from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thousands of restaurants closed in California during the crisis and a survey from the California Restaurant Association found roughly 30% may never reopen.

Low-paid restaurant workers – who are disproportionately women and people of color – have borne the brunt of the shutdown, y también seen the slowest gains as the economy begins to recover.

Even before 2020, many of these workers were struggling to make ends meet. Solo 22% of restaurant workers earned a living wage before the pandemic hit, de acuerdo a una 2019 report from Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a worker advocacy organization, which also found that roughly 72% of those staffing California restaurants are workers of color.

The report also shows the Bay Area – despite its progressive politics – has a long history of racial segregation in its restaurants, concentrating workers of color in less visible, lower-wage positions.

“There’s now an opportunity to rebuild,” Fahsi-Haskell says. “This moment, it has given us opportunities to pivot and reshape things in a way that’s more just and equitable for communities, in particular communities of color and immigrant and migrant communities.”

The restaurant has also brought together chefs who are learning from one another. “We are all cooking from our roots,” Fahsi-Haskell says. “And we are all cooking each other’s food.”

“We are offering people that comfort as well as something that may be less familiar to them,” she adds. “That’s a way of bridging solidarity between our communities and starting a conversation.”

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