The interview with RAISE, High Road Restaurants

Stevan: i'd like to welcome Mikey and Jeanie to the Wayward Muse Podcast. They lead the team at high road kitchens an organization that presents the opportunity to build a new more equitable and sustainable industry for all. As I understand it you both are in DC but before people can understand why i think we need to learn a little bit more about you both

Mikey Knab: My name is Mikey Knab I use he, him pronouns. I live in occupied Kumeyaay territory which is commonly referred to as san Diego California. I run the Mesa Family Restaurant Group which has three restaurants. We have two in San Diego and one in Portland Oregon they're all full-service casual Mexican restaurants. In addition to that I am the national strategy director for RAISE High Road Restaurants which I run with Jeanie and the program that you mentioned is called High Road Kitchens and I'm sure we'll talk more about that as we go on, but uh I'll pass it to the other half of Meanie which is Jeanie and we're not mean it’s just that's how our names go together.

Jeanie Chunn: My name is Jeanie. I use she, her pronouns. I live in occupied to Duwamish territory. Our city is named after their chief Seattle. I've been in the restaurant industry my whole life. My parents immigrated to this country, and grandparents I should say. They both had Chinese restaurants on the east coast. I've been living in Seattle for the last 20 years managing mostly fine dining restaurants. I started a restaurant coalition called Seattle Restaurants United to advocate for restaurants in our area. We have 250 members and because of that work I was invited to join the Independent Restaurant Coalition. I sit on their advisory board and I'm the co-chair of the policy committee so we helped write the restaurants act of 2020. For work, I am the other half of Meanie. Mikey and I run RAISE High road restaurants together. I'm the director of engagement.

Stevan: Thank you both very much. I love your intros so much, because it creates a really good understanding of where you all are coming from, your perspectives, and gets us ready to go forward with our discussion. So talk to us more about this creation that you both have made within High Road.

Mikey: So RAISE high road restaurants. We didn't create it. We run it together now, but it was founded about 10 years ago by a bunch of restaurant owners who believe in a commitment to high road practices which take the form of increased wages improved working conditions and commitments to race and gender equity in our industry which by the way is a very inequitable industry in terms of race and gender raise as it was called at the time stands for restaurants advancing industry standards and employment that was named by Andy Shallal the owner of bus boys and poets in the DMV region of the country (dc Maryland, Virginia) but that's a whole mouthful and it's easy to say when it's just RAISE but it's kind of hard when you try to remember what I just said and repeat it to someone so last year when Jeanie and I took over we decided to add a tagline so you know there's nike just do it well now there's RAISE high road restaurants and it kind of the tagline explains a little more about what I just mentioned so I can tell the origin story of how Jeanie and I came on to work with the organization. I’ll try to be succinct but essentially, I joined as my restaurant as a member of my magic restaurant group as members of raise a couple years ago and I joined because I met the founder of one fair wage whose name is Saru Jayaraman. RAISE, even though it was named by Andy Shallal, was the brainchild of Saru and is funded by the one fair wage campaign. it's an affiliate of the one fair wage campaign. One fair wage is a worker’s rights organization that focuses on ending the subminimum wage for all workers that can be paid. Which mostly is restaurant workers but also includes differently abled workers, youth, incarcerated workers and scary enough the gig economy. So, people who drive for uber doordash Instacart. This horrible inequitable wage structure is creeping into that industry that's growing exponentially specifically during the pandemic. I met Saru when she came to San Diego, where I live, hoping to start a RAISE chapter there and she asked people you know ‘I need to meet some progressive restaurant owners and talk about, you know, moving a chapter in this region.’ Everyone said ‘well you got to meet this Mikey guy.’ So I'm sitting across a table from this amazing person who's never worked in the restaurant industry but somehow is saying everything I've ever thought much more articulately than I could ever imagine saying it. and I’m just like this is a personification of the greatest ideas of how to improve our industry and I was immediately sold. So we joined as members and I became engaged with RAISE and then last March, right before everything shut down due to the pandemic, we went to DC for a conference to meet each other. I would say there were probably 80 or 100 RAISE members all meeting in DC to talk about the work how we could advance industry standards and employment and basically we did what restaurant people do, we hung out afterwards. We went to dinner we had drinks we talked we schemed right on how to accomplish our goals and that's when I met Jeanie and she was at dinner with us. We had we thought wow this organization has so much potential. And then we all flew home and everything had to shut down. All of our restaurants were dark. We had time on our hands for the first time in a long time. Jeanie and I would talk on the phone and get on zoom and things and say well you know these schemes that we were hatching in DC we've got time on our hands let's do it. So we committed to leaning into it. Maybe Jeanie would you mind telling your half of the meanie origin story is there is there more that I left out?

Jeanie: I don't think you left anything out I also had signed up while I was the director of operations for sea creatures which is Renee Erickson's restaurant group we have 20 properties around the Seattle area or should i just say she does because I don't work for her any longer. I had signed up sea creatures to be members of RAISE about four or five years ago yeah something like that and so that's why I flew to DC and met Mikey

Stevan: What do you think the cardinal virtues of RAISE are? And what do you think the one fair wage act would be able to create for the restaurant industry?

Jeanie: That’s a great question. What we care about most is eliminating systemic racism in the restaurant sector. That takes a lot of work. Because we're a subsidiary of one fair wage we're starting with wages. You can't have racial justice without wage parity. Full stop. Period and that's why we're fighting so hard for it and currently the reason Mikey and I are in DC is because there's a bill that was introduced this week by Senator Sanders and representative Bobby Scott called Raise the Wage Act. It has the support of the President and we just wanted to make sure that it passes in its entirety. There are some moderate democrats out there so we're just really focused on those offices and ensuring that they support this. The Raise the Wage Act would bring the minimum wage from $7.25 up to $15 an hour by 2025 and it will eliminate the sub minimum wage by 2027 depending on when the bill is introduced. So we're really hopeful and that includes not just the tip minimum wage for service workers but also differently abled folks and the youth.

Mikey and I are in charge of two different programs. I run the race and gender equity training and Mikey runs High Road kitchen program. The race and gender equity training is a three course module everything is free you can find our tool kit on our website at and basically the toolkit is an assessment. You do an assessment of your restaurant and you set some goals for yourself and that there's some best practices in there for you to start implementing those. There are three course modules. The first course is identifying systemic racism within the restaurant sector, where you can find it, and what you can do to start addressing some of those things. The second module is just based on recruitment hiring training and promotional practices. Restaurants do have diversity but we know it's a two-tiered system where you have people of color either specifically in the back of the house or if they're in the front of the house they're in lower paid positions like bussers, runners, bar backs and even in the kitchen they're in the dishwashing position. In fine dining restaurants they are in the dishwashing position or the prep cook you don't really see them as sous chefs or chefs. In the second module we make sure that people really look, restaurant owners, really look at mobility. How you have diversity in your space? How are you creating ladders of mobility to make sure that there's representation and leadership? That's where the real change is going to come. Then the third module is that work culture. So now you have these folks in the space, how do you continue to make sure that they have a space where they're thriving? And we found a lot of success with the program and what we're doing after is just continuing to keep folks together so that they could stay in a cohort and continue to be in community with each other continue to learn from each other and it's been really great so far. and we're hoping to stay in contact with these folks so that we can collect real data on the practices that are working um i think that's in a nutshell Mikey do you want to talk about hybrid kitchens?

Mikey: So High Road Kitchens is a program that we conceived of in response to covid right after Meanie got back from DC to our respective cities and everything had to shut down we realized that there were some immediate challenges that needed addressing. There were three that we identified immediately. Feeding people who were food insecure which there are there were a massively growing number of those folks who were for the first time food insecure. Maybe folks didn't even realize that they were entering into that community. The second is employing people who had been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours significantly decreased because of the crisis, and then really supporting and amplifying the work of independently owned restaurants that had made commitments to high road employment practices. We developed a public private partnership. We raised funds from foundations and some individual donors and then we worked with local governments, municipalities, cities, counties, states to leverage the funds to make a cash grant program for these restaurants to bring their employees back in order to prepare and distribute meals for their community most of them did it on a sliding scale. a scaled payment model where you could choose to pay zero for your meal if you're someone who's food insecure. You could choose to pay regular price if you just wanted lunch and you wanted to support your local restaurant or you could pay double or triple and then that would mean that you would be paying meals forward and donating to the program. We launched in California we had 50 High Road kitchens in the first California cohort. My restaurant was the very first high road kitchen I made myself the guinea pig so that if there were any challenges, I would have to be the one to live through that and there were some but we learned and as we built more. We addressed those and made it a smoother operation but on April 22nd we started and we had a commitment of 500 free meals and so many people in my community paid extra for their meal or they simply smashed that donate button. Because there were two kinds of people there were people who are hungry to eat and people who are hungry to help and the program feeds both of those hungers and so many folks in my community donated meals through the program that I had a 500 meal commitment on April 22nd by May 22nd one month later we were committed to 2600 meals. The program was meant to be eight weeks long that was how much funding we had to support the employment of the employees was brought back but because of that scale payment model at my restaurant, we ended up going all the way from April through the end of the year last year. so essentially eight months instead of eight weeks and we served 7600 free meals over the course of the program. so we leveraged those philanthropic dollars that we had raised through donors the meals ended up costing less than a dollar each because our community supported it and the best part was that third challenge that I said, we were trying to address, which is supporting and amplifying restaurants that make these higher commitments those donations don't go to raise high road restaurants or to one fair wage or to the state of California they go to me they go into the restaurant's bank account and in April on April 22nd when we started, we had been closed for six weeks this is how I refilled my walk-in. This is how I brought employees back to prep so we ran like 40-something thousand dollars through the program even though the grant was only 5000. so it was just exponentially supported by our guests and our neighbors and that was an unexpected sort of beautiful element to it. So those are the three immediate challenges we're trying to solve and address with the program but the longer-term goals are also a set of three it saves restaurants increase wages because why save restaurants if you don't save their employees too.

To learn more listen to the podcast linked above!

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