Seven weeks after California restaurants were told to close their dining rooms, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced a new initiative to help the restaurant industry, which has been decimated by the coronavirus outbreak. Called High Road Kitchens, the program helps fund a network of independent restaurants to provide meals on a sliding scale to folks in need.
The program, which is supported by both public and private funds, offers money to help restaurants reopen and re-employ their staff. Those restaurants, in turn, commit to provide livable wages and equity to their workers. The program is managed by One Fair Wage, a nonprofit that advocates for tipped workers, who make less than the minimum wage in all but seven states.
High Road Kitchen grew out of discussions among chef-activists that include Los Angeles chef Daniel Patterson; Robert Egger, the founder of DC Central Kitchen; and Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center. The group founded High Road Kitchens in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, but they envision it as something that could help improve what they call an already-flawed restaurant industry.
“We can give this thing some legs past the crisis,” said Patterson, whose restaurant Alta Adams reopened Thursday in West Adams, serving a takeout menu that includes a High Road Kitchens sliding-scale payment option for customers. (Diners can choose a price option from the online menu, including zero.)
Alta Adams and Barcito, Andrea Borgen’s downtown Argentine restaurant, are the first two restaurants in Los Angeles to participate. Another 11 in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Monterey and Sacramento are also implementing the program. Some of the restaurants serve their full or partial menus in addition to a High Road Kitchens option; Namu Stonepot in San Francisco and Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Monterey are only selling dishes using the sliding scale model.
Under the terms of the program, High Road Kitchens gives restaurants an initial grant. In turn, the restaurants agree to join One Fair Wage within five years; implement its race, gender and equity programs; serve a minimum of 500 free meals; and follow through with the scaled payment model. How the individual restaurants do that is left up to them, but High Road Kitchens offers support with implementing the program.
Hours before the doors to the restaurant opened, Alta Adams executive chef Keith Corbin, chef de cuisine Gwen Etta and Patterson — all three gloved and masked — packed boxes with the braised beef, collards, red beans and rice that comprised the first High Road Kitchens menu offering, called “family meal.” The closed-off dining room was stacked with a jigsaw of empty chairs. Patterson dropped chicken in the fryer, then tasted it. “Oh my God, yes,” he said, the joy of cooking in a working kitchen again filling his voice.
Even before the pandemic, the system needed to be reset, Patterson said: “It’s like a bone, it has to be broken.”
The 13 California restaurants are the first phase of the program; organizers hope to launch in New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Michigan next.
“The world has changed and it’s not going to change back,” Patterson said. “Something will come back — but it’s up to us to decide what that is.”