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Rethinking the restaurant industry

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU, in Bloomington, Indiana, I am Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  When you have to make those decisions, do you buy the nicest ingredients, to make your foods, and satisfy the people who are there, or do you pay your employees $2 more an hour, or do you rent the building that is going to put you in the location that gives you the highest chance of success? I think that in many ways, restaurant owners have one of the most complicated business owning ventures that you can think of. They are balancing so many different goals, in one space.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Today we are talking with geographer, Jennifer Watkins, about restaurants, about owners, workers, customers and how precarious the whole industry appears to be, in this moment. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Servers in restaurants are in this unique position, where their customers are more their bosses, than their bosses are. They are directly tied to what money they make through tips and so that just exacerbates every situation. Every moment of racism or sexism is all tied to money. This person directly decides whether you get paid for your labor or not.

KAYTE YOUNG:  My guest today is Jennifer Watkins. She's a geographer, currently pursuing a PhD at Indiana University. But Jen didn't come to graduate school to become a scholar. She had something specific in mind. Jen had been working in the restaurant industry for most of her adult life, primarily as a server and also as a manager. She worked for many years at a classic Bloomington institution, the Runcible Spoon. It's a cozy establishment in an old house, in a downtown neighborhood close to campus. They're known for their quirky décor, and casual café fare. After more than a decade in the service industry, Jen started to question her life's path, and what her next move should be.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I came back to college because I knew I couldn't be a server forever. But I also came back to school because I saw a lot of things in the restaurant industry that I thought were broken, I thought were really unequal and unfair. I really wanted to put myself in a position where someday I could do something about it. I did my Masters research on food waste in Southern Mexico and how they were affected by tourism. But I specifically wanted to spend some time in a country of origin for a really high percentage of our restaurant workers, here in the US. Now I am looking at what are the actual factors we can pinpoint about things that are going wrong in the restaurant industry now, and how do we identify what the restaurant even is.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  We talk a lot about things like raising the wage or paths to equality, but I am not always entirely sure how useful that is. I think that things like giving people a higher hourly wage doesn't fix issues like what happens if you break your leg, what happens if your kid gets sick, what happens if you have to take some time off? It doesn't get rid of the barriers to ownership and management, that are present in the restaurant industry for a lot of under-served populations, women, people of color. So, I wanted to try to look beyond that one solution, which I think is a temporary fix, and try to think through some ideas about what are some more structural fixes that we can think about instead.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I am based in Louisville now, but a lot of what I have been doing, is trying to form relationships and connections with various people in the city, so, restaurant owners, restaurant workers, people who work for the Chamber of Commerce, and people who work for non-profit food organizations. One of the big things about my Masters research that I did in Mexico is that, I walked away feeling really disconnected from it. I didn't want to speak for someone else's community. So, I chose Louisville, partially because I had lived there when I was younger and I had worked in restaurants there. Also, going back, I wanted to spend a lot of time getting to know people who are already working in that community and trying to find out what they thought their problems were, and identifying what they wanted to be doing.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  So, a lot of what I have been doing so far is kind of preliminary relationship building and some work in the archives. In addition to the research I do now, I also teach food and poverty in America, in the geography department. A lot of things about food are really personal for me. I grew up in a food insecure household in the Mid-West. I spent the majority of my adult life working in restaurants. I think that it is important for there to be more people in academia who have the lived experience before they start learning the theory, and start learning to be academics. I thought that maybe the best person to do restaurant work was someone who had been a waitress for 15 years.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I don't have a lot of interest in researching other people's lives. I guess, I have an interest in supporting the people in the area of the world that I come from, and in my community and in my profession. Like I said at the beginning, I didn't come to grad school to become an academic, I came to grad school to work on restaurants. It was always very clear to me that I wasn't here to do any other kind of work.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What were some of the things that you were experiencing, that made you want to do this deeper study and research, and approach it from an academic lens, or from the lens of geography?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  It's such a difficult job, it's very physically grueling. I wouldn't say that I think the restaurant industry is more racist or more sexist than other industries in the US, but it seems to be more allowable. Perhaps that has to do with this cultural idea of the customer always being right. We're put on a stage for this type of performance and dealing with those kinds of attacks are just part of that daily performance and you internalize it. I didn't think, of course, at the time but I do wonder sometimes what that did for me and for a lot of other young people to be 18, 19, 20 years old, and have these kinds of statements constantly thrown at you, on a daily basis. You just work through it, you perform through it, to be nice to people who are saying things like that about you.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Saying things like racist and sexist statements?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Yes. That's very, very common, and they can very subtle. You have to create such a case against the person to be taken seriously. My freshman year of college was actually 9/11, which was a particularly hard time to look at all like you were from the Middle East or the subcontinent. There were these issues of every day feeling physically exhausted and then to have to be nice everyday to people that are being horrible to you. In my early 30s, I started having this issue of aging out. These jobs are thought of as being temporary, but for a lot of people they're not.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  What is temporary is how long you may stay at one restaurant, or in one position. There are a lot of people who work in the restaurant industry for ten, 20, 30 years, just not always in the same place. It becomes a real worry if your body is going to keep up. I mentioned that I worked at the Runcible Spoon. There's at least one staircase between me and the kitchen. I don't know that my knees are ever going to recover, to be honest. You start thinking about, is your body going to keep up. I started working restaurants when I was 19, I dropped out of college, I had no training in finances, I had no certification for any skills I had acquired.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Even though the skills turned out to be incredibly translatable and useful, in my academic career, I just had all these questions of why is it this way? 10% of the US workforce worked in the service industries, like restaurant and hospitality, in some way, before the pandemic. It's a massive percentage of the population. So, I came to grad school to try to sort that out.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What kinds of skills did you find that were transferable?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I have excellent communication skills. If you spend every day being nice to people who aren't being particularly nice to you. I found that teaching is easier. By the end of my restaurant work, I was in my early 30s and I was a manager. So, I spent the majority of the day working with employees that are the same age range as the students I teach now. I have really good organization and time management skills, which, the further I go in academia, the more I find that it is not typical. I have just a lot of skills that I learned about how to work with large amounts of people on a daily basis and how to organize things very quickly, with the expectation that something will go wrong. Those are skills that are useful in any profession, but we have no way to quantify or certify them in the restaurant industry as of now. The only real avenue to any kind of skill certification is culinary school and even that has a huge amount of variation.

KAYTE YOUNG:  A lot of people in all levels of the industry don't have that. They come to it from other places as well.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Yes. It's not required, it doesn't guarantee you a job. There are still a lot of apprenticeship models, even in fine dining.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, I would say that most of the people that I talk with, who are chefs, don't have that background. What you said about communication skills in teaching, I could really picture too what you were saying about the performance of working in the industry and just that kind of comfort level of talking to people, being in a classroom. I'm sure a lot of young grad students struggle with that initially, taking command of a room. I would imagine that that would be something you would bring.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Yes. I don't feel like I have had nearly as much anxiety about it, as some of my colleagues. It is surprising to me sometimes how quickly we start teaching. That's not what school is about, teaching you to be around huge groups of people or teaching those kinds of skills and, yes, I see people freeze up a lot.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Could you talk about the field of geography, and why it seemed to you that that was a good place for the kind of work you wanted to do?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Our geography department has a very strong food and agriculture sub-field, not that there are not other branches that do the same. I did my undergrad in history, and history and geography tend to have a lot of strong connections and links between them. It seemed like a more practical choice in some ways. I see a lot more geographers, maybe out working on policy, doing more scholar activism, or as much activism as happens in the University. I loved the puzzle-making of history. I loved the scavenger hunt feel of digging through a 16th century cookbook and I think I always will.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  For this, I thought I wanted it to be in a discipline, that had more connections to praxis and policy change. In this industry, especially, it's so connected to space, place and mobility. Restaurant workers have always been extremely mobile, seasonal and temporary workers, even back in the day in Europe, moving from country to country as the seasons changed. Thinking about the physical space of the restaurant and how this very short term, ad-hoc work gets set up around it, and how customers are drawn from different cultural neighborhoods, those kinds of things I think fit really well with the geography discipline.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I am speaking with Jen Watkins, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Indiana University. We will be back in a moment to talk about the research she did in Chiapas, Mexico, for her Masters thesis. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You're listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young, and I'm talking with Jen Watkins. She's a PhD candidate, in the department of Geography at Indiana University. In her Masters program, she did field work in Chiapas, Mexico.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I was in a small town called San Cristóbal de las Casas and it has a huge tourism economy. Over 80% of the people who live there are employed in the tourism industry in one way or another. I was really just trying to look at how the food that was presented for consumption for the tourists really differed from the everyday food ways of the people who lived there, which led me down some really interesting avenues. I ended up looking at things like the performance of indigeneity in general, indigenous food being served at restaurants by non-indigenous people wearing indigenous clothing, what was being sold in markets in tourist areas, as opposed to markets more on the outskirts of the margins of the city.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  My Masters research quite honestly was very scattered, which informs a lot of what I am doing now. I started grad school, and they said, "Well, you really need to do international research, to prove that you can." So, I set everything up and I landed in Southern Mexico. I just started collecting data and information like crazy, which meant that I didn't have a great plan. I'm glad I did it. I think that I wouldn't be making the research project that I'm making now if I hadn't gone down there, and realized all of those things. I may not have realized how important it was to stay in my own region, and my own community.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I will say, it was really fascinating to work as a non-Spanish speaking waitress in a restaurant in Mexico though. We have a lot of narratives and ideas about immigrant workers in the restaurant industry here, so, it was super interesting to be on the flip side of that. I worked in this small restaurant for two months, every day. There was no Wi-Fi, and none of the women who worked in the restaurant spoke English. So, it was a very sink or swim situation, as far as my fluency went. I took two years of Spanish in preparation for the trip. I hadn't studied it before.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  We just did everything. Some days I was waiting tables, some days I was doing food prep, some days I would get sent off to all these markets to get food for the day. It really disrupted a lot of ideas I had about how restaurants work. We have very specific rules around things like health and safety, around employment and I'm not saying that as one is more positive than the other, like the US is better than Mexico, or vice versa, but it is a big change. That left me thinking a lot about why the US has the rules around restaurants that it has, when that is not always the case in other places.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, that does sound really challenging and pretty gutsy to be in a fast-paced work environment and not speaking the language.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I learned very quickly that two years of college Spanish is of course not even remotely the same as being fluent, but I was fluent by the time I left.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You said that after doing that, that you wanted to stay closer to your own community, to continue your research. So, you chose to focus in Louisville?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I did. I didn't need to be where I grew up. I think I would have a hard time working with restaurant networks and writing about maybe some of the coastal cities. LA's food scene, of course, I have researched and read about it, but that's not my lived experience. Since I had done the opposite for my Masters, staying in the Mid-West was something I wanted to do.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What are the kinds of things that you're going to be looking into, and what is the kind of research that you're going to be conducting?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I'll be doing a lot of archival research. There is very little academic writing about Louisville, which I find incredibly surprising. It's this border city in so many ways, physically and in people's imagination, between the North and the South, between different kinds of segregated communities and between East and West even. I was incredibly surprised that there wasn't more research done there. So, I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the University of Louisville's archives, at the Historical Society, just trying to collect people's narratives around food over the past couple of centuries.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I honestly hope to do interview work with restaurant workers and owners, as well as people who do city planning and small business promotion in the city. I have been doing preliminary conversations with some restaurant owners that are trying to make more changes involving labor, such as implementing 401(k)s, providing health insurance, working with the way the restaurant in general is structured. I don't want my research to be exposé. Restaurant work is hard and people know that.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Restaurant work can be racist and sexist, and people know that. I really want to focus more on how people are working around this, and how people are pushing back, both restaurant owners and restaurant workers. One thing I really want to make clear is that the restaurant industry isn't broken for everybody. The restaurant industry is broken for its workers and its owners. I think in a lot of ways, for the economy, it's doing what it's supposed to be doing and that's why there is a real lack of legislation and policy making around changing some of these labor issues.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  On the end of owners and workers, I want to see how people are getting around that, how people are using agency to push back, and how they're forming communities. In my own restaurant work, the communities that I made while I was in restaurants were really lasting. When I look at who my closest friends are now, it is the people that I initially worked with in restaurants. We've stayed connected to each other, across the country, outside of the country, through all kinds of different professions since we left. That's because it's an incredibly intense, emotional place, and you form these connections to people that really don't go away. I want to tell more of those stories.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Are you going to be looking into the historical forces within Rust Belt cities like Louisville?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I have looked a lot at the Rust Belt transition from manufacturing to the service economies. Every Rust Belt city works a little differently. Louisville de-industrialized later, and only partially. They still have a lot of manufacturing there. I am very interested in how, in a lot of these Rust Belt cities, manufacturing didn't actually go away, the jobs just got worse. They became jobs that were really tied to being poor, and not being white, after people started moving out of these cities, into the suburbs.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I think there's a narrative of manufacturing decline, so people got these service and restaurant jobs instead. It is more complicated than that, so I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the archives, trying to trace what that transition and what that relationship actually look like.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Some of the uneven development that happens across different communities?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Yes, even now in Louisville, where restaurants are located looks really different. There's a lot of urban tourism in Louisville. There's been a lot of gentrification, in the past 20 years. They were one of the cities that really got branded in the 90s, with that "poorest cities in the country." There were a lot of lists like that. That was when they really started this big push for revitalization. You can see that in a lot of Rust Belt cities, but since then the landscape of Louisville has just dramatically changed and a lot of these more working class and poor populations, they're not gone, they're just shifted around to a less visible place.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  So, I have been looking at a lot at the space of the city and how these people are working in restaurants in gentrified or revitalized areas, as compared to where they're actually living. The public transportation system in Louisville is notoriously bad. There is a large Latin American community on the South Side of Louisville, for example, on the other side of the inner state. It's a two-hour bus ride, one way, to get to downtown, where all those restaurants are, so where you live really matters.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Also, it doesn't make sense from a planning perspective, when you think about it. These are the communities you're relying on for the labor, and they have got to figure out some precarious method of getting there. That's just going to mean that they're not always going to be able to manage that.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  It also segregates the labor force in Louisville.


JENNIFER WATKINS:  So we have a lot of people from Latin America working in Mexican or Cuban restaurants in that area. We have a lot more people who are white working in other neighborhoods. For example, in Bloomington, our kitchen restaurant workforce is really overwhelmingly Mexican, even if you go to a Thai or a Japanese restaurant. The chances of the person cooking your food, being from Mexico is enormously high. In Louisville, that workforce is much more segregated by neighborhood because it is so difficult for people to travel. I was actually so used to Bloomington's restaurant scene that I found that really shocking when I went there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I just want to go back to something you said about the manufacturing jobs shifting and getting worse. Forgive me if this is an ignorant question because I just don't know that much about it. Are you saying that either they got worse and therefore the people who were doing them--

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I think I know what you're saying. There is a bit of both. So, on one hand we had a lot of white flight from cities during the Civil Rights uprisings and the pushing back but also a lot of that white flight came from the fact that these jobs really degraded, and they degraded for a lot of reasons. Suddenly we have steel competition from Germany and Japan, we have an oil crisis, we have the Reagan administration. We have all these different things happening. A lot of these jobs lost their entitlements, the health insurance got worse, the pension got worse. Those kinds of securities went away and it made it easier to justify this spreading out to the suburbs, which had started in the post World War II period, but it increased quite a bit during the 70s and 80s.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Would you say that there are more people of color doing those manufacture jobs now, the ones that do remain?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I don't know that about Louisville yet. I think that who the most exploited community in any even place or city is depends a lot on who happens to be the easiest to exploit at that given time. Obviously there is a really long legacy of black exploitation, in Louisville. Before the Civil War, it was a place where slaves were bought and sold, because it was on the river, because it was that borderline between the North and the South. After the Civil War, it was also a place where freed slaves from the South migrated, looking for work. They had the same kind of community destruction in the 60s during the urban renewal period, that you see in a lot of urban black communities.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  So, yes, when we talk about an under-served population or an exploited workforce in Louisville, we are going to have to always talk about black populations. At this point, I do not know a lot about what is going on with their immigrant populations or the refugee populations. That's definitely one of the things I'm going to have be researching, in the coming year.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Immigrant and refugee populations do tend to end up in the food industry somehow, whether it is in manufacturing or in service.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  More and more, we see refugee populations in those positions because when you have undocumented immigrants in a meat packing facility, or a factory, for example, when ICE comes, it disrupts the line and time costs money. So, yes, you're seeing a lot more refugee populations in those jobs now to avoid that. I know that there are refugee organizations that are really active in Louisville. In the last five years, they have programs teaching people how to farm in the US, they were agricultural workers in their countries of origins, and things like that, but I haven't done a lot of work on that.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You talked about wanting to build some networks and relationships with people in the restaurant industry, in Louisville. Is that going to involve extended conversations with people over time?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I wanted to give myself a lot of space. I waited this long to come back to grad school, so if my dissertation project takes a year longer than usual to be what I want it to be, then fine. I think that my project will take longer, than it normally does, because it's very based in participatory action research and community based research methods. In order to do those well, you have to form the relationships. I also have no expectation of leaving Louisville in the next few years. The community itself is important to me. I have ties there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Are you going to be speaking mostly with workers, like servers? Are you going to be talking with people in kitchens and owners?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Yes, all three very much, and to a degree, I'll also be talking with people who work in the city, because I'm thinking about how restaurants work for the national economy as an industry. I'm also thinking about how they work for regional economies or city economies and a big piece of how they work is through urban tourism. When I'm looking at that, then you start thinking about city planning, then I have to start thinking about what kind of revitalization is happening right now. To a lesser degree, I'll be talking to people about that, but mostly owners and workers and I'll be looking pretty equally at the front and back of house, not one over the other.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I see a lot of tensions in the restaurant industry but I feel like that tension between the front and back of house feels a little like a smoke screen. It feels unnecessarily divisive. I want to really look for what the real tensions in the restaurant industry are.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Earlier you said that the restaurant industry isn't working well for workers and it isn't working well for owners, but it is working well for the economy. I wanted to follow up with that, what did you mean by that and in what ways do you see that it is working well?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I think that the restaurant industry, in a lot of ways, in how it functions, is like an original gig economy model. It really thrives on the most marginalized communities in our country, working in a very temporary, part time contract capacity. That's really useful labor valve. When we need to lay off, or get rid of those people, when we have labor surpluses, it is very easy to do. Keeping those restaurant workers flexible and disposable is a really important tool for the national economy.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I am speaking with geographer, Jen Watkins. More from our conversation after a quick break, stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats, and we're back with geographer, Jen Watkins, talking about her research on the restaurant industry. One of the things that the pandemic brought to light is how important restaurants are to, for lack of a better word, consumers. Dining out is a central feature of American culture, not for everyone, but for a large segment of the population.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  We eat out a lot. We out so much. I do think that this is partially to do with American culture around eating, how dependent we are on eating out, and how that is a really interesting transformation from elite luxury dining at the turn of the century, to what we have in this moment. There are obviously some really great scholars on the history of restaurants, and one of our own, Rebecca Spang's book is really excellent. So, I try to mostly just think about that transition over time and why it was happening, but most of my research is based in current economic issues.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I did have some questions about restaurants in the pandemic. With the shutdowns in the early months of the pandemic, restaurants did face a lot of challenges. Food workers were suddenly seen as essential. Restaurants workers were expected to return to what are often low wage and undervalued jobs, usually without benefits, or without health insurance or paid sick leave, expected to risk their health and put up with sometimes demanding or verbally abusive customers. You were talking about that, as just a normal occurrence, but then it really heightened with the pandemic. To me, it felt like these were the expectations just so that a more privileged segment of society could continue dining out. Did the particular conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic figure into your project at all?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I don't think fundamentally it changed my project but I think it made it very clear that there were cracks in the foundation. It always helps to have your own research project suddenly have a national audience. I think that it really exposed how bad these jobs were. It also really exposed how Americans feel about restaurants, and the people who work them. There were a lot of really gross narratives about people being lazy. "What are we going to do with all these people quitting?" We keep seeing this throwback to the teenager job of fast food restaurants, "Anybody could do this."

JENNIFER WATKINS:  This kind of unpleasantness we see in how customers deal with restaurant workers is really just a reflection of what is happening in all of the US. It's just, what makes it different is that servers in restaurants are in this unique position, where their customers are more their bosses than their bosses are. They are directly tied to what money they make through tips and so that just exacerbates every situation. We talked about racism, or sexism, it is all tied to money. This person directly decides whether you get paid for your labor or not. That is what makes it the tipping point between people quitting, or not.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  In the pandemic, not only are people doing this to you, and they decide whether you get paid for your labor or not, but then all of a sudden you have this health risk, on top of it. Again, if the people who are sitting in that restaurant seat don't believe in wearing masks, for example, if you refuse to take yours off, you don't get paid. So I think that's what makes restaurant work different is that, that determines everything.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I think you're right, that it's this place where attitudes that exist in other places in society are really visible because there's that interface. Mostly we don't talk to the Amazon worker who's picking our order, or the person who's manufacturing our clothing or whatever. So, all of the attitudes that people have about superiority over certain kinds of laborers or whatever, they get to interface directly, and also grant or withhold this payment, in the moment. That is a pretty interesting site of study, I would think?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  It magnifies a lot of racial and gender tensions that we have, in our country. The tipped wage, it's this really fascinating thing, because it's your payment, you worked for it, you deserve it, and that tip is built into the price of the food. But it's also a gift and an obligation, and that makes people really easily offended by your behavior surrounding it. I personally think that it makes everything unnecessarily complicated and of course it should be abolished but then that throws everything out of whack. This is a very delicately balanced system for restaurant owners, who literally cannot pay living wages to their workers, which brings into question the whole restaurant model.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It really does.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  We have a lot of conversations around good owners and bad owners. I don't think it's always productive to bring people's morality into the work models because there's a lot of gray area there. I've seen a lot of restaurant owners who aren't particularly bad employers, but if you put them in a position where they have to make a financial decision that benefits their family or their employees, they're always going to pick their family. There are a lot of conversations around High Road Restaurants, but there is a lot of in-between there and I don't think that those kind of conversations end in solutions.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It feels like you have an understanding, what you said earlier about the restaurant industry isn't really working well for the owners either, that there are really slender margins and especially smaller restaurants I would imagine, it's pretty hard to make profit. It sounds like you aren't necessarily saying it's all their fault, there's a larger picture.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I think that's a tension that's really easy to throw out there, the front and back of house thing. I think the terrible owner narrative is also really easy to throw out there. Sure, there are a lot of restaurant owners who are very bad employers, but you can say that about any industry. I think we can just safely say that in the US there are a lot of bad employers. It's an incredibly difficult business to run successfully. Then you think about all the aspects of it, like paying your employees a living wage, plus locally sourcing food, plus having an ambiance that will draw people, a good location, a good garden in the front, cute leather booths, whatever.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Those are a lot of different competing expenses that are all working together. When you have to make those decisions, do you buy the nicest ingredients to make your food, since that is why people are there or do you pay your employees $2 more an hour or do you rent the building that's going to put you in the location that gives you the highest chance of success? I think that in many ways, restaurant owners have one of the most complicated business owning ventures that you can think of. They are balancing so many different goals, in one space and it's rarely successful, as we can see with turnover.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Also if there was one thing I would say that the pandemic really laid bare, it was how precarious most restaurant owners are, that you are one emergency away from just being, I am trying to think of a word that is not a curse word, but you are just one emergency away.

KAYTE YOUNG:  From being done.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Yes, being out of business. I think that was a big thing. Of course, for everybody, all industries, the pandemic made it very clear that workers were done, that they were willing to walk away from a job if it wasn't paying their bills anyway. If it's not paying your bills, if it's not feeding your kids, then there's no point in staying.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you think the pandemic changed anything in the industry? I know that it seemed like there was more exposure, more discussion about the restaurant industry. In my memory, it came pretty close on the heels of the Me Too reckoning that was also happening in the restaurant industry, especially in some of these high-end restaurants. There was some exposure about the ways that employees were being treated, sexual harassment and abuse in the industry. In the pandemic, it really did seem like workers started, perhaps not see their value, because I'm sure they saw their value all along, but maybe begin to leverage that a little bit. Do you think that is going to have any lasting change?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Wages, for example, we all saw restaurant wages go up quite a bit, especially fast food restaurants. But if you look at the language around their hiring and what they were offering, it was very impermanently worded. There was nothing that prevented them from walking it back later. Look at us now, restaurant wages aren't in the news right now. As far as wages go, as long as there is no set minimum wage, raising that, there's nothing to prevent these companies from getting around those wage raises they did during the pandemic.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  As far as the quality of employment, I think that generally all industries are very slowly and very gradually improving when it comes to gender inequality, a little bit. It is easier to speak out against restaurant owners and customers in situations of racism or misogyny, or whatever. I also think that we shift. As inequality for women narrows, we find new people to make second class citizens. Maybe there's less antagonism towards women in restaurants right now, but we have an increasing amount of antagonism towards trans populations in restaurants. It just ebbs and flows. I guess short answer, I don't necessarily see customers behaving better and I don't know that I see employers long term behaving better. We'll have to wait and see.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What you said about maybe inequality with women narrowing, that could also reverse?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Women in the restaurant industry has always been a very ebb and flow sort of thing. Before World War II, that was a very male dominated profession. In the 80s, when they were really trying to get women into the workplace, I actually worked on a digitization project during the Bicentennial where I went through student newspapers from several different IU campuses and there's a five year slot, right there in the 80s, where McDonald's has this huge campaign, trying to get moms to come work for them, getting women into these fast food restaurants, a secondary income. Then there was a reverse of that maybe 10, 15 years later, where they were encouraging women to start staying at home with their kids again. So, this idea of women working in the restaurant industry has never been static, it has always gone up and down depending.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  I think we see the largest permanent breakthroughs with women in chef positions, women in the kitchen. There are a lot of things that have generally changed that. A lot of male celebrity chefs have gotten exposed and blasted. However I feel about reality television, all of these competitions with women and then in the past ten years the Food Network in general, have made women chefs much more visible. I would say that's more permanent.

KAYTE YOUNG:  There was one other thing which you did touch on, but I wanted to come back to it. You said that the restaurant industry is really understudied in academia. It's not a common topic of study. I just wondered if you wanted to say more about that.

JENNIFER WATKINS:  First, I think that's going to change. I think that the pandemic made it an area of more interest. There are people who do work on the invention of the restaurant, the history of the restaurant, the transition of that fine dining from Europe to the US. In that historical work, I don't see a lot about workers. I see a lot about rich people and celebrity chefs. Part of it was because they were actually hard to document, because people were so mobile and so seasonal. Again, there are a lot of people who are doing culture restaurant work, but maybe a handful. I could safely say that maybe ten scholars that are doing work about restaurant labor, which is a pretty small number. There's a lot more attention being given to egg, meat packing, grocery stores.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And to the food itself too, I would think?

JENNIFER WATKINS:  Yes, the food is an object. That's one thing that I'm really interested in, is how to bridge the gap in these two literatures. So we have labor literature, things with political economy, things with inequality, and then we have all of this food literature about aesthetics, about food as an object, and there's no meeting in the middle, but they are connected in the restaurant. I've spent a lot of time trying to think through how to bridge that gap, and how to think of these things all in this one space that is the restaurant.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, I want to thank you for talking with me and I look forward to talking with you again in a couple of years and seeing where some of this work has gone, because it all does really sound very interesting and I am glad you are doing it.


KAYTE YOUNG:  That was Jen Watkins, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, at Indiana University. She's talking about her research on the restaurant industry.

KAYTE YOUNG:  If you're not already following us on Instagram, you can find us at Earth Eats. We also have some fun recipe videos from my home kitchen on YouTube. You can find us by searching for Earth Eats, or WFIU and WTIU on YouTube. There's a playlist there with all of our cooking videos. You can also easily find the link on our website at

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young, with help from Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Samantha Gee, Abraham Hill, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me, Daniella Richardson.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Jennifer Watkins.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is John Bailey.

Jennifer Watkins, head and shoulders photo next to a window with and orange and white cat sitting to the left of her face.

Geographer, Jen Watkins is focusing her current research in Louisville, KY. (Courtesy of Jennifer Watkins)

“When you have to make those decisions--do you buy the nicest ingredients to make your food, since that’s why people are there? Or do you pay your employees two dollars more an hour? Or do you rent the building that’s gonna put you in the location that gives you the highest chance of success? I think that in many ways restaurant owners have one of the most complicated business owning ventures that you can think of. They are balancing so many different goals in one space.”

Today we’re talking with Geographer Jennifer Watkins about restaurants–about owners, workers, customers and how precarious the whole industry appears to be in this moment.


Jennifer Watkins is a geographer currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Indiana University. But Jen didn’t come to graduate school to become a scholar. She came back to school specifically to study restaurants.

Jen had been working in the restaurant industry for most of her adult life, primarily as a server, and also as a manager. She worked for many years at a classic Bloomington institution, the Runcible Spoon.

After 15 years  in the service industry, Jen started to question her life’s path, and what her next move should be.  She wanted to find a way to make a difference in an industry that she sees as largely unequal and broken. The first step is to gain more understanding of the systems at play.

Listen to our conversation on this week’s episode.   

Music on this episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

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