The Restaurant Industry’s Diversity Problem

In the weeks following the in-custody death of George Floyd and the protests thereafter, it seems as though every company in America is speaking out in support of racial justice.

Pepsi Co announced it will donate over $400 million over five years to initiatives that help dismantle racial barriers.

The James Beard Foundation admitted that while the organization continues to hold equality as a core value, it has not been aggressive enough in its support for black and minority-owned independent restaurants.

McDonalds published a free verse poem on its website decrying “inequity, injustice, and racism” and announced the company will be donating to the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

And while these companies, among others, stand tall against inequality now, each one has contributed to the systemic issues blacks and people of color must overcome to move into the C-suite.

Nine of the 10 executive officers at Pepsi are white; only one staff member at the James Beard Foundation is black, and two senior executives at McDonalds sued the company alleging racial discrimination.

Just days after the protests began, Jack in the Box CEO Lenny Comma issued a resonating statement just before he retired, leaving the restaurant industry without a black CEO in a publicly-traded company.

“My heart breaks for what so many in my community have had to endure,” he wrote. “We have one simple desire, to live life without fear and injustice. Isn’t that a basic existence that all of us can relate to?”

The Optics Problem

Study after study consistently ranks the restaurant industry as one of America’s most diverse. Federal data shows the industry is 74 percent white and blacks make up approximately 13.2 percent of the workforce.

The National Restaurant Association lauds the industry’s diversity as its true strength, stating that four in 10 restaurant managers and supervisors are minorities and six in 10 chefs. These statistics are part of the reason why restaurants can cater to ethnically diverse audiences, they say.

However, when one looks further up the ranks, there tend to be more white men.

Gerry Fernandez, president and founder of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, says this optics problem isn’t one about labor pools or about skillsets either. It’s about development and retention.

“If you have people who feel valued and included in a company, they give you that thing called discretionary effort,” Fernandez told Restaurant Business Online.

There are several ways restaurants provide disincentives to blacks and employees of color, most of which concern illustrations of unconscious bias in company policies.

So begins the process of solving the restaurant industry’s diversity problem. While there is no single way to solve the restaurant industry’s diversity problem, the following ideas are great starting points for businesses of all sizes.

Hiring Practices

An easy way to begin deconstructing the restaurant industry’s diversity problem is to create inclusive hiring practices.

A study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROCU) laid bare numerous ways in which restaurant hiring practices expose the implicit bias of the company’s owners.

To begin with, most restauranteurs surveyed for the study reported that they primarily used word-of-mouth referrals to decide which candidates to interview. This practice often recreates the racial dynamic already present in the restaurant and can exclude minority workers.

One study by Oxford University found that while blacks and whites may have proximally similar social networks, blacks often have smaller networks comprised of more family members than whites do.

The ROCU study also found that workers of color can suffer from self-selection bias when applying for work if they feel unwelcome. Oftentimes this leads to workers of color applying for low-wage back-of-house positions that keep them away from the rest of the staff.

An easy way to make sure your restaurant’s hiring practices become inclusive is to create a holistic application and screening process. Ask your candidates to submit a personal statement with their application. This way you can get a peek at their personality before you meet them.

Another way to be more inclusive is to refuse any word-of-mouth referrals for open positions. Invite a word-of-mouth candidate to apply, but don’t guarantee them a position. Instead, put their resume up against a few other applicants for the same position and see how they stack up.

Unconscious Bias Training Programs

It may seem easy to select the word-of-mouth candidate’s application even after receiving several other applications for the same job. But, that may just be an unconscious bias rearing its ugly head.

Unconscious bias—inadvertently stereotyping someone based on their physical appearance—happens in the restaurant industry more than anyone wants to admit. It can be something simple as seating an old couple in the back of a restaurant teeming with a young crowd or something more heinous like thinking a server might not get a good tip because a table of black people is sitting in their section.

The National Restaurant Association recently developed an unconscious bias training program aimed to help employers and employees interact more mindfully with guests and coworkers.

Part of the curriculum includes:

  • Defining unconscious bias in its many forms
  • Understanding its impacts on customers and staff members
  • Proactively managing situations in which bias occurs
  • Learning how to deal with difficult situations

Rewriting the Rules and Regulations

One of the most common ways many instances of unconscious bias arise is in employee handbooks. This is also one area many restaurants are exposed to discrimination lawsuits.

Fat Rice, a restaurant owned by Abe Conlon, recently had to close because several employees sued the restaurant for racial discrimination.

Part of the lawsuit centered on a requirement in Fat Rice’s employee handbook that made English the official language of the restaurant. Conlon tried to explain the policy as a way to keep employees from insulting each other. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that this policy discriminates against ESL and multilingual people.

Other restaurants discriminate against employees of color by regulating hairstyles and articles of clothing.

The Caboose Restaurants asks its employees to keep their “hairstyles [] in good taste, and [are] expected to be above shoulder length and must be secured behind the shoulders.”

At times, restaurants have used this policy to require black people and people of color to wear hairstyles that are considered white. In some instances, employees with dreadlocks have been forced to cut their hair.

Employers must be vigilant and look over their employee handbooks with a keen eye toward unconscious bias. Eliminating unconscious bias is a clear-cut way to make employees of all backgrounds feel welcomed in any establishment.

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