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The Fight for Fairness in Food: An Interview with Kiki Louya

Kiki Louya is a Detroit-born chef, entrepreneur, food activist, community partner, and storyteller who was recognized by The New York Times as one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America.” She founded Folk and The Farmer’s Hand, two award-winning food markets that supported the fair treatment of food and farm workers. She is also a founder of Nest Egg Detroit, the country’s first all women-owned hospitality group. She most recently served as the Executive Director of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF), which raises and distributes funds to empower workers in public discourse and workplace policies. Louya is currently working on new sustainable food concepts in Detroit.

Hai Ning Ng: What do ethical employment practices in the food industry look like to you?

Kiki Louya: Folk, one of the establishments I co-founded, was a tipless establishment. We had always intended to be tipless, but that took on various forms throughout our evolution. At one point, we took away the tip line entirely but eventually replaced it at the behest of our employees, so that customers who wanted to leave gratuity could do so. At another point, we had a fixed hospitality charge of 18 percent. At the same time, though, we were beginning to have conversations with our employees about what ethical employment practices look like. So, when it comes to equity in the food industry now, something I think is increasingly important is giving a voice to your employees, versus taking a top-down management approach. That’s how we began—we decided what the hospitality charge was, what a living wage was, what all the HR policies were going to be. But as restaurant owners or executive chefs, you’re still farther removed from the day-to-day operations and what your employees are going through. If you don’t include them in your conversations and give them a voice in your policies, then you’re not acting on their behalf. 

HN: The RWCF published a set of draft guidelines for a more equitable restaurant industry. What was the starting point for those guidelines?

KL: I think one overarching theme is the idea of respect. Some parts of the restaurant industry have been trying to legitimize restaurant workers as skilled labor by requiring culinary degrees. But at the same time, workers with culinary degrees might have paid 60 thousand dollars for that education, only to be paid less than 10 dollars an hour for their work. Ideas about respect and legitimacy also have to include conversations around access and fair compensation.

That said, we need buy-in on all sides. Whatever work the restaurant industry is doing to legitimize our labor, consumers need to be doing, too. Consumers have to value not just the end product, but also the people who created that product. If one is willing to pay for an incredible grass-fed steak, they also have to believe that the farmer who raised it deserves a living wage, as does the butcher, the cook who cooked it to temp., and the server who put it on their plate. We’re not going to be an equitable industry if our customers don’t respect the work we’re doing. 

HN: The guidelines also included sections on specific issues such as healthcare and immigrant justice. Could you tell us more about what they entail?

KL: Because restaurant work touches on so many different aspects of our society, I think it holds up a mirror to how we treat others within our communities. First, restaurant work can be very dangerous. You’re working in a very fast-paced environment with knives and high heat, on your feet for up to 16 hours a day, day in and day out. As you age in the industry, you become susceptible to many health issues. As a chef, I have burns and scars all over my arms, knee issues, back issues, and I’ve almost cut my finger off—these experiences are not uncommon at all, yet many restaurant workers go without health insurance. The majority of restaurants don’t have any healthcare plans, and if you’re being paid subminimum wages, you can’t afford to elect into health insurance, either. 

When restaurants reopened during the pandemic, many workers—especially front-of-house staff—became the gatekeepers to the establishment. They had to enforce mask and vaccination mandates, and deal with irate customers screaming at them, trashing the place, or throwing food at them in response. That happened anyway even before COVID-19, but the consequences were exacerbated when workers had to enforce public health policy while putting their own health at risk without any protections. As time wears on, the physical health issues and the stress can really take a toll on one’s mental health. Subsequently, many people turned to substance use just to cope. One thing we’re doing at RWCF to combat this vicious cycle is giving grants to organizations providing free or very low-cost mental health services to restaurant workers across the country. 

Second, there are a lot of undocumented immigrants within the restaurant industry. The risk of deportation means that they often feel they cannot speak up for themselves. If one doesn’t speak the language well, and has one of the lowest jobs within the entire brigade system, they won’t have much leverage, nor will they often have people to speak out on their behalf. Additionally, delivery personnel under third-party services like Grubhub and DoorDash are considered contracted workers rather than full-time employees. This means the companies are not on the hook for paying them benefits or providing any kind of employee protections. Delivery workers have kept the restaurant industry afloat, yet they’ve not only been forgotten, but been actively sidelined. For us at RWCF, we’re supporting organizations addressing immigrant rights issues. For example, they provide resources in different languages for workers—undocumented or not—to understand what to do if they’re furloughed or if they need rental assistance, mental health services, urgent care services, etc. These workers should be able to opt into the same resources that any other employee in this country has the right to. 

HN: What do you see as the future of the RWCF’s Covid-19 Crisis Relief Fund and Racial Justice Fund? 

KL: We formed the Covid-19 Crisis Relief Fund out of immediate necessity and were able to deploy more than $7 million to restaurant workers and organizations supporting restaurant workers. But even if Covid-19 eventually subsides, we know that there will still be more natural and financial disasters that will greatly affect people, so this fund actually needs to remain in perpetuity. For example, Texas experienced record cold in the winter of 2020–2021, which its infrastructure was not equipped to handle. A lot of people lost heat, water, and access to food. RWCF mobilized and took relief dollars from our Covid-19 fund to donate to organizations in Texas and Tennessee that were providing aid during this crisis. We also started to have conversations about what crisis relief meant to us. So, in 2022, the Covid-19 Relief Fund is going to become more of an Emergency Relief Fund. Restaurant workers are some of the most vulnerable workers in this country, so every crisis is going to have a large impact on them and the restaurant industry is going to need support.  

For the Racial Justice Fund, we’ve made a very concerted effort this year to work specifically with grassroots organizations. There are many systemic barriers to BIPOC organizations being able to not only organize, but also be recognized and legitimized. It’s one thing to obtain nonprofit 501(c)(3) status, but another thing to gain legitimacy among donors, to get a bank loan, to be able to talk to big funders and foundations. All of the organizations we chose to work with had amazing visions and very capable staff, but often insufficient funding. Sometimes that meant they could not bring on the consultants they needed to take the organization to the next level, or that they did not have legal support. We wanted to support these grassroots BIPOC organizations by creating a stable and sustainable foundation. Rather than one-off planning grants, we see this support as the beginning of a long partnership. I would love to see the projects and initiatives we have funded take flight in the next year or two, and for these organizations to build a bigger presence on the global stage. 

HN: What are some of the organizations or projects that the RWCF has funded? 

KL: I’ll give two examples of grantees that received planning grants from the Racial Justice Fund. First, the Restaurant Opportunities Center had developed a racial equity toolkit, but they did not know how to scale it. An organization in Detroit, FoodLab, manages cohorts every year where they bring together restaurateurs who are committed to creating equitable spaces. Yet, they needed the tools to figure out how to do that. So we paired these two organizations together; FoodLab was going to have their cohort undergo an in-person module of this racial equity training for the first time. And if we can do it in Detroit, then why not New York, or Los Angeles, or Miami? Furthermore, the more restaurants that go through this racial equity training, the more they can become stewards in their own communities, and that knowledge can spread through their networks. I’m really excited about this initiative because it’s a very practical, actionable project about the steps that restaurants can take. It’s a direct response to them saying: “We want to do this, we just have no idea how.” 

The other project is with an organization called Studio ATAO, a food, beverage, and hospitality think tank. They’re doing a guided study on the role that restaurants play in the gentrification of a neighborhood. How can a restaurant be mindful of the harm that it creates or has the potential to create, and how does it mitigate that harm? Often, you see restaurants becoming a “first in the neighborhood” destination, and if they succeed in that neighborhood, then all of a sudden larger-scale development starts to happen. Restaurants therefore have a responsibility to the community it coexists with, and being mindful of that will help drive more equitable policy and development. I live in Detroit, which is a prime example of gentrification occurring right now. It’s a very racialized phenomenon and has created a lot of harm within our community, so I think this project is really important in considering that impact. 

HN: Speaking of gentrification and harm, how can a restaurant avoid that and instead engage with and support the community it’s in? 

KL: As restaurateurs and chefs, our concept and our food is very important to us in opening a new establishment. And, like other businesses, you consider the demographics, the availability of parking and transportation in the area, what other shops are close by—all of these factors that determine the likelihood of our business being successful in that location. What we don’t always consider, though, is the community that already exists there from their perspective. What do they want? Restaurateurs and developers in general are looking at real estate in terms of trying to get a great property below market value. But we also have a responsibility to that community to include them in the decision-making, otherwise we have simply created a spot in their neighborhood that they may not be able to afford to dine in. And that is the first step to edging them out of their communities. Considering the community doesn’t have to mean changing the entire menu or concept; it could also mean having specials, having lower-cost menu items, a five-dollar burger night, a loyalty program, a seniors’ program, a neighborhood discount, a pay-what-you-can or pay-it-forward system, and so on. There are so many options if we just start thinking outside the traditional restaurant model. 

We also have to think critically about the opportunities we’re giving to people in the neighborhood. Are we offering them employment opportunities? Do we interact with the community at all? If we find that we are not interacting with community members at all, then we can probably come to the conclusion that we are harming them instead. Right now, there are a lot of reinvestment dollars going into cities with strong communities of color, like Detroit, Oakland, Chicago, and Baltimore. But banks and corporations have to be mindful of not placing additional harm on those communities by doing so, recognizing, for example, the amount of debt we’re asking people to elect into, or the amount of equity we’re asking them to give up for these projects. And sometimes it’s not just about immediate access to capital, it’s about longevity and building generational wealth. I think we have to look at everything from a systemic perspective, rather than only a short-term, financial perspective. 

HN: What do more equitable and sustainable supply chains look like?

KL: My mind immediately goes to wages, because a lot of people in that supply chain are being undervalued right now. I think that everyone along the supply chain, from the beginning to the end, needs to be paid a liveable wage for the area they live in. And again, consumer buy-in, because there’s often outrage about restaurant prices and the belief that prices on menus are really marked up. But if consumers recognize that there could be trade issues, natural disasters, and a variety of other factors causing supply chain disruptions, then they will realize that those factors correspond directly to our costs and translate into menu prices. 

Both in my restaurants and as a consumer, I believe that supporting my local economy is the biggest impact I can make with my dollars. If we want to know exactly how people along the supply chain are being treated, we can do that by spending in our own local economies, because we are contributing directly to those people. We have these huge macro-farms practicing agricultural monoculture, farming hundreds of thousands of acres of land, yet these farms are only owned by a handful of people and are putting small farmers out of business. Supporting direct-to-consumer products help us not lose sight of the people behind the supply chain. I’ll know my farmer, I’ll know exactly how these chickens were fed and what goes into my food. If we care enough about our food and about the people who made it, we also shorten the supply chain down to something that’s more manageable for us to keep track of. 

HN: How can people who live in cities support better food systems? 

KL: I think even people who live in urban areas have “access points”, like farmers’ markets, which are great places for small farmers and makers to sell their products. I’m also seeing more local goods in smaller stores such as mom-and-pop shops, who tend to work with farmers located on the periphery of their cities. Chicago, for example, is a major city surrounded by farmland all around the states of Illinois and Iowa. It therefore has a great pipeline from small farms to restaurants and grocery stores; you’ll see many products from farmers in that area. Many urban areas, at least a little bit beyond the suburbs, are surrounded by rural areas. Most states do have a good farming community, and once you start going to the farmers’ market and seeing some familiar faces, you’ll want to see them every single week. 

It’s also really great if you can grow your own produce. Even if you don’t have the privilege of having backyard space, you can grow things in pots or windowsill units or even inside your home. This past winter in Michigan, I grew potatoes and kale. The cool thing about growing your own food is that you can share it with your neighbors: I gave away eggplants and tomatoes at the end of last season. And, if you have kids, it’s a great way to teach them about where their food comes from and help them develop a new skill. You start to appreciate the work of farming and the food on your plate more, too. Some urban communities have community gardens, and they’re very much worth it if you can get a plot. It becomes a built-in community with people you can learn from and trade with, so that’s always a good thing to look out for if you move into a new neighborhood. 

HN: How do your identities and experiences influence your work? 

KL: I think being a chef has absolutely brought me closer to my culture and heritage. My dad immigrated here from the Congo, and so growing up as a first-generation African American in this country, the things I ate weren’t really understood by my classmates. When you’re younger, you don’t want to be labeled the ‘other’: You just want to assimilate and be as Americanized as possible in order to fit in. But as I got older and started working in food, I began to have more appreciation for the history that was passed down to me from my parents and grandparents. I started to be proud of it, because I realized that that’s what makes me who I am. I learned more about how my culture and other cultures influenced America and American cuisine as we know it today, and seeing those linkages made it feel more like a melting pot than I had ever really thought of it before. My mom’s family is from the American South, and I used to feel shame around Southern food, too, because it was viewed as unhealthy. But now I just see these beautiful culinary traditions in all the things that we do, and I think having these varied perspectives makes me unique. 

Besides my heritage, I think growing up in Detroit was definitely a formative experience. It’s a city that is very much marred by our history of race riots, white flight, redlining, and so on. So many communities have been torn apart over the years, so there’s at times a sadness or heaviness to living here. At the same time, you feel a sense of pride seeing a city that never gives up, that appreciates our history and where we came from, and that has the opportunity to rebuild in a way that is authentic to us. Being from Detroit is interesting because we’re like no other city, yet we’re also a mirror image of what has happened in this country in the last century, from the Ford Motor Company and the advent of automobiles to the Civil Rights Movement. Having this background is why I think a lot about people’s histories, how we treat others, and how every little interaction that we have matters.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.