Working in the restaurant business is no picnic. Workers face long hours, often on vacation, with low pay and no benefits, performing physically strenuous tasks in an environment known for its toxicity.
But the nonprofit Service!, which began supporting vulnerable restaurant workers early in the COVID-19 shutdown, is working to change that narrative through a new partnership with Franklin County.
The Overlook Café offers 360-degree views of downtown Columbus in a spacious dining room, with made-to-order meals and a salad bar. Along with committing to a minimum wage of $15 an hour, benefits, and other employee supports, the cafe is a training ground for employees to learn new skills.
The cafe is located at 16e floor of the Franklin County Municipal Court at the location of the former county cafeteria, which was closed during the pandemic. The creators of coffee want to create a new model of private/public partnerships in the food industry.
“We’re trying to change the restaurant industry,” said Letha Pugh, one of the nonprofit’s co-founders.
The partnership with Franklin County Commissioners has provided $350,000 in seed money so far, and the county has pledged to provide up to $4.25 million over the course of a three-year contract. . There are also options to extend this contract.
Both Pugh and Sangeeta Lakhani, the nonprofit’s executive director, have run restaurants. They and co-founder Matthew Heaggans said the industry has long been problematic for workers.
“It’s long hours. It’s a lack of pay, not benefits. You’re expected to come to work when you’re sick, which is crazy. You miss all the events with your family and [you’re] Not there for those family times like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, all the major holidays – those are the days you work the hardest, aren’t they? And then there is nothing at the end. It’s not like you get a bonus for working those overtime hours,” Lakhani said.
But Lakhani and Pugh say they are shaping an environment that respects workers and nurtures their growth.
Attitude is associated with those tangible benefits, such as job training, decent wages, and health care. And a social services agency associated with the effort goes even further, offering childcare assistance, transportation assistance and uniform assistance.
Pugh said the assistance aims to remove barriers often present for low-wage workers.
“And [when] we’ve seen that when those barriers are removed, people are better able to come into work and not have to worry about those things. We want an environment where they want to be there, they want to come and work,” Pugh said.
Lakhani said it’s not easy for struggling restaurants to provide some of the benefits associated with a higher standard of living, but the partnership with Franklin County makes it possible. She said the plan they are forging at the cafe should be replicated whenever possible.
“So we can go to restaurants or other counties and say, ‘Well, here’s what we figured out, here’s how you can bring back work, here’s how you can provide benefits at a more reasonable rate or , you know, maintaining it, and being able to educate the workforce,” Lakhani said.
The project took several meetings a week for almost a year to get started, but even after just a few weeks of operation – and a lot of hard work and elbow grease – the results were positive.
“We learned that there are people who want to work. And they want to be here. They want to learn, they want to grow and challenge themselves. People have a lot of barriers that keep them from getting where they want to be,” Pugh said.
Lori Thomas came at the start. She said her cooking skills were quickly realized and she mastered a few jobs before becoming a shipper.
Although she has worked in restaurants in the past, the cafe offers something better.
“They’re just very different from any other job I’ve ever had. It’s like you can tell they care when you come here, you know? So I’m still happy to come to work every day,” Thomas said. “Here you feel like you’re more part of the company, you know? Although we know that we are neither owners nor managers, everyone has a say in what happens here. It’s unlike any other job I’ve had, even when I was a manager at other places I always felt like I was right there.
Thomas said she is learning the skills she will need to open her own restaurant one day. In addition, she was pleasantly surprised to find that the leadership supported her goals.
“Generally, managers don’t want to hear about you wanting to do something else. But here, they don’t mind. That’s what they want. They want to help you achieve what you want to achieve,” Thomas said.
With the vast majority of restaurants operating without the supports the Overlook Café has access to and hit by inflation from many angles, Lakhani said consumers need to change their mindset when it comes to paying the fees. if they want to see meaningful progress in restaurant employment standards.
“You have to be prepared to pay for it. If you want someone to make a living wage, and you want the burger you want, and you want it fresh, not frozen, it all costs money. And we have to change, the customer has to change that mindset. No restaurant will succeed, no program like this will succeed, nothing will ever happen unless people change their mindset,” Lakhani said.
The Overlook Café is located on the 16th floor of the Franklin County Government Center, 373 S. High St., in Columbus. It is open for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.
Visit servicerelief.org for more information about the nonprofit Service!