A seat at the table: Alia Todd and Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce

Alia Todd (right) at a meeting of the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce. Photo by Pat Barcas

Alia Todd has watched Asheville’s food culture grow into one of the biggest draws to the area. But while that growth meant economic prosperity for some, Todd says it often came at the cost of inequality, low pay and unfair working conditions for the approximately 11,600 restaurant employees in the city. So Todd and fellow worker Jessi Steelman, with support from Just Economics, began to form connections to identify issues and find ways to address them.

“As the city grows, local businesses open multiple locations and tourism expands, we felt that restaurant workers needed to be a part of that,” Todd explains. From that effort was born the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce, formed in May 2014, which seeks to unite employees, business owners and consumers around the concerns of restaurant workers in Asheville and WNC.

“When it comes to organizing, it’s about building relationships,” Todd says. “We want to figure out what’s important to restaurant workers in the area. We would like to ensure that everyone, including businesses, are equal in their practices and adhere to the law.”

ASRW currently claims over 350 members and has produced a video on restaurant worker rights. Much of the group’s energy is focused on clearing up state and federal laws pertaining to workers’ rights within the industry, including confusion surrounding the minimum wage of tipped employees and how wages are distributed among workers.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity around the law,” Todd notes. “We seek to first and foremost clear up those laws. That’s an easy way to get everyone on the same page.”

Todd adds that ASRW’s outreach is not exclusive to employees, and the group hopes to build alliances with businesses that are in compliance with the law. In fact, as ASRW closes in on its one-year anniversary in 2015, the group will shift its focus from building membership to expanding outreach to business owners and diners. “We live in a community that is interested in sustainability — where their food comes from, how it’s treated,” Todd notes. “People should be just as interested in who’s preparing and serving it.

“Traditionally, there has been a great divide between labor and business,” she adds. “We don’t think it has to be that way. Asheville could be a leader in making sure everyone has a seat at the table.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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8 thoughts on “A seat at the table: Alia Todd and Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce

  1. richard boucher

    Question for Ms. Todd: How many of the 11,600 restaurant workers in Asheville did you interview to arrive at your stated findings that
    these gainfully employed folks “often came at the cost of inequality, low pay and unfair working conditions”? And what methodology did you
    employ? All I can say is that the wait persons, bartenders, cooks, chefs, etc. that I interact with a couple of times a week are putting
    on an awfully good face. More credit to them! Understand that I am not meaning to be oppositional or take a position on restaurant workers
    world views and situations. However, I do become suspicious when I see generalizations such as yours as to how clusters of people feel about things without any supporting empirical evidence at all. And so you can see why someone might think these are your opinions, which may or may not be representative of what is going on. If you do have such, it would be very interesting to read. And maybe to hear from
    some of our local food establishment staff, who I think generally do a wonderful job.

  2. richard boucher

    Oh, yes. One more question, this for Mr. Hunt. Can you help me with a working definition of sustainable living or agriculture as it applies to Asheville restaurant workers? I would say that for me it means a lifestyle that attempts to efficiently utilize the earth’s natural and personal resources. Just trying to connect the dots.

    • Max Hunt

      Hi Richard!, as Ms. Todd said earlier, thank you for your thoughts and well thought-out questions. It’s great to see a dialogue around these issues, and readers taking an active interest in what’s being reported and discussed. I agree with you definition of sustainable living in regards to the general idea being it. In the case of ASRW (and Ms. Todd can speak to this more, obviously), I would say the idea of sustainable economic forces in our community are just as important to WNC’s vitality as environmental aspects of the issue. Tracking a large workforce industry (such as the restaurant/service industry) and addressing common issues for that workforce can only strengthen the local economy, which benefits us all in the long-run. By making sure that these workers feel heard and engaged in the regional economy, we are ultimately building a foundation beneath an important driving force of revenue in the city and surrounding area, that will only continue to grow in the near-future. This leads to a hppier workforce that is more engaged in the success of their industry, as well as lower turn-over rates, and a higher quality of service for all.

      Really, addressing these issues before they become divisive is in the best interests of all involved, in my opinion.

  3. Alia Todd

    Hello Richard, thank you for your thoughts. ASRW has conducted a widely distributed survey to gauge the concerns of restaurant workers in Asheville. You can see the survey on our website at ASRW.org. The top concerns included wage theft (the illegal withholding of wages or the denial of benefits that are rightfully owed to an employee), pay scale (average line cook in Asheville makes $10.40 per hour with no benefits) and employee illness (lack of paid sick days) ASRW also recently hosted a Restaurant Workers’ Rights workshop and the attendees (Asheville’s dishwashers, servers, line cooks) spoke of unfair and sometimes illegal working conditions. Workshop attendees also described Asheville’s growing economy as “one-sided, exclusive, and hospitality driven.” I am a long time restaurant worker and I have worked in some of Asheville’s most successful restaurants. I know the concerns of my fellow co-workers and feel very comfortable making these statements based on the experiences of many. The plight of the restaurant worker is also part of a national conversation with many groups discussing these issues. The restaurant industry is the second top industry for wage theft, and a recent Dept. of Labor study reports that 84% of restaurant workers have experienced some form of wage theft. 33% of NC waiters and waitresses live at or below the poverty line, and 82% of NC restaurant workers have no access to paid sick days. I believe that my descriptions are very representative of what’s going in NC and the country. There is no doubt that Asheville restaurant workers do a wonderful job and no doubt they happily working their jobs to earn money for their life and family. However, gainful employment does not mean that questions and concerns about work environments cannot and should not be raised and addressed. I hope I have answered some of your questions. Please feel free to email me at aliatodd@asrw.org if you would like more information. Thank you for your interest in the restaurant worker community, take care.

  4. Alia Todd

    I would also like to add that many of Asheville’s restaurants are compliant with local and federal law regarding wage and hour. Also, some workers are provided PTO (paid time off) and many restaurants pay a living wage. The issues ASRW raises are important to workers but they are also important to business owners. When business owners do right by their employees, it should be communicated and promoted.

    Also, we are all diners. We live in a thriving and growing, self proclaimed food utopia. We revere our high quality ingredient sourcing and the humane treatment of animals. Sustainable “green” practices are celebrated and recyclable to go containers are demanded. ASRW would like these same conscientious diners to consider the treatment of workers within these establishments.

    It is for the reasons listed above that Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce was formed. Our work is important to workers, business, and diners who exist in a symbiotic relationship- all depending upon each other for success.

    • Richard Boucher

      Thank you for your reasoned, balanced, and well thought out response to my comments. I will check out the ASRW website. And I will
      acknowledge that your experience in the field does certainly bring validation to your story. And I promise to be more aware.
      Each of my three children have worked as wait people and as a chef in Colorado. Perhaps I will forward this to them and get their reactions, which in hindsight might have been a good idea for me to have done earlier. I do appreciate your taking the time to respond in an informative and civil manner. Thank you and good luck with your goals.

  5. Big Al

    Thanks for putting the photos of all of these insurgents against ” inequality, low pay and unfair working conditions” on the web and in the paper. It will make it so much easier for those evil, uncaring restaurant owners to identify and fire them.

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