Andy Shallal's Eatonville and his Busboys & Poets chain were recognized as "high road" restaurants today by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. (Evy Mages/The Washington Post)

Formed in New York after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and with chapters in 10 cities now, ROC has repeatedly launched campaigns to, as the group notes on its Web site, “improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s low-wage restaurant workforce.” One of ROC’s tools is its annual diners’ guide, which compiles information on restaurants that provide their employees with hourly wages above the minimum and/or paid sick leave, among other benefits.

“The purpose of this guide is not to tell you where to eat and where not to eat,” the guide notes in its introductory text. “The purpose of this guide is to provide you with information and tools to communicate to managers and owners wherever you eat out, whenever you eat out, that you, the consumer, care about the wages paid, benefits provided and opportunities for advancement given to workers in the restaurants in which you dine.”

At an event this morning at Busboys and Poets at City Vista, ROC announced the local eateries that met at least two of the five criteria required to be “high road” restaurant. The winners included Ben’s Chili Bowl, Busboys & Poets, Eatonville, Inspire BBQ, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Minibar, Jaleo, Oyamel and Zaytinya. Eatonville and Busboys & Poets are owned by restaurateur/activist Andy Shallal , while Minibar, Jaleo, Oyamel and Zaytinya are all part of Jose Andres’s Think Food Group empire.

The number of local “high road” restaurants declined by two from the inaugural 2012 National Diners’ Guide. Nikki Lewis, lead coordinator of ROC United of Washington, said one establishment (Yola) closed and another (Freshii) didn’t get its paperwork in on time. “We’re still promoting” Freshii, Lewis says.

Nationally, however, the number of restaurants that made the cut more than doubled, Lewis added, from about 30 last year to 70 this year. Part of the growth can be attributed to ROC’s own expansion into the Philadelphia and Houston markets.

“But aside from that . . . I think we have a lot of local campaigns that have support from employers, so the word is spreading to more restaurant employers and consumers,” Lewis said. “That is helping us build the momentum to get more people on board.”

Among ROC’s campaigns was one in Dearborn, Mich., where employees filed a federal lawsuit claiming they were underpaid and denied overtime while working at Andiamo restaurant. The suit was settled last year. It is one of numerous victories that ROC has claimed with its campaigns, both old and new, which include an ongoing battle with Darden Restaurants (owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Capital Grille) over what ROC charges are “poor working conditions.”

“We’re just there to aid [workers] and help them know what their rights are,” Lewis told All We Can Eat, “and assist them with all the legal stuff.”

ROC’s work has clearly stuck in the craw of some restaurant owners, who have formed a coalition to fund a campaign and Web site of their own. It’s called ROC Exposed, and its goal is to divulge ROC’s alleged ”hidden agenda.” ROC Exposed’s first salvo is a full-page ad in USA Today on Thursday, claiming that the “Restaurant Opportunities Center is a labor union front group that attacks restaurants around the country, citing its own ‘surveys’ which allege that certain restaurants provide poor pay and benefits.”

“Ironically, these biased surveys are conducted by unpaid workers who receive no benefits.”

Alison Harden, a spokeswoman for ROC Exposed, declined to provide more details about the nonprofit group’s finances other than to say it is funded by a “broad coalition of restaurants who are concerned about ROC’s misinformation and attack campaign.”

“Since ROC has a history of unjustified and damaging protests of restaurants,” Harden added in an e-mail, “we will not be naming our members for fear of reprisal.”

Lewis told All We Can Eat that ROC routinely is accused of being a union organizer but noted that the National Labor Relations Board has ruled otherwise. “They are always trying to throw that at us,” Lewis said of the union organizing charges. “But a workers center is a new model that has emerged over the last 10 years in this country.”

As for not paying survey workers, Lewis said that’s bunk, too. “The surveys we conduct are . . . academic surveys that are created in conjunction with the universities we work with,” she said. Some of the survey workers are unpaid interns, Lewis added, “but that’s an internship.” Paid staff members, including Lewis herself, also work on the surveys.

The bottom line, Lewis said, is that ROC is not concerned about ROC Exposed. “The little guys have always gone up against people with more money and more power. This is to be expected. No, we’re not worried.

“We know what we’re doing is necessary,” she added.

Vida Ali, co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of ROC’s “high road” restaurant winners, said it’s possible to give employees a living wage with certain benefits and still turn a profit.

“I think you have to strike a balance with the two,” Ali said. “But I think you have to treat your employees fairly, and I think ROC does a beautiful job.”

“They are a tool,” she added. “If you have questions or need any research . . . I can call them and ask a question about anything to do with treating an employee fairly.”


Further reading:

* Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, is ‘democracy’s restaurateur’