The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is controversial for its mission alone — its push to eliminate the current tipping system is overwhelmingly rejected by tipped employees who say they earn more under the current system than under a flat minimum wage. Beyond its policy goals though, ROC has been controversial in managing its own employees – it has a track record of allegedly mistreating and discriminating against its own.
Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the latest scandal in a long saga — three former employees sued ROC for sex, age, and race discrimination, wrongful termination, and retaliation for criticizing the organization. Employees claim that leadership muted, reprimanded, and even fired employees for speaking up in meetings about racism. The plaintiffs’ lawyer remarked: “If you’re a woman of color or a woman leader, you’re being treated in a discriminatory way and then pushed out at ROC.”
ROC, which claims to fight against inequities in the restaurant industry, doesn’t seem to follow its own advice. The organization has a history of discriminatory behavior and bad leadership.
- In 2007, former employees sued ROC and its founder Saru Jayaraman for being forced to perform “sweat equity” — unpaid work in return for promised partial ownership of ROC’s restaurant Colors in New York City — which the employees claimed was reversed when they learned ownership would be shared between ROC and a restaurant investment company. One employee called Colors “one of the most abusive [restaurants] in the city.” Other workers said they were terminated for raising concerns about promises broken.
- The organization’s own restaurant Colors, which was started as an attempt to model for the rest of the industry on higher wages and a focus on employing women and people of color, closed after an embattled run of lawsuits and mismanagement.
- In 2011, Colors received 38 New York City Department of Health violations.
- During its years of operation, employees recounted late paychecks, wage fluctuations, and even sued for wage theft.
- In 2017, the original NYC Colors restaurant closed, after being unable to maintain the model advocated by Jayaraman.
- In 2020, the NYC location reopened, but was riddled with poor leadership and mismanagement according to the executive chef, and was abruptly shut down again after the ROC’s executive director decided to suspend its funding, citing it “had not met the business plan projections.” A second Detroit location also closed, and planned restaurant projects in Oakland, DC, and New Orleans have stalled.
- In 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives opened a probe into ROC, since it received federal funds amid its controversial tactics to coerce restaurants into conceding to its demands. The subpoena cites harassment of restaurant owners and their employees, leading to restraining orders against the organization, “serious health and sanitation violations” within its own restaurant, and “a history of disputes over wages” within ROC and its Colors restaurant.
- In 2019, a former ROC employee published “ROC Confidential”, which exposed the hypocrisy between the preached mission of the organization and the actual mistreatment of their employees. The author quotes a staffer from the Colors restaurant: “How come ROC fights for all these issues for restaurant workers, but they don’t give them to the workers at their own restaurant?”
Existing Glassdoor reviews warn against working for ROC, including allegations of “tokenizing” transgender, minority, and non-English-speaking employees; poor management and leadership; “discouraging” and “traumatizing” organization culture; and general hypocrisy when dealing with the rights of its own workers.
- “Be prepared to be constantly $1000 out of pocket and wait months for reimbursements. Be prepared to be talked down to, disrespected, and condescended…”
- “It’s interesting that the organization externally speaks so much about the plight of workers (restaurant workers), but internally has no consideration for its own workers.”
- “…We are not actually helping any restaurant workers. I’ve been bullied by my current manager to fudge numbers, and I’ve witnessed the top executive/spokesperson be repeatedly dishonest.”
- “Tries to hold restaurant industry to a standard it cannot achieve in its own restaurant.”
Read more about the controversial history behind the Restaurant Opportunities Center and its founder, Saru Jayaraman, at WorkingForSaru.com.