The pandemic has inspired a lot of hospitality professionals to voice their long-suppressed concerns about conditions in the industry. Since July of this year, the Hamilton Hospitality Project has been publishing accounts on Instagram — more audit than gossip — about wages and conditions in local restaurants, and sharing helpful information for workers about their rights. I spoke with founder Andrew Berry-Ashpole about why he began this project after 20 years as a chef and what he hopes to achieve.
TVO.org: How and why did you start HHP?
Andrew Berry-Ashpole: My last position in the kitchen I resolved to do things as differently as possible. I had been a yelling, screaming chef. Not something I’m proud of. So I wanted to do things better. When I saw what happened to a lot of my former colleagues, a lot of my cooks, and how they struggled during the pandemic, I just felt like, I’m going to do something — and see if anyone’s interested in what I think people should be talking about.
TVO.org: What is the goal?
Berry-Ashpole: The objective is to create some transparency so that hospitality workers are better able to have conversations and advocate for themselves. We’ve made a connection with a local law firm that specializes in labour law. And we’ve been working with them to get an FAQ about the most common questions hospitality workers have. They’ve been generous in offering to consult in a couple of instances.
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TVO.org: Why did you launch anonymously? What social or legal concerns do you have?
Berry-Ashpole: The anonymity was for two reasons. I didn’t think that putting myself behind it, if it fizzled, made much sense. I didn’t want it to be about me. I wanted it to be about workers. Also, we have a small industry here in Hamilton. And everybody knows everybody else, around the trendier restaurants. So with my foot still in the door of hospitality, and me not sure what my next step is, I wanted to make sure the project had legs before I put myself in front of it.
To my knowledge, we haven’t done anything illegal. We’re not posting anything that people wouldn’t post on Glassdoor [a website devoted to employee reviews of employers). We haven’t posted any accusations, despite having people contact us to tell us that, hey, this person is no good or this person did this to me. That’s one of the reasons we’re focusing on the wage reports. It’s very cut and dry. This is how much you pay. It’s not an issue of he said/she said.
TVO.org: What is your methodology?
Berry-Ashpole: The wage reports, we do by crowdsourcing from former and current employees of various restaurants. Talking to those workers and getting their stories. We do it with Survey Monkey. Free software. We try to get at least 20 to 30 responses. That’s a fairly good sample size.
If someone tells us they got paid $11 an hour [below minimum wage), that’s the kind of thing I’d want to check to see how credible it is. There’s no point posting anything that’s untrue. We don’t want to create unnecessary animosity. Ideally, we want to engage with restaurants and help them work toward being better employers. If we just piss them all off by posting things that aren’t credible, it becomes easy to dismiss the project as vindictive. It doesn’t serve the purpose of the project, which is trying to improve things moving forward. I’d rather restaurants don’t get cancelled. They just get better.
TVO.org: What has the reaction been like?
Berry-Ashpole: Response has been positive. I’ve heard from a couple of restaurants that want to be part of the dialogue. They’ve reached out to say, “I want to be a better employer. I want to pay a living wage. But how am I supposed to do this?” I told them, this is primarily for worker advocacy. It’s a tiring trope that people in power download the responsibility to fix the system to the people who are disadvantaged by the system. They say, “Sure, everyone wants to be paid 20 bucks. But explain to me how.” That shouldn’t be the workers’ responsibility to figure that out. That’s an easy out for people.
TVO.org: For years, owners have been telling me they’d love to pay a living wage. But then they’d have to raise prices — and that’s unthinkable because customers would revolt. Over the past three months, as we’ve seen a dramatic escalation of the labour shortage that’s been happening for five years, employers have started offering competitive wages. And everyone I talk to is adjusting menu prices to absorb the increased labour costs. It remains to be seen how diners will react long-term — whether people will out less, how it will affect the economy. But the balance of power for workers has shifted. Is that going to last? And, if not, what do hospitality workers need to be doing now to capitalize on this once-in-a-generation opportunity?
Berry-Ashpole: Communicating and understanding that they are part of a larger industry. They can achieve some gains in rights and wages, if they don’t go it alone and if they make these very reasonable demands of employers. The new minimum wage should be a living wage. That should be the starting point of any negotiation. We were contacted by a worker who said, “I read your page and took it to my coworkers.” They all shared their wages and realized that every single person was making a different amount of money. They confronted their employers and asked to do something about it. They actually ended up walking out of their jobs because the employer didn’t do anything. They’re all happily employed. If you want to play chicken with an employer right now, you’re almost guaranteed to find another opportunity down the street. Anyone will snap you up at this point.
TVO.org: And the menu price issue?
Berry-Ashpole: As a chef, the moment someone says it’s too expensive in a Yelp review, I could expect a message that we need to talk about menu prices. Every chef has had that experience. The conversation about menu pricing and sticker shock … there was a real fear that we could alienate people if we charge too much.
TVO.org: Have you ever been in a situation in which owners pressured you to find savings in labour costs, and you had to find efficiencies by exploiting labour?
Berry-Ashpole: Constantly. One of the things that really bothered me during my last chef position was that labour was the one thing that always got squeezed. The owners accepted the fact that fixed prices would increase: Gas prices had gone up. A bottle of wine cost 10 per cent more. The linens got more expensive. But labour was always something that could be cut.
TVO.org: Given that, what did you do as a chef that you now regret?
Berry-Ashpole: I regret trading on people’s passion. Keeping them working for wages that weren’t fair for the labour that they were putting in. It began to eat at me. I was tired of telling cooks that this is how you pay for it. “It gets better.” “You have to put in the hours.” “You have to work for a dollar above minimum wage, and this is how you earn your stripes.” I regret nickel-and-diming cooks who are worth so much more, and trading on passion or loyalty. It made me uneasy as time went on. These young guys would come in, and we’d pay them just above poverty wages and call it passion or “I went through this. Everyone does this.” I really regret that.
TVO.org: Is the HHP part of making amends?
Berry-Ashpole: I think so. I think the project is about trying to make a difference going forward. Definitely part of it is about trying to make amends.
TVO.org: Do you miss cooking?
Berry-Ashpole: There are a lot of things I miss. The teamwork. The sense of achievement you get working with a group of people and accomplishing something on a regular basis. That drew me to cooking, because there was a tangible result of my work. So I miss that. But so many other aspects of the industry I don’t miss. I’m healthier. I didn’t realize exactly what the industry had made me used to — how much stress and anxiety was in my day-to-day life — until I left and was able to reflect on it. As a chef, on a salary, I worked long hours my entire career. And it never turned off. I mean, I was called back early from my honeymoon. And, like an idiot, I went in. Which I will forever regret doing.
TVO.org: Your wife will remember, too.
Berry-Ashpole: Yeah, my wife remembers that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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