Hulu’s ‘The Bear’ and the Restaurant Industry’s Long Overdue Reckoning

Guest Essay

Credit…FX

By Saru Jayaraman

Ms. Jayaraman is the president of One Fair Wage; the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley; and the author of several books on the service sector.

This article contains spoilers for the Hulu series “The Bear.”

There’s a moment in Episode 3 of Hulu’s acclaimed restaurant drama “The Bear” when Carmy, the culinarily ambitious chef-owner of a Chicago beef sandwich shop, joins his sous chef, Sydney, for a break on the roof at the end of a difficult day — and she lets him have it.

“I think this place could be so different from all the other places we’ve been at,” she says, referring to the trauma that so many kitchen workers share from working in harsh and sometimes abusive workplaces. “But in order for that to be true, we need to run things different.” She goes on: “But you just didn’t really listen … And I mean, I think we should probably try to listen to each other.”

There’s so much in “The Bear” that’s relatable for anyone who has worked in restaurants: small details like the plastic quart tub that Carmy drinks water from; banter with co-workers on smoke breaks; comparing scars from accidents and burns. The show also accurately depicts the relentless pressure that drives some restaurant workers to addiction or injury; the screaming, harassment, toxic masculinity and overwork that they often endure for very little pay; and the pride in their work that brings them back day after day.

After 20 years of organizing restaurant workers to demand higher wages and more equitable working conditions, I watched “The Bear” with some trepidation: It focuses on the struggles of the young white male chef, with only glimpses into the lives of the workers of color in the restaurant. Even so, I found the show to be a strikingly accurate depiction of the joys, challenges and inequities of restaurant life.

And that scene on the roof surprised me — in a good way. Sydney’s demand to be heard by her boss reflects a larger struggle, between the old way of doing things in restaurants and a new, better way. Two and a half years after the Covid pandemic began, we’re in a long-overdue moment of upheaval and evolution for the restaurant industry. And for once, restaurant owners are actually listening to the workers.

That may be because they have to. Last year, seven out of 10 restaurateurs reported they didn’t have enough staff. In a tight labor market, many restaurant workers found higher-paying jobs that fit their lifestyles better. Nearly a million restaurant workers left the industry between the end of 2019 and the end of 2021. When Covid-19 shut down most of the restaurant industry, many lost salary, tips or their jobs. Among those who kept working, many reported that hostility and harassment from customers increased — and workers had to enforce Covid protocols on those whose tips they needed to survive. As restaurants have rebounded, an acute lack of workers to take the jobs has changed the dynamics of the industry.

These are difficult, stressful jobs, as “The Bear” accurately illustrates. But people are willing to take them — and to work hard and with passion — if they’re treated and paid fairly. The restaurant industry’s problem isn’t, at its root, a labor shortage; it’s a wage shortage. In “The Bear,” after Carmy lashes out at his staff in a moment of extreme pressure, leading to two of them quitting, he apologizes — and they return to work. This is one place where “The Bear” doesn’t match what I see happening in the industry, where for most of the workers who have quit jobs, even the most contrite apology wouldn’t be enough to bring them back. When my advocacy group, One Fair Wage, surveyed nearly 3,000 food service workers in late 2020 and early 2021, 53 percent of people still in the industry told us that they were considering leaving, and 76 percent said it was partly because of low wages and tips. What would persuade them to stay, 78 percent told us, is simple: a livable wage with tips on top.

“The Bear” is resonating now partly because it shows workers demanding a better workplace, one where their work is valued and they are respected — which is happening in restaurants and beyond.

The restaurant industry’s inequitable culture is a direct product of the politics of greed and structural racism. When the United States abolished slavery, white restaurant owners resented having to pay newly freed Black workers, particularly Black women — so they invented the idea that tips could be a replacement for wages. They formed the National Restaurant Association in 1919, with a focus on lobbying to keep wages as low as possible for tipped workers, kitchen workers and agricultural workers who supplied restaurants with food.

Today, the association is led by chain restaurants that have successfully lobbied to block minimum wage increases at the federal and state levels and freeze the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour at the federal level and $5 an hour or less in most states. Forcing these workers to live primarily on tips contributes to racial inequity: Research shows that Black servers and workers of color in general are tipped less than their white counterparts. Tipping has also contributed to restaurants’ having the absolute worst rates of sexual harassment of any industry: When the customer pays your wages, the customer is always right — even when what the customer is doing is horribly wrong.

But it never had to be this way. Seven states — California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota and Alaska — have always required a full minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers with tips on top, and most of those also have wages for untipped kitchen staffs that are higher than the national average. Despite the National Restaurant Association’s constant fear-mongering that raising wages would kill the industry, these seven states have generally had higher restaurant job growth rates, small full-service restaurant growth rates and tipping averages than the 43 other states.

In “The Bear,” Carmy insists on calling everyone “chef.” It’s a way to calm the kitchen’s chaos, yes, but it’s also a signal that he values his employees as professionals and humans. He learns the hard way that if he doesn’t show them respect, they’ll leave. A growing number of employers across the nation are coming to this realization. Many are offering their staffs benefits and perks that were unheard-of before the pandemic. At One Fair Wage, we have tracked thousands of restaurants in all 43 states that allow sub-minimum wages that are now paying wages of $15, $20, $25 and more, plus tips, in order to recruit staff. This is a significant increase since before the pandemic, and it includes dozens of restaurants that fought our efforts to raise wages in the past.

Around the United States, support for living wages for restaurant workers is growing. In Michigan, courts have just ruled that $12 plus tips (up from the current $3.75) is the law; even though it will likely be appealed, policymakers are already moving to enforce it, and over 600,000 signatures have been submitted to raise the wage further, to $15 plus tips. In November, voters in Washington, D.C., will consider a ballot measure to raise the wage for all workers, including kitchen and tipped workers, to $15 plus tips. In Portland, Maine, a similar measure could bring restaurant workers’ earnings to $18 an hour plus tips. There is also legislation on the issue advancing in New York, Illinois and Massachusetts — and One Fair Wage is working with partners and legislators to introduce legislation in many more states in 2023.

Season 1 of “The Bear” ends with an indication that Carmy’s sandwich shop, The Original Beef of Chicagoland, will reinvent itself. Similarly, the restaurant industry is reinventing itself, thanks to the collective courage of the millions of workers who are speaking up or leaving — and the thousands of restaurant owners and policymakers who are now listening.