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Megan Amrich headshot

Restaurant Innovation Takes a High Road by Staying Open While Paying a Fair Wage

By Megan Amrich
Restaurant Innovation

As the restaurant industry continues to be crushed by coronavirus shutdowns, establishments across the country are seeking unique ways to help others while staying open. The High Road Kitchens project is the latest example of restaurant innovation and industry ingenuity, providing work, food and funding for independent restaurants throughout California.

High Road Kitchens (HRK) was created by a team of chef-activists in response to the increasing unemployment and food insecurity amid the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S.

Founding partners include Daniel Patterson, co-founder of The Cooking Project; Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen; and Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center. The program launched on May 1 with 13 participating restaurants. While One Fair Wage manages High Road Kitchens, a variety of state and local governments, as well as NGOs, together handle program funding.

“We wanted to find a way to continue our mission of good food for everyone,” Patterson said. “High Road Kitchens can provide support to allow cooks to return safely to their kitchens where they can do what they love, make food for their communities.”

A new wave of restaurant innovation

Participating restaurants commit to provide 500 free meals to low-wage workers, healthcare providers, and those in need. They also offer sliding-scale priced meals via takeout and delivery. Patrons can select to pay anywhere from $5 to $20 per dish, with the hopes that those who can will “pay it forward." The restaurants must also agree to adhere to One Fair Wage’s membership guidelines, providing just wages for all employees.

In return for their participation, HRK restaurants receive an initial grant of $18,000 to $25,000 to help owners purchase food and supplies, while allowing them to hire and rehire employees. The owners will also receive training over the next year through One Fair Wage’s High Road Training and Technical Assistance program. This course shows employers how to “take the high road” as they approach a new path toward restaurant innovation and provide all employees with livable wages and increase race and gender equity while remaining profitable.

“A lifeline for restaurants”

Argentinian bar and café Barcito is one of two Los Angeles restaurants participating in High Road Kitchens. (The other is Daniel Patterson’s Alta Adams.) In an interview last week on the KCRW Good Food podcast, Barcito’s general manager and owner, Andrea Borgen, said the goal of High Road Kitchens is “to give a lifeline to these restaurants we know will be good employers in the future.”

When the shutdown started in March, Borgen said she began to search for new ways to “keep the restaurant relevant” and continue keeping her staff on payroll. Like many restaurants, Barcito is now focusing on takeout and delivery business, with new offerings like pantry items and meal prep kits. While the profit margins on the HRK meals may be less than on these other offerings, they are enough to keep Barcito open.

 “I’m optimistic about the sustainability of this,” Borgen said in assessing this wave of restaurant innovation.

What’s next for High Road Kitchens?

Moving forward, organizers hope to secure foodservice contracts for High Road Kitchens with community institutions like senior centers and schools to provide long-term ongoing income to local businesses.

There is also talk of program expansion. Currently, all High Road Kitchens restaurants are located in California – specifically in Los Angeles, Monterey, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose. Next steps include adding more financial sponsors and California restaurants, and eventually branching out into New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Michigan. 

“We can all agree that what we were doing before was not necessarily working,” Borgen said. “It’s time to build a better industry for everyone involved.”

Image credit: Max Delsid/Unsplash

Megan Amrich headshot

Megan is a writer and editor interested in sharing stories of positive change and resilience. She is the author of Show Up and Bring Coffee, a book highlighting how to support friends who are parents of disabled children. You can follow her at JoyfulBraveAwesome.com.

Read more stories by Megan Amrich