Left: Devita Davison, photo by Val Waller. Right: Kiki Louya, photo by Nick Hagen.
There’s a new labor movement brewing in restaurant kitchens across the nation. That two Black women from Detroit, Devita Davison and Kiki Louya, sit at the center of a push for the labor rights of food workers is no surprise.
Detroit is where workers formed the UAW and ground the Detroit Three to a halt. And it’s where the League of Revolutionary Black Workers sounded a DRUM that put the UAW in check for building its might on a racist and tiered system that endangered and exploited Black bodies.
For food workers today, the setting and strategies are different, but the demands are familiar. Amidst a pandemic that has disproportionately killed line cooks and bakers and led to restaurant staff shortages, workers are seizing their power and shutting down entire kitchens. Many are deciding not to return to workplaces that promise low wages, no benefits and poor treatment from management and customers.
Both women’s work centers the most marginalized and vulnerable workers in an industry that as Davison describes it, “is built on the backs of exploiting the labor of Black and Brown workers, but in particular, Black women.”
This nation’s restaurant system is fueled by workers making a subminimum wage as low as $2.13 per hour, with the expectation that their incomes will be supplemented by tips. But tipping is grounded as a racist practice, a creative loophole designed to avoid paying formerly enslaved workers a fair wage.
The racialization of the practice persists; with surveys showing that Black workers’ tips dropped more than white workers’ when returning to restaurants after pandemic closures, mirroring pre-pandemic disparities. Coupled with the racial and gender segregation that exists in the industry, poverty rates among food workers are highest for women and people of color.
Davison is executive director of FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit community of food entrepreneurs committed to building a more equitable, nourishing and sustainable food system. Demanding and defending workers’ rights is a starting point for her work. Through FoodLab, Davison works with chefs, entrepreneurs and fellow nonprofit leaders like Louya, the recently appointed and first executive director of the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, a national nonprofit. The RWCF gained prominence this past year for providing financial support to hospitality workers during the pandemic.
Food workers, both women said, most especially those on the front lines of fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, have tired of the laser focus on what’s in the food on a plate, with little to none on the conditions for people who put it there.
A shift in mindset, for employees and owners
Davison is a vocal advocate and mentor for food entrepreneurs who think differently, like Detroit bakery proprietors April Anderson of Good Cakes and Bakes (who has paid her employees $15 per hour since opening) and Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie (who pays employees at least $15 per hour and benefits).
“The people who are attracted to the FoodLab community,” Davison said, “are people who want to and are curious about operating their business in a radically different kind of way—and who want to be in good company.”
Part of Davison and Louya’s fight is to inform and redefine “good company” in the restaurant world, beyond critical recognition.
“If your restaurant is operating in a way where workers are saying, “You know what, we’re not taking this shit no more,” there’s no way in the world you’re the best restaurant you can be,” Davison said.
That mindset shift is critical, especially in a post-pandemic world. Rather than submit to a status quo that is failing the entire system, restaurateurs who want to survive and thrive need to ask new questions, Davison added.
“Some people are saying, “This isn’t working,’” she said. “‘I’m not able to recruit and retain workers because of the practices that I have been utilizing. I’m not able to attract the best. But, I’m in an environment where I hear people talk about this triple bottom line—people, profit and planet. What’s that thing all about?’”
From server to changemaker
Like Davision, Louya is a food activist unafraid of calling the industry’s history of gender inequity and racist wage system to task, while fervently working toward building something just and new.
Earlier in her career, Louya faced many of the issues she advocates for through RWCF. In the front of the house, she was tipped far less than her white counterparts, and “it didn’t matter if I had a better floor or better party.” In the back of the house she was yelled at and had food thrown at her.
And wherever she went, there were additional obstacles to her advancement up the career ladder. “Black women are the most passed up as far as leadership goes in a kitchen environment, both front and back of the house,” she said.
Eventually, like a lot of people who love their jobs but have tired of yet another toxic workplace, she opened her own business.
As a former partner in the Nest Egg hospitality group, Louya founded the award-winning Folk (and Mink and the Farmer’s Hand), a restaurant in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood created with the mission to serve locally-sourced food while treating food and farm workers fairly. It was one of the first restaurants in the city to operate without tipping.
“We are so conditioned to believe that there is only one way to run a restaurant,” Louya said. “It is subminimum wage. It is, you run certain kinds of percentages on your labor and your cogs, and that’s it. But there are many different models and alternatives, and when people see one in action and see that the doors are still open, they’re like, “Wow, how are they doing it?
The backbone of a better food industry
Detroit food entrepreneurs who are onboard for a radically new system, but don’t know where to start can head to FoodLab. There, they can find the support, guidance and community needed to learn. Once their programs get going, RWCF exists to help sustain their work. RWCF raised roughly $8 million last year, largely due to COVID, and reinvested those funds in the form of COVID relief grants to both restaurants and restaurant workers.
The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation funds food-based businesses around the country that prioritize wage fairness, career opportunities, gender equity, immigrant rights and consideration of mental health and substance abuse issues. As its leader, Louya advocates for and raises funds to support restaurants that uphold those values.
“Hospitality needs to be hospitable for all,” she said. “It cannot just be for a few. It can’t just be for the people who can afford it on a Saturday and come down from the suburbs. Their money is great too, but hospitality is for everybody.”
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, both organizations and their leaders are wholly committed to radically transform an industry that desperately needs changing.
“The CEO of Chipotle made $38 million last year, but won’t pay their workers $15 an hour,” said Davison. “We’re fighting to change culture, change a narrative and change business models, against huge lobbying groups like the National Restaurant Association that—don’t get it twisted—is the other NRA.”
Both Louya and Davison acknowledge that “we may not dismantle the food system as we know it today.” But they believe their work is critical for the food industry of the future and for the next generation of children in Detroit and beyond who dream of being food entrepreneurs.
“The relationship between Kiki and I, it’s an inside-outside game,” said Davison. “I’m on the inside working with businesses that are trying to transform their business model. Kiki is an outside resource that can actually provide them with capital to help them do that.”