Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chatter 13 Selina (Cafe Chocolate) responds

After my review of Cafe Chocolate in which I made some references to prices and to the size of portions Selina Man went to some trouble to respond with two emails to me which, with her permission, I will slightly abbreviate and publish below. I should also add that I have the greatest admiration for Selina and what she is doing and count her as a personal friend. The link Selina sent to the article in the journal "Obese" on the size of portions is also worth looking at

She wrote:

A key piece of information you might like to share on your blog is the unconscionable way cafe/restaurant workers are paid in America. By state law of Pennsylvania, all cafe/restaurant workers who receive at least $30 per month in tips, could be paid a legal wage of $2.83 per hour. The minimum wage for all others is $7.15. The legal hourly pay rate for restaurant workers is even lower in NY and NJ!!! No chain restaurant will pay any more than that.

As a Canadian/American married to an Australian/American, I personally think it unethical and inhumane to pay working people so little money - with no health care.

Cafe Chocolate pays all of its employee at least the minimum wage + the team shares all tips, front and back (another radical practice since kitchen staff do not in general get tips.) Real pay per hour at the cafe is $12/hr minimum to $16/hr when busy.

Cafe is also in the process of getting affordable health care for the whole team by underwriting start up and administration costs. Less than 10% of all American restaurants provide such a benefit. Workers who are sick do so at their own personal risk and loss!

Most importantly, Cafe Chocolate obtain our produce and dairy from a local organic farmers' cooperative - hard-working wonderful dedicated people likewise not covered by health care or unemployment benefits.

All this involves paying people fairly all the way up and down the supply chain. In our case, it means all the way to the farmers growing the cacao beans, coffee and teas in faraway places.

Law of economics dictates that low prices are always borne by some processes of 'efficiency'. All too often, that process of efficiency becomes exploitation. Cheap prices for goods and commodities are borne on the backs of persons powerless to bargain for themselves.

I came to open Cafe Chocolate out of a sense that world peace can only be based on economic fairness. A cup of Starbucks coffee at $3/cup returns only 2 cents to the grower. Even when labeled 'fair trade' , the coffee grower gets just 10 cents more for every $3 we pay, AND he would have to pay for pesticides and fertilizers, usually made by a US company. But when the coffee is labeled 'organic', the grower gets 20 cents more, and no need for pesticides & inorganic fertilizers. Hence Cafe Chocolate's dedication to organic.

Living standards are much lower in Lancaster PA and food prices cheaper due to non-standard labor practices of the Amish and old-order Mennonite farmers. They do not pay salary or health care or retirement benefits or social security taxes. 75% or even 90% of the food sold in Amish places are made by massive facilities producing them and selling them to the smaller places in big white pails like feed pails. Spring Glen is one of them and so is Beanie's of Lancaster Inc., Specialty Bakery, Auntie Anne's Pretzels etc. They are all owned by Amish & old order Mennonite corporations.

I was going to buy 'home-made' root beers from an Amish farmer for the cafe. But when I asked about the ingredients, I was told that it was from an extract bought from the local restaurant supply shop. When I went and check the ingredients, it was full of corn syrup and preservatives.

There are many wonderful Amish and Mennonite farmers who farm with integrity to the animals and to the earth, but many also sell the popular image of the simple Amish with all of the tools of commercialism and capitalism.

Just thought you might be interested to know. - for a taste of Amish conservatism!

Subsequently she wrote:

A prompt on those friendly Italian workers at Roma's pizza, almost all of them are Mexicans, as are the workers in the pizzeria across the street. My older son Darcy is fluent in Spanish and knows them well. As a matter of fact, most restaurant workers in fast food places in the US are Hispanic, many of them illegal. Same for the Chinese restaurants in non-urban areas like Lancaster. Its an endemic problem but helps to keep prices ludicrously cheap since many of these workers do not get any overtime, nor are they likely to even get $2.83 an hr.

Other Italian restaurants in the area rely on workers from southern Italy like Sicily who are willing to work for close to nothing in return for promises of eventual green cards. However, these tend to be more upscale. I have met some of these non-English speaking Italian workers in the local laundromat way after hours.

From the Houston Press of Texas - "There's a weird disconnect between perception and reality for those who work in the business. Thanks to media demagogues like Lou Dobbs, much of the American public is ready to "send 'em back to Mexico." Meanwhile, Spanish is what you're most likely to hear in a restaurant kitchen.

Author and TV star Anthony Bourdain is one of the few chefs who's been willing to speak frankly on the issue. He says the American restaurant industry would be in big trouble if all the illegal immigrants in this country were rounded up and deported. "The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board," Bourdain told me. "Everyone in the industry knows this. It is undeniable...I know very few chefs who've even heard of a U.S.-born citizen coming in the door to ask for a dishwasher, night clean-up or kitchen prep job. Until that happens, let's at least try to be honest when discussing this issue."

On restaurant portion sizes, you might find the following of interest also.

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