New study documents systemic racism in Seattle restaurants

Author: Bethany Jean Clement, Seattle Times food writer

Posted on July 24, 2020


image of waiter serving table of guests at restaurantWhat happens if a white server and a person of color with the same qualifications apply for jobs at 100 different upscale Seattle restaurants? Using pairs of actors to conduct same-day tests, a new study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and the Seattle Office for Civil Rights shows that they received the same treatment only a little over a third of the time, while white workers received preferential treatment almost half the time. Evidence of treatment favoring people whom the report classified as Black or Latinx was found in 17% of the tests.

While each pair of interviewees was coached together and matched in terms of gender, age, resume credentials and manner, their interviews varied in ways starkly described in the report: “White tester was invited to contact general manager, Black tester was not,” “White tester offered job as server, Black tester asked to consider a position as a barista,” “General manager shook white tester’s hand only.”

One more detailed account of a pair of interviews goes thusly: “On a Friday in December, a Black female tester and a white female tester in their twenties applied for employment at a fine-dining restaurant in Seattle … The GM told them [both] the restaurant was not hiring servers at the moment. The GM encouraged the Black tester to apply at a fine dining restaurant far north of the city. The GM joked with the white tester and asked if she had a flexible schedule, if she was interested in a position as host, and if she could start immediately. The GM referred to both testers as ‘sweetheart’ at the end of the interview.”

The 100 restaurants tested in 2017-18 represent a majority of Seattle’s fine-dining establishments — if you are a habitual upscale restaurant-goer, you have been to some of these places. The study also contains analysis of census data and focus groups, with findings including:

  • While workers of color make up 46% of Seattle’s restaurant workforce, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in less visible, lower-wage jobs, and are underrepresented in the highest-paying positions, including roles that involve direct customer contact and supervisory ones.
  • Workers of color and women are more likely to earn wages that are insufficient for their basic needs compared with their white male counterparts.
  • Positions throughout both the “front of house” (dining room) and the “back of house” (kitchen) are highly segregated by race and ethnicity. Only 18% of bartenders in Seattle are workers of color.

  • During interviews and focus groups, restaurant workers described a pattern of discriminatory behavior in their interactions with managers, customers and co-workers. These experiences ultimately lead many workers of color to avoid seeking higher-earning opportunities in the industry.

The “Great Service Divide” study is available to read here. 

And while the research was conducted pre-pandemic, the report calls for the restaurant industry to use the changes wrought by COVID-19 as an “opportunity to promote racial equity and expand opportunities for Black workers” in rehiring and rebuilding. “The pandemic has decimated the industry, but now offers the opportunity to re-envision the industry and rebuild it with the values that many progressive restaurant owners hold,” says Teofilo Reyes, ROC United programs and research director.

ROC United offers restaurateurs racial equity training as well as an online Racial Equity Toolkit, with steps to take toward creating racial equity through recruitment, hiring and training processes, as well as tracking occupational segregation.

The report’s authors also say the city of Seattle plans to work with local restaurants “to prioritize better, more equitable hiring practices intended to actively combat systemic racism in the local restaurant industry.”

Bethany Jean Clement:; on Twitter: @BJeanClement.

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