How Daniel Patterson Is Tightening The Racial And Gender Gap In The Restaurant Industry

From bartenders to servers, line cooks, and food runners, he found front-of-the-house employees were working fewer hours and making much more money than their counterparts.

From the outside, it may appear that Daniel Patterson is running his Alta Group outposts in California just like any other restaurateur. But behind the scenes, this Michelin-starred chef has been building a program with his team to tighten the gender, racial, and wage gaps in the restaurant industry, especially in the fine-dining space.

Patterson’s efforts have played out in a number of different ways, all of which are focused on removing implicit bias in management and creating more equitable pathways for employment. In all the restaurants that fall under his Alta Group umbrella, he’s changed and standardized his practices in hiring and distribution of wages as a way to level out the playing field.


[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I was trying to figure out what a more equitable restaurant industry looks like, and obviously, part of that is access to ownership opportunities.[/quote]

Patterson has also been linking with diverse chefs and restaurateurs to open new dining concepts in the Bay Area. In 2018, he joined forces with chef Nigel Jones (of Oakland’s Kingston 11) to open the Jamaican-Caribbean restaurant Kaya and launched Dyafa in Oakland with James Beard Award semifinalist Reem Assil (of Reem’s California), who is channeling her Palestinian-Syrian background in her Arabic dishes. Patterson also recently partnered with Heena Patel to revamp a former Alta restaurant space into Besharam, which plays upon Patel’s recipes from her Gujarat upbringing in western India.

Daniel Patterson. Photo via The Cooking Project, used with permission.

Patterson says these partnerships all happened organically and partly out of his connection to Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, an advocacy group that works to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers. It was also perfect timing that he had a few existing Alta Group restaurants that were in the midst of a change; he briefly closed them and flipped them to these new concepts.

“I was trying to figure out what a more equitable restaurant industry looks like, and obviously, part of that is access to ownership opportunities,” Patterson says.

Photo by Connor Bruce, used with permission.

Thinking locally

Patterson is no stranger to social justice, especially when it comes to food. Along with Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, Patterson co-founded Locol, a healthful fast-food concept serving underrepresented communities in Northern and Southern California. He also co-founded The Cooking Project, a nonprofit that teaches underprivileged youths about healthy eating, cooking, and self-reliance. For Patterson, this racial equity pilot program was another avenue that “connected spiritually” with his fundamental ideas of having “access to good food and jobs and creating equity,” he says.

This new chapter in Patterson’s life started nearly two years ago when ROC United approached him and the owners of another Bay Area restaurant, Homeroom, to participate in its racial equity pilot program.

“[ROC United] wanted to do work in the fine-dining space, which is historically very plagued by gender and racial biases, and they wanted to work with someone to develop the program,” Patterson says.

Photo by Connor Bruce, used with permission.

Ending discrimination

As a result of this pilot program, ROC United released its Racial Equity Toolkit in November 2017 to help other restaurateurs and managers create the same kind of equitable environments at their locations.

Teófilo L. Reyes, the national research director for ROC United, says they developed this pilot program after doing an audit of gender and racial discriminatory biases in fine-dining establishments, looking into the restaurants’ hiring and advancement practices. In their yearslong research, ROC United found that “workers of color applying to fine dining positions are only half as likely to be hired as white workers,” Reyes says.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Workers of color and women are relegated to either back-of-the-house or lower paying positions in restaurants.[/quote]

“From Census data, we know that both racial and gender segregation is a major problem,” Reyes adds. “Workers of color and women are relegated to either back-of-the-house or lower paying positions in restaurants. After many conversations with restaurant owners, we recognized that many employers don’t have professional hiring and training processes in place — which allows implicit bias to affect hiring practices, even among well-intentioned employers.”

Photo by Connor Bruce, used with permission.

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Launching a movement

In order to get this program rolling, Patterson enlisted Gabriel Barba to help take on the position of Alta Group’s learning and development director. He says Barba has been “instrumental” in developing the standardized systems they now follow at all their restaurants.

Barba worked closely with Patterson and ROC United to develop systems in place for hiring, interviewing, and reviewing employees. He created all the materials that aid in the development and training of all positions, from dishwasher to manager.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]People tend to hire either their friends or people they know or have a tendency to be friends with people with whom they share a similar cultural background.[/quote]

One of the most important directions they took was changing their hiring practices and the pool from which they chose candidates. Patterson says the program wouldn’t work if they had all these policies in place but didn’t have the diverse applicants to fill these roles. “Quite often in restaurants, people tend to hire either their friends or people they know or have a tendency to be friends with people with whom they share a similar cultural background, which is one of the limiting factors in the hiring process,” Patterson says.

While they do still hire through advertisers, Alta Group now also reaches out to ROC United’s training program, re-entry programs, and other community-based organizations for candidates. This gives an entry point to people who normally wouldn’t have access to fine-dining jobs. And through their robust training program, they offer their employees more opportunities and tools to advance.

The Alta Group team has implemented a standardized system for interviewing and hiring employees in a way that is not personalized or biased. They ask candidates a set of questions that assess their abilities and objectively use their answers to determine whether the candidate would be a good fit for the organization.

“The goal was to remove implicit bias, so the standardization, detail, and follow-through allows us to see who is qualified to get raises and who qualifies for advancement in a really objective way,” Patterson says. “A lot of the barriers to advancement for women and people of color are bound up in this implicit bias where people just don’t see the work that they’re doing, so the most important thing coming from the top down is to be really explicit and direct and almost forceful about what our values are,” Patterson says.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]A lot of the barriers to advancement for women and people of color are bound up in this implicit bias where people just don’t see the work that they’re doing.[/quote]

Photo by Connor Bruce, used with permission.

Attacking wage gaps

The Alta Group team also wanted to tackle the massive wage gaps between the front- and back-of-the-house positions so they could provide all of their employees with a livable wage, Barba says. After assessing all their restaurant positions, from bartenders to servers, line cooks, and food runners, they found that front-of-the-house employees were working fewer hours and making much more money than their counterparts. To balance that wage inequity, they restructured their organization so that everyone now makes about the same hourly wage, regardless of their position.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It’s really amazing watching someone go from being a dishwasher to a cashier through our learning system and processes.[/quote]

“The pay structure is a very important part of equity,” Patterson says. “We [also] either do a service charge or tip pool in which everyone in the whole restaurant participates, so it really shrinks the wage gap between front- and back-of-the-house and between the lowest-paid and highest-paid employees.”

Patterson and Barba both admit that implementing these processes can be costly and time-consuming, but they see it as an investment. “We hope that it’s an investment that will pay off over time,” Patterson says. “We’re still in the early stages, so it’s too soon to tell, but we’re hoping that the investment will aid in creating new systems. And developing our team makes for a more stable staff, less turnover, more efficiency, and just a better-run restaurant.”

Barba says he’s surprised they didn’t do this program sooner because the turnover rate at their organization had reduced significantly, noting that employee satisfaction and engagement has also increased. “It’s really amazing watching someone go from being a dishwasher to a cashier through our learning system and processes,” Barba says.

Photo via The Cooking Project, used with permission.

Power of partnerships

These practices are also in place for Patterson’s new partnerships with Jones, Assil, and Patel, who share similar values with him. “I definitely wouldn’t partner with someone who didn’t feel the same way,” Patterson says. “It actually makes the business much stronger because everyone in the partnership feels very deeply about these issues.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I often felt that anti-Arab sentiment and xenophobia in this country propelled immigrant families like mine to shy away from these terms and use broader terms like Mediterranean or Middle Eastern.[/quote]

Assil, who opened Dyafa in April 2018, says it’s important to her that her restaurant reflects the community it’s in, and as a result, they’re focused on hiring people of color, especially women of color, for all the positions. “We want to cultivate a work environment in which people have pathways to leadership and have a voice on the job,” Assil says.

“This means focusing on taking our time with training people, identifying their leadership, and offering them opportunities to shine. It also means hiring people who share our values of social justice, which include zero-tolerance for racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia and a commitment to upholding an environment both within our staff and with our customers in which those who are most marginalized in society feel seen and heard.”

Opening Dyafa has also given Assil an avenue to proudly express her culture. Assil, who grew up eating Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian cuisines at home, says she didn’t see herself reflected in the media or through food in her formative years. She often found that people would narrow down her cultures’ food as just falafel, hummus, and shawarma, even though there were so many other dishes she grew up eating that she wanted to bring to the forefront.

“I also wanted to create a safe space for Arabs to be proud to name their food as Arab, Palestinian, or Syrian,” Assil says. “I often felt that anti-Arab sentiment and xenophobia in this country propelled immigrant families like mine to shy away from these terms and use broader terms like Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. I hope to be a counter-trend to this phenomenon. There is so much to celebrate about my culture and I want my food to spark those conversations.”

Photo by Connor Bruce, used with permission.

Beyond the bay

Patterson is expanding past the Bay Area with his endeavors. He is in the midst of opening a new Alta restaurant in L.A. in the historically black West Adams neighborhood in summer 2018. He plans on hiring locally, including the neighboring area of South L.A., like he did with Locol. Things are already in motion; his Alta Adams chef, Keith Corbin, is from Watts, a South L.A. neighborhood that was once associated with a high crime rate

Patterson says what they’re doing to level out the playing field in the fine-dining space is, in a way, really easy. “There are a lot of restaurant groups that get development opportunities and have access to capital that could just say, ‘Hey, who’s already around here who’s doing work that’s interesting that we could support? Let’s work with them, let’s give them equity, let’s create ownership, and let’s create representation.’”

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