Darden

Milk Street Cafe Closes After Just 6 Months. Thanks, OWS.

I know there are good people who are members of the Occupy movement.  I know that they have legitimate grievances, many of which I agree with.  Unfortunately they are in an extreme minority.  I’d say they make up no more than 1% of the Occupy crowd.  The other 99% are a bunch of thugs and vagabonds.

Milk Street CafeIn June of this summer Marc Epstein opened a small business called Milk Street Cafe, a 23,000 square-foot eatery located at 40 Wall Street.  The cafe created 91 new jobs.  Then the Occupy Wall Street riots started.

You remember OWS, right?  They claimed to be crusading on behalf of equality, social justice and the rights of a fictitious 99%.  Customers have been unable to get to the cafe because of the riots therefore this Thursday Epstein is closing the doors for good at Milk Street Cafe.  There is only one group at fault for this.  It isn’t the bankers, it isn’t the government and it damned sure it isn’t Epstein’s fault.  Nope, the sole cause for this business failing was the Occupiers.  Period.  Their actions alone caused this.  No amount of rationalization can change that.

Well, this gaggle of d-bags have closed down a promising small business.  Epstein is not the CEO of a mega-billion dollar corporation like Darden Restaurants.  Darden is the parent company of such affronts to the culinary world as Olive Garden and Red Lobster.  Darden actually fits the popular idea of an evil corporation.  No Epstein is a small businessman from Boston who had a simple dream of opening a cafe in the greatest city in the world.  But now that dream has been squashed by a bunch of brats whining about free iPads.

I feel sorry for Epstein and his employees.  They did nothing to deserve this and the Occupy people feel no remorse because the only thing that matters to them is taking from others.  “Everyone has to understand the consequences of their actions,” Epstein said. “I have 90 plus people who put their faith in me. I feel horrible.”

It wasn’t your fault, Mr. Epstein.  The blame rests solely with the childish antics of elitists who think the world owes them a living.  Perhaps the city of New York shares in the blame for not quelling the riots months ago but it is hard to fault someone for wanting to avoid bloodshed.

I also feel sorry for the handful of good, well-meaning members of the Occupy movement who had their cause highjacked by a bunch of trust fund babies who are upset that they weren’t just handed a six-digit salary and three-story home in the burbs just for being born.

Olive Garden’s Culinary Institute Exposed

For a while I had to work at an Olive Garden to help pay the bills.  I can tell you that it was one of the worst jobs I have ever had.  The kitchen cleanliness was so bad I wouldn’t even eat a bag of chips I brought in for fear of germs leaping onto any food I wished to consume.  Though it was illegal the management cast a blind Olive Garden's Culinary Institute of Tuscanyeye to employees smoking in the prep kitchen where it was not uncommon to find dozens of cigarette butts lying on counters, the floors and even on hand sinks.  Their bonus checks were good so they didn’t care and the health inspector was rumored to be in their pocket.

The management staff’s general approach to customers was to treat them like cattle.  Servers were often seated with three or four tables all at the same time which guaranteed none of the tables were going to receive good service and as a result the server was not going to receive a good tip.  Again, their bonus checks were good so they didn’t care.

They did not care about their employees, their customers, health concerns, the law or anything other than their bonus checks.  It was not a circumstance of one bad management crew as this staff has routinely been rewarded for exemplifying the Olive Garden standard.  It is the OG culture.  Two of the managers were recognized with a trip to the Culinary Institute of Tuscany.  Both said there wasn’t much educating as the company kept them drunk most of the time.  Both also said that the food they experienced in Italy was nothing like the Olive Garden menu.  No surprise there.

Now a former Olive Garden manager has outed the Culinary Institute of Tuscany as a fraud – he says it is actually a hotel that parent company Darden Restaurant Group rents out during the off-season.  According to the article, “There wasn’t much learning involved. Still though, it was a free trip to Italy.”  The article appears on the foodie web site Eater and you can read it HERE.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry, pt. 3




This is part three of a three part series (dare I say exposé?) on the corporate restaurant industry.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry

The closing of so many chain restaurants is one of the few bright spots in an utterly dreary economic state. Corporate restaurants are a bane to American society. Making a buck is never wrong, but these companies have done so by enslaving workers, knowingly poisoning their customers and sabotaging small business. We should not be lamenting the fall of the corporate restaurant industry, but rather celebrate it by be prosecuting the CEO’s and politicians who conspired to create the nefarious beast.

America’s Modern Slave State

The onslaughts on the general public and small business are not the only transgressions of corporate restaurant chains as their workers (servers, bar tenders and the like) are the only profession in the entire nation that are not paid minimum wage. Try, if you can, to imagine how your life might change if the state you live in passed a law that said your employer now only has to pay your profession $2.50/hour. The rest of your income is solely up to the generosity of strangers. Additionally, the government makes you pay taxes on these charitable contributions regardless of whether or not you actually receive them. As if that were not enough, you also have to work every holiday without receiving overtime or holiday pay. And you can forget about sick-leave all together.

Now let’s sweeten the pot a little by informing you that if someone who is inebriated happens to enter your work area you are now personally responsible for every action that person takes until they sober up. Regardless of whether you provide them with alcohol or even conduct business with them in any manner you are still criminally liable for their actions.

It sounds preposterous does it not? This is the 21st Century; the conditions just described sound like something out of a Dickens’ novel. At best this is an extreme example of the deplorable human rights violations in some war-torn African nation. One thing is for sure, this could never happen in America, not with all this change and hope floating around.

Sadly the circumstances illustrated do exist today and right here in River City.

As it turns out the restaurant industry is exempt from US Federal minimum wage laws. Each state is free to set whatever minimum wage they deem for bartenders, bussers, servers, and even hostesses as little as $2.13 an hour. A few states are enlightened enough to guarantee these workers the same minimum wage as any other profession. Most do not. In fact only eight states currently require the same minimum wage for restaurant workers as everyone else. The remaining 42 states allow companies to legally pay their workers less than what economists and society have agreed is a fair wage.

In Alabama for instance the server wage is $2.13 an hour or one third the current minimum wage. Florida is scarcely better at $3.50 an hour. Montana and Minnesota have two minimum wages for servers (both are below the national minimum) – one for big business and a lower one for small. The corporations argue that this punishes them for being successful while small businesses insist the better servers opt for the chains leaving them to pick through the leftovers. In Nevada full time restaurant workers are actually forced to choose between a fair wage or health insurance.

A gratuity is a bonus for a job well done; a little something extra for going beyond the norm, or at least it used to be. By making servers rely on tips to pay their wages and then taxing those tips, the government has in effect made it a law that everyone must tip at least 10% regardless of the quality of service. Whether a 10% tip is left or not the server still pays taxes on it. Consequently, anyone who fails to leave 10% is in reality stealing from the server.

Some people do not know that the bulk of a server’s pay comes from tips and assume that restaurant workers make a fair wage like everyone else. And why wouldn’t they? After all, there is a federal minimum wage and excluding one profession from having to adhere is unethical.

Lobbyists working on behalf of the large restaurant cartels rely heavily on the argument that servers make very good money in the form of gratuities. In fact, that is the entirety of their argument – servers earn so much money on tips that their bosses should not have to pay them for their toil. So this begs the question, just how much money are we talking about?

If the money servers earn is as good as argued then surely they make in excess of $75,000 a year, maybe as much as $174,000 – the annual salary of a US congressmen. According to the US Department of Labor in 2006 the median hourly wage-and-salary earnings (including tips) of servers was $7.14/hour. In most cases, the hourly wage does not even cover their tax burden leaving them still owing the government money at the end of the year. The same government that says that their effort is not worth as much as other professions apparently does not feel likewise about their tax obligation.

Still many may contend that servers make great money for no more work than they do. After all, all they do is take your order and bring you food that someone else cooks and drinks that someone else mixes, right?

In addition to clearing their tables and cleaning them for the next party, they also have what is called side work. Side work consists of tasks that must be performed to keep the restaurant running smoothly. Many of these duties are simple and occupy little time like rolling silverware into napkins. Others include considerable labor like hauling heavy buckets of ice from one end of the building to the other, vacuuming large sections of food-embedded carpet, mopping floors, preparing foods, cleaning bathrooms, and scraping bubblegum from underneath tables.

Side work comes in three forms and almost every restaurant requires its servers a certain amount as part of their daily performance. The three types of side work are opening (performed before the shift), running (performed during the shift), and closing (performed after the shift). Although the restaurant must pay the server a regular minimum wage for side work performed prior to opening the same is not said for closing side work which typically constitutes the most arduous and time consuming chores. Federal law states that one hour after a server’s final customer leaves the employer must then pay the employee the standard minimum wage.

Thanks to the way the wage law is written employers are actually allowed to pay less than minimum wage for one full hour despite the fact that the employee makes no tip for that labor. Some companies deliberately exploit this loophole by piling extra work on the tip earners that previously was performed by higher wage earners. Although this practice is entirely unethical, remarkably it is legal.

Some families are on budgets that prevent them from spending very much. These people may actually tip the standard 20% but they are forced to streamline their order. A standard 20% tip on the least expensive item is better than nothing, but it requires the same amount of effort as the most expensive dish and in some cases more. A server at The Olive Garden for instance actually does more work for customers who order the economical soup, salad, and breadsticks than for those who order a more expensive entrée.

The Olive Garden is one of the concepts owned by dining conglomerate Darden Restaurants, Inc. out of Orlando, FL. Darden also operates Red Lobster, Smokey Bones, Longhorn Steaks, and Bahama Breeze making it a classic example of the typical restaurant corporation. Darden owns and operates more than 1,700 restaurants across North America employing roughly 160,000 people. Darden is, in terms of revenue, the world’s top restaurant operator.

But Darden is hardly the only player in the ultra-competitive multi-unit market. Brinker International, Inc. out of Dallas, TX which owns Chili’s, On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill is another titan of the industry with more than 1,800 restaurant locations in 20 countries. They, too, are one of the largest restaurant cartels in the US and as such are one of the largest employers of restaurant workers in the country.

Actual Olive Garden Check StubDespite working nearly 30 hours this Olive Garden employee took home nothing after state and federal taxes were applied.

On average a server who works roughly 30 hours a week and earns 15% in tips will have a weekly paycheck totaling zero after taxes. Not only does Uncle Sam dip into servers’ tips, but many restaurants make them “tip out” their fellow employees. Servers must share their hard earned money with hostesses, bussers, dishwashers, and even bar tenders. Tipping out allows business owners to also under pay non-tip earning employees by classifying them as tip-earners. A server’s “tip out” is determined by a percentage of their sales for the shift and ultimately denies them of anywhere from 15% to more than 50% of their daily earnings.

So if the same argument used to justify paying servers a substandard wage is applied to other professions then school teachers would have to choose between making a living wage and having medical insurance. Corporate executives would be making $3.50 an hour with the rest of their pay coming from board members stuffing dollar bills into an old pickle jar. That would include men like David Goebel, the former CEO of Applebee’s International Inc. who took home $2.7 million in 2006 while paying his servers less than $3 an hour.

Be sure to check out the first two parts of this series The Big Bad Wolf – Mom and Pop Under Siege and Biting the Hand that Feeds.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry, pt. 2

This is part two of a three part series (dare I say exposé?) on the corporate restaurant industry originally published in April 2009.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry

The closing of so many chain restaurants is one of the few bright spots in an utterly dreary economic state. Corporate restaurants are a bane to American society. Making a buck is never wrong, but these companies have done so by enslaving workers, knowingly poisoning their customers and sabotaging small business. We should not be lamenting the fall of the corporate restaurant industry, but rather celebrate it by be prosecuting the CEO’s and politicians who conspired to create the nefarious beast.

Biting the Hand that Feeds

Not only have chain restaurants assaulted locally owned restaurateurs by dishonestly manipulating pricing but they have done so at the expense of the nation’s health. The foods they produce are loaded with saturated and trans fats, copious amounts of unneeded sugars (this combination is the chief cause of our obesity epidemic) but they have also pummeled us with a bevy of chemicals that we are only now beginning to learn are more dangerous than a dirty bomb.

Because of negligible regulations in the Far East it is actually cheaper to sell foreign shrimp than domestic. What does this mean for the consumer? Cheaper prices. It also means poor quality and an increased health threat. The other victim is a loss of our collective identity.

Nowhere is this assault on legacy more evident than in the communities along Alabama’s coastline. Bayou La Batre, Coden, Alabama Port, and Heron Bay are all classic fishing villages. They are windows to our past not just as a community but as a nation. Prior to the industrial revolution America was an agrarian society, farmers and fisherman.

The flood of foreign shrimp on the US market has plunged prices so that shrimpers struggle to show a profit. Thusly, the American wild shrimp industry is in a crisis of Great Depression proportions. This comes on the heels of the decades old battle over TED’s (Turtle Extraction Devices) which, though protecting an endangered species, greatly reduce productivity on the boats.

As if all of this weren’t enough along comes hurricane Katrina. While the national media was focusing on the manmade drama in New Orleans places like Bayou La Batre were largely ignored. The Bayou’s hardship did not result from laissez faire but rather was purely an act of nature. And the destruction was even more absolute as residents lost both their homes and their livelihood.

Adding salt to the wound is that these are largely family owned businesses, another American tradition besieged by progress. Families that have fed their children, built their houses, and earned their living from the Gulf are now facing extinction.

What is worse, the big chains have known that their food was dangerous for decades yet they have gone on producing them and even going so far as to further deceive the public by creating so-called “healthy menu choices” that they know are anything but.

Although consumers have benefited financially from low restaurant prices, there have been casualties, literal casualties. Product quality particularly has greatly suffered from inexpensive menus. In order to lower food costs companies have been importing substandard products. Many of these imports fail to meet minimum USDA standards but are seldom inspected because of the sheer volume that is swamping our ports. The result is that less than 1% of the seafood imported from overseas is actually being inspected.

Imported, farm raised salmon for example is often teaming with the additive canthaxanthin a carcinogen which is band from use in the US. Foreign shrimp is full of another deadly chemical, chloramphenicol that causes human aplastic anemia, a lethal blood disorder. Once again, 99% of imported seafood is not inspected for these chemicals despite the peril. Moreover, domestic beef is given perilous amounts of growth hormones and poultry often contains the antibiotic compound roxarsone which contains arsenic.

As it turns out you may be better off walking around with a rod of weapons grade plutonium in your pocket than indulging in the all-you-can-eat shrimp at Red Lobster.

Be sure to check out the first part of this series The Big Bad Wolf – Mom and Pop Under Siege. Check back tomorrow for part three, America’s Modern Slave State.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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