We estimate more than 10 million service workers have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis; most are ineligible for unemployment insurance either because of their immigration status, their hours, or, most frequently, their wages and tips are too low to meet the minimum requirement to receive benefits.

Employers in our industry are also struggling, especially small business operators that do not have the same access to capital as big business1. In this way, COVID-19 has revealed some of the deep inequities of the service sector that required change before the crisis: race, gender, occupational and wage inequities that have made the industry unsustainable for most.

High Road Kitchens presents the opportunity to build a new, more equitable, sustainable industry for all. The program provides a combination of public and private dollars to restaurant owners who commit to ensuring livable wages and increased equity for their employees when the industry is fully re-opened in 2021. Participating restaurants then provide free meals to low-wage workers, health care workers and others in need.

The High Road Kitchens Program is receiving support from the State of California, the City of San Francisco, the City of San Jose, the City of Sacramento, and the Workforce Investment Boards of San Diego and Monterey, as well as from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, DMB Enterprises, the Hewlett Packard Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others. With initial funding of $18,000 to $25,000 from a combination of public and private dollars, each participating restaurant commits to: a) serve meals in a model that allows some community members to subsidize others’ meals, through both pick up and delivery; b) feed thousands of low-wage workers as well as health care workers and others in need; c) employ service workers.

The High Road Kitchens model, with support from the High Road Kitchens team, allows restaurants to become self-sustaining after the initial grant investment by setting up a system in which paying customers are able to subsidize the ongoing production of free meals.

Over time, we also hope to secure contracts for High Road Kitchens to provide meals to senior centers, schools and other institutions so that we can provide ongoing income to small businesses and move public dollars away from large corporations toward small businesses that keep dollars in the community. The funding offered to restaurants to re-purpose themselves in this way is coming from a combination of government wage subsidy dollars and private philanthropy but is tied to restaurants committing to ‘high road’ practice—livable wages and increased equity—in 2021, the year after the crisis.

During 2020, when they are not operating full-service restaurants, One Fair Wage will provide these employers with its ‘High Road Training and Technical Assistance’ program, complete with financial modelling tools and case studies of other employers who have already made these changes. The program shows employers how to move profitably to livable wages while also increasing race and gender equity and also equity between ‘front’ and ‘back-of-house’ workers. In this way, we can work together to ensure that the crisis of the moment is not repeated, by building a sustainable and equitable industry for all.

1. One Fair Wage, UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, “Locked Out By Low Wages: Service Workers Challenges With Accessing Unemployment Insurance During COVID-19”