Hire Calling

As some S.F. restaurants feel squeezed by labor costs, others thrive through socially conscious hiring practices.

For her front-of-house staff, Gabriela Cámara, chef-owner of Cala in Hayes Valley, is specifically interested in hiring staff who’ve been incarcerated. Not only that, she cites people who’ve done long sentences behind bars as model employees.

“If you’ve been at San Quentin for 15 years, you get up every morning at five, and at six, you’re at your job,” she says. “A routine of order makes such a difference in their performance as workers and in the possibilities of getting them back on their feet.”

It didn’t start out that way. At first, she and the managers were nervous and wanted to operate with caution. But now, she says, “we’re so much more inclined toward hiring lifers or people with more serious pasts.”

In less than two years, Cámara estimates that more than 100 such people have worked at Cala, a seafood-focused contemporary Mexican restaurant that was San Francisco’s only mention on Food & Wine’s 2016 Best Restaurants list. She calls the hiring policy “win-win,” because the opportunity encourages people to take ownership of their work, and helps anchor them to a city they may need to remain in per the conditions of their release.

Hiring in this manner has benefited the guests, too, as they’re looked after by devoted employees who “take it to their hearts to serve people in a way that I think is important.”

For workers who’ve been entangled in the criminal-justice system, finding and keeping a job might be especially challenging. But the underlying issue is the same as for people with clean records: They want to stay in San Francisco despite the difficulty of doing so on a restaurant employee’s pay.

“It’s a real challenge to run a restaurant and pay people well and buy good produce and have your patrons have an amazing experience,” she adds. “If the city doesn’t do something about housing immediately, we’re going to have a real crisis.”

Cala’s staff get together to discuss the menu before opening. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Fairly or not, discussions about income inequality and the cost of living tend to coalesce around two of San Francisco’s most visible industries: technology and food. Although there is overlap — in delivery apps like UberEats, in the Eden-like cafeterias that populate tech campuses, or simply in the discretionary spending that sustains an ecosystem full of luxury restaurants — each operates with its own regulations and tensions.

Although powered by thousands of highly trained engineers, a company like Google could not function without an auxiliary, low-wage workforce of janitors, line cooks, and the temps who scour YouTube to make sure ads don’t air during Islamic State recruitment videos. The same goes for the Bay Area’s restaurants. From the humblest pupuseria to three-Michelin-starred Saison, they’re built on low-wage (and often immigrant) labor.

But while white shuttle buses create handy visual metaphors for late capitalism’s brute logic, the have-nots commute in relative obscurity. For every Van Hool rider checking email via free wifi en route to Menlo Park, there are several dishwashers somehow heading home to Fremont after the last BART train has left. Exporting low-income workers to the distant suburbs is rampant enough to make the term “inner-city” feel like an absurd anachronism.

Meanwhile, it’s common to hear the owners of a shuttered restaurant ascribe its closure to the high cost of employing people. Unquestionably, San Francisco’s minimum wage — currently $13 per hour, and scheduled to rise in two steps to $15 by Jan. 1, 2018 — is high. It’s also true that a significant percentage of chefs and owners would pay everybody $20 an hour if they could. But if you earn $13 an hour at 40 hours a week and never take a single day of vacation, you’ll net only $27,040 in a year. Considering that the average city wage at the end of 2015 was $33.98 — or just over $70,000 per year, by the same metric — it’s a little grotesque to portray earners in that tier as overpaid threats to the system.

At the same time, restaurants do close, and when they do, many chalk up their failure to the Bay Area’s wage floor. An unemployment rate below four percent is considered “full employment,” but macroeconomic statistics conceal thousands of people’s individual struggles. Often, to get work, you must already have worked. But many people’s life experiences — be it a criminal-justice record or simply an underprivileged background — can render simple job searches next to impossible. However, a clutch of San Francisco food businesses operate with such individuals in mind, and they do not do so out of noblesse oblige or fealty to buzzwords, but because diversity strengthens organizations in concrete ways.

Capitalism won’t save the world, but together, businesses such as Cala, Hayes Valley Bakeworks, and Bi-Rite Market show that it is possible for a company to thrive by upholding humane values. In doing so, they complicate the living-wage discussion and shift the terms of the debate. Instead of asking whether prep cooks and ice-cream scoopers deserve $13 or $15 or $33.98 per hour, perhaps we should be asking whether the San Francisco of the near future might become a city full of good food, yet devoid of good food jobs.

“I think there’s a misguided populism in the minimum-wage argument,” says Mark Bailey, manager of Hayes Valley Bakeworks. “I think, ‘Does it matter if someone’s even making $20 an hour when you can’t get a studio for $2,000?’ To me, there’s other issues.”

Bailey oversees the operations of a bakery-cafe affiliated with the larger nonprofit Toolworks, a social enterprise that matches developmentally disabled adults with employment opportunities across the Bay Area. (He half-jokingly calls Toolworks the “mom and dad, and we’re the kid at college and they want us off the credit card.”)

To fund its mission of preparing and serving coffee and pastries by morning and soups and sandwiches for lunch, Hayes Valley Bakeworks has received occasional grants, but its sales are essential to its viability as a business. Currently, the staff — which consists of developmentally disabled people as well as previously incarcerated individuals — numbers seven or eight full-timers with roughly six others in a training program. Bakeworks’ prices are competitive, so there’s no “altruism premium” for a buying a daily cup of coffee here and not at Peet’s.

“I think people should have as much as we can afford to pay them,” Bailey says, adding that at least half the employees knew “nothing” about baking when they began. “If we can survive and turn out quality product and have customers continually coming back, then other businesses can do the same thing as well.”

Still, difficulties abound. Some people who’ve served prison sentences may feel extreme anxiety in the presence of knives, for instance, requiring modifications to their duties.

“There’s a bench-scraper that you cut dough with,” Bailey says. “It’s essentially a dull knife, but people don’t look at it that way, because it’s completely different. We can get someone, with one of those, to chop mushrooms we can use for stock.”

Taking people whom society might regard as unemployable and meeting them where they are — by having, say, a developmentally disabled adult rip kale leaves from stems or scoop cookie dough — Hayes Valley Bakeworks gives them a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of pride.

Cafes are notorious for their high turnover and absenteeism, and, in theory at least, Bakeworks faces the additional obstacle of having to maintain a viable business without simply discarding individuals who’ve been treated like they were disposable all their lives. Bailey says Bakeworks does its best, but that ultimately success depends on the person — although he admits he’s had more difficulty with support staff not clocking in than with kitchen workers. In a sense, the culinary skills are secondary to the life skills people acquire.

“If someone’s been incarcerated their entire adult life, they might not know how to show up for work or what a resume is, how to use the internet,” he says.

Consequently, an ethos of mutual aid has developed at Bakeworks: People look out for one another. (It probably helps that this is not the kind of kitchen where irate chefs throw out incorrectly sliced potatoes.) It’s organic, too: Bailey does not have a hard-and-fast program everyone must adhere to. Each employee’s skills and needs are different, but some degree of passion is required.

If somebody were to walk in looking for any old job, “it would just never work in a kitchen — unless they work in a hospital or a nursing home,” he says.

In five years, Hayes Valley Bakeworks has helped approximately 60 people hold down jobs that help them build their resumes. What it can’t do, however, is solve other facets of the housing crunch, and Bailey is candid about the standard by which he judges his employees’ success. It’s not by winning Top Chef, but by finding stability — and the housing situation in mid-2010s San Francisco operates like a whirling amusement park ride gone haywire, flinging low- and moderate-income people to the distant suburbs by centripetal force.

“Some of our biggest success stories are people who were in a shelter system when they came in,” Bailey says. “Through having a job and persistence, they’ve been able to get stabilized and somehow find housing in this crazy city. That’s a tough task for anybody in any industry, and for people who come from the shelter systems, that’s really amazing.

“At the end of the day we’re not just baking things, we’re helping to transform people,” he adds.

With the caveat that the three Bakeworks employees I met spoke with me as their boss was 10 feet away, each was eager to share their story. Terrianne is a San Leandro resident who was born in Mississippi. A vocational rehab program referred her to Hayes Valley Bakeworks, where she’s been a janitor for “seven or eight months” and recently began doing some prep work. Terrianne is hearing-impaired, and through a sign-language interpreter, she told me she was especially comfortable knowing that one of her co-workers was learning ASL to communicate with her better. She’d completed high school and took some college classes to learn to be an electrician, but says she might just stay on in her current role another 10 years.

Colby is a dishwasher who “ended up not making the best decisions” after moving to San Francisco five years ago, eventually finding himself homeless and unemployed. He’d worked in food service before, so after starting off in the dishroom, he now also runs the register, where he makes a point of getting to know customers and learning their names. Being there “really grounded me and got me back in the workforce,” he says.

And there’s Paul, an energetic baker who will celebrate one year at Bakeworks on May 31. He intends to stay on at least one year more, to fill a resume with an employment gap stretching to the mid-1990s. (He’s also only a few credits shy of completing a college degree.)

“Growing up, I didn’t really have a good sense of direction and purpose, and a lot of negative attitudes kind of held me back,” he says. “But of course, you get older and you get more mature. I was in a situation where I had enough of being passive, and I wanted to get some success.”

As a baker, Paul’s shifts tend to wrap up by early afternoon. Testing the waters, he hunted for additional part-time work only to be told his chopping skills weren’t fast enough, so he’s focusing on his technique to become more efficient.

He always loved cooking — mostly Chinese, Thai, and Japanese food — but hadn’t had much previous experience baking. (“I liked to keep in shape, and baking is just ‘Eat, eat, eat,” he says.) Now, Paul revels in the skills he’s acquired.

“If someone has a birthday party, now I can cook for a huge amount of people,” he says. “It’s totally different when it’s large numbers of people and you’re baking.”

Bi-Rite Market on 18th St. in the Mission. (Photo by Eric Pratt)

For Sarah Arndt, Community Programs Coordinator for the Bi-Rite family of businesses, there is hope that San Francisco’s existing institutions will create the next generation of food and food-justice leaders. As a gourmet grocery store with two locations, plus a bakery and ice cream shop, Bi-Rite’s role works in two self-reinforcing ways: through direct hiring and community involvement. (Disclosure: I was an on-call bartender for Bi-Rite’s catering department for several years.)

“We support a lot of organizations that are working with marginalized communities in San Francisco,” Arndt says, citing the Mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program (MYEEP) and the SF LGBT Center’s Trans Employment Program. Through “field trips and financial donations, we’ve connected some of the youth who go through [MYEEP], and we’ve hired them thought the Creamery.

“Through that educational support, we meet folks who might be interested in jobs at Bi-Rite,” she adds. “There’s a feedback loop: You can have a sustainable career in good food and an opportunity for skill-building and expertise.”

Working with Mission High School (for Bi-Rite’s 18th Street store) and Ida B. Wells High School (for the Divisadero Street location) helps match culinary-minded adolescents with job openings that could very well lead to fulfilling career paths. Being busiest in the evenings and in the summers, the Creamery is able to offer flexible hours for many teenage students, so it’s a natural fit. Other teens have worked in the produce, cheese, and deli departments, Arndt says, and some of them go on to study food systems in college. Of the two public high schools, Ida B. Wells is particularly suited to kickstarting culinary careers through its Heat of the Kitchen program, overseen by educator and former Chez Panisse tea buyer Alice Cravens, whose program has internships with dedicated funding and whose teaching kitchen was recently renovated.

Having encountered a bit of community opposition before opening the Divisadero market, Bi-Rite worked to identify community partners in the Western Addition, and hired locally from the historically African-American neighborhood.

“We’ve had people who’ve stuck with us since we opened the store and have higher positions now at Bi-Rite,” Arndt says. “We want to hire young people and we want diversity, so we can say, ‘You can work in food and you can live in San Francisco.’

“Good food and good food jobs can coexist,” she adds. “And you can’t have one without the other.”

Andy Mercy, the founder of Dabba, a fast-casual Cal-Indian eatery with a food truck and a brick-and-mortar location in SoMa, brings a tech background to bear on this point. For many years, he’s worked with Summer Search, an organization that gives professional mentorship to high-school students who are “low on opportunity, and high in potential,” and used its methods as the basis for hiring.

Dabba pays $15 as a starting wage, plus full benefits, with a transparent path for advancement. It accepts only in-person applications, using what’s called a “SEA test” — for smile, eye contact, and attitude — to screen job-seekers during the first minute of an encounter. As a show of gratitude, individuals who don’t make this first cut get a coupon for a free meal, while second-round interviewees are evaluated entirely on the basis of character, according to how they answer several non-yes-or-no questions.

“We almost don’t care if they have restaurant experience,” Mercy says.

Having been open only since July 2016, Dabba is still fairly new. But Mercy — who sold a software company that “powered the philanthropy programs of the Fortune 1000” for an eight-digit sum — is pleased with his retention rate over that nine-month period.

“The churn in this industry is largely a function of the fact that so many people you’re hiring are living in a very unstable mode, very much week-to-week, paycheck-to-paycheck,” he says. “Everything I’ve ever done entrepreneurially, for better or for worse, is based on social responsibility.”

To make it work, he has very specific metrics to quantify his team’s success. Raises are never subjective or arbitrary, but based on a clear system in which workers are expected to master a specific number of set tasks in a certain time, rising through “rookie,” “expert,” and “master” levels for each. After becoming masters in three areas — scores are posted openly, so that everyone can see how their peers are faring — they receive a trainer certification that enables them to begin profit-sharing and eventually earning equity in the company.

Given this investment in human beings, does Mercy feel that people may unfairly attribute a business’ success or failure to wages alone?

He’s still too new in the industry to draw a definitive conclusion, he says, and empathizes with restaurateurs’ struggle. Then he adds, “I feel like it’s an easy scapegoat.”

“I don’t want to say that from a sanctimonious, preachy standpoint,” Mercy says, “because we’re still evolving and trying to get it right. I see how tight the margins are, and I get it. But you know, the food has to be great, the setting has to be terrific, the people who serve the food have to be engaging and genuine — and to get all that right is just an incredibly difficult thing to do. Simplifying it to ‘It’s the wages’ is probably a slight oversimplification.”

Mark Bailey of Hayes Valley Bakeworks. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Arndt and Mercy not alone in their conviction, but for her part, Cámara found that getting there might require changing entrenched restaurant cultures. The tradition of going out for a drink — or, in some cases, getting extremely intoxicated — with your co-workers after service ends for the night was particularly dangerous for people in recovery.

“We made a substance-free environment for our employees,” she says. “We’ve come to realize it was detrimental to the people we were hiring. They couldn’t handle it, and they would go back to their old habits that made them get where they were.”

Whereas Bailey believes Hayes Valley Bakeworks could not function if its employees’ mentality was “I need a job, any job,” Cámara does not object to the fact that many of her employees use it as a launching pad for other forms of work. Some simply want a letter of recommendation in order to join a trade union. Even then, not everybody makes it.

“The thing with alcoholics or people who’ve been in rehab is that there’s nothing in between holding them in a very safe facility and then going back to normal life,” she says. She’s haunted by one server she calls “the best waiter, an incredibly smart and capable guy,” who worked at Cala for six months before the cash in his pocket tempted him into old habits. He ended up panhandling on Market Street, only blocks from the restaurant, before entering a treatment program in his native Texas.

“These people’s lives are sad,” Cámara says. “Not all of them, but it requires so much strength to get themselves together.”

She speaks like someone who grew up with loved ones who battled addiction, but insists that is not the case. Rather, the same drive that spurred her to enter the hospitality industry is closely related to a general urge to look after people’s wellbeing. When she opened Contramar, her Mexico City flagship, in 1998, the general attitude among restaurateurs was to work people as hard as possible while paying them as little as possible.

“Just wanting to treat them as decent, respectable humans made a difference” in the level of service Contramar provides, Cámara says. “I started taking care of people who had never been taken care of, and they appreciate it to where they keep working for me to this day.”

In comparison to the Mexican capital during the 1990s, social services in San Francisco are “so organized — although it’s not solved,” she says. Unable to remember all the organizations that have funneled job applicants to Cala — “you know, in the States you have initials for everything” — she texts me a list the following day: S.F.’s Adult Probation Department, San Quentin, Hospitality House, Youth Community Developers — and the Delancey Street Foundation, the grandaddy of socially conscious food nonprofits.

Gabriela Cámara, chef-owner of Cala in Hayes Valley. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Founded in 1971 as a moving company and restaurant, Delancey Street built the building at its present site around 1990, where the formerly incarcerated people who comprise the entirety of the staff have been serving lunch and dinner six days a week ever since. It’s a vertically integrated enterprise, too.

“We recently redid a little bit” of the building, says Mimi Silbert, President and CEO of the Delancey Street Foundation, “and I had the waiters and cooks be the construction people.”

Silbert, who is in her 70s and who holds a Ph.D. in criminology, creates the menus and the recipes herself. She’s been working with the same population for decades, and speaks with an affectionate familiarity that might strike some contemporary ears as ever-so-slightly paternalistic, and others as simply old-school. Talking about “our people,” she jokes about her insistence that the men wear neckties to functions they’re invited to, even if no one else does.

“The lawyers are all dressed casually but the dope-fiends are wearing suits and ties, that’s how you can tell us” apart, she says.

About the approachable food it serves in a classic atmosphere, Silbert calls her restaurant just a “regular bistro.

“I like to cook every ethnic person’s food, because that’s who’s in Delancey Street,” she says. “We have a regular menu, but today’s dinner is fried pickles and fried chicken and sweet potato pie, and tomorrow’s dinner is an Italian dinner. In all honesty, most of the people cooking have never even heard of these foods, never tasted them, never eaten them.”

Calling herself someone who doesn’t believe in food trends, she expresses mock horror at ramen for being the convergence point between haute cuisine and what’s readily available in stir. But she caved in the face of one inescapable vegetable.

“I do have a kale-and-Brussels-sprout salad on my menu,” she admits. “I’m actually a little humiliated. It’s important to say all your flaws right up front.”

Delancey Street, which has since grown into a bicoastal nonprofit powerhouse that also sells Christmas trees in lots around town each December, declines offers of government grants. It’s partly because they’re wary of state interference, but mostly because, as Silbert says, “we want people to feel like this is theirs and to stop being selfish and to take care of each other.”

She estimates the current headcount — which is overwhelmingly but not exclusively male — to number around 40. But over the years, she’s helped hundreds and hundreds of people re-establish themselves — and her alumni populate the front- and back-of-house staffs at restaurants citywide.

“They graduate from Delancey Street and they’re not great, but they’re pretty good,” she says. “They have a good work ethic. The reason they’re not great is they don’t come from that food world that understands all the things people are eating today, but they’re great at learning and great at liking everyone.”

However, the entire enterprise is a two-way street (as it were). Helping the formerly incarcerated acclimate to what Silbert calls “quote straight society unquote” is the main goal, but getting members of straight society not to flinch in horror at the idea of being surrounded by ex-convicts is important, too. Over the years, many patrons appear to have chosen it over other Embarcadero eateries out of sheer morbid curiosity.

Employees there don’t work under the supervision of experts. They train one another in an “each one teach one” fashion, and they’re obligated to work toward a GED. And although Silbert uses the word “graduate,” she brandishes it almost as a term of endearment. Calling the restaurant “the Harvard of the underclass,” she downplays suggestions that it’s some kind of accredited version of the school of hard knocks.

Ultimately, she says of her staff that “they want a life that makes civilization just a tad better.”

In the meantime, the food world seems to exert its own pressures. Over the past few years, the average price of a Martini-style cocktail has edged upward from around $9 to nearly $15 — and it’s becoming harder to blanch at a $20 burger or even $25 nachos. Many restaurants, grocery stores, and food businesses flourish by paying higher-than-minimum-wage rates or striving to keep frequently overlooked populations gainfully employed — but a lot could change in a very short time, and the foodie renaissance has contributed to the crisis. As Hayes Valley Bakeworks’ Mark Bailey observes about the neighborhood, “It’s all James Beard people. We’re surrounded by all these places, and then we have someone with developmental disabilities making a galette. And that’s awesome.”

Beaming at what his workers have been able to accomplish, he stands in front of a commercial oven embossed with the name of its manufacturer: Bakers Pride. At the same time, right across the street from Hayes Valley Bakeworks, a sign indicates the future to come: The ground-level space of a new micro-apartment complex at 388 Fulton St. will soon be home to an artisanal doughnut shop and espresso bar. Just who ends up making latte art behind the counter remains to be seen.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Stories