Too often, diversity in the hospitality industry is in the kitchen

When Bryan Jariwala was 15, he got a job in a Union Street ice cream shop. “I was washing dishes and scooping ice cream,” he recalls. Today, he is the director of operations for Platinum Dining Group, a hospitality company with six New Castle County restaurants.

“The inclusiveness of our industry allows, quite frankly, anyone to be successful if they work hard and they want to be successful,” says Jariwala, whose Indian-born parents owned a liquor store near the ice cream shop.

The numbers bear him out. According to the National Restaurant Association, nine in 10 restaurant managers started in entry-level positions, and eight in 10 restaurant owners were once entry-level hospitality workers. Restaurants employ more minority managers than any other industry, the association reports.

Wit Milburn has had a diverse front-of-the-house staff since he opened, but says he sees himself as an American-owned business. Out & About file photo/Moonloop Photography

Many owners value the mix. “When you get diverse backgrounds and approaches, you have a better product — it makes us stronger,” says Lee Mikles, co-owner of Grain Craft Kitchen and Bar.

Jariwala agrees. “There’s a lot of value in having individuals with different backgrounds. It’s really cool, and you get to learn about their culture and what’s near and dear to them.”

But for the most part, a restaurant’s melting pot is in the kitchen. A study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a labor advocacy group, found that the majority of workers receiving the highest pay — typically servers and bartenders — were predominately white. (White men receive a higher salary than women, regardless of their color.)

While discrimination undoubtedly exists, the reasons for the disparity aren’t necessarily due to racism, and they’re complex.

A Case for Comfort

Many restaurant owners just want to hire the right person for the job. “Platinum Dining Group hires good people,” agrees Demetrius McCary, a bartender at the company’s Taverna in North Wilmington and Eclipse in Wilmington’s Little Italy. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, brown or blue. If you’re good at your job, it doesn’t matter.”

However, more than a few restaurants maintain that they don’t get many BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) applicants for front-of-the-house jobs. Admittedly, that’s not the case in many mom-and-pop ethnic eateries. 

“In my experience, a Spanish-speaking person will feel more comfortable working for a Spanish-speaking owner,” says Javier Acuna, president and owner of Hakuna Hospitality Group. Most people want to feel a sense of belonging, which helps if you share the same culture and language.

Most of the applicants for jobs at Crystal’s Comfort Food in Middletown are African American teens, says owner Crystal Ashby, who is happy that workers look like the owners. But she knows of at least five minority-owned restaurateurs who put Caucasian employees in the front of the house to appeal to white customers.

Torbert Street Social in Wilmington has an increasingly diverse staff, partly due to Willie Anderson, the bartender and general manager. He follows the hiring protocols established by the parent company, Big Fish Restaurant Group. But he also reaches out to friends in the Black and African American community to let them know he’s hiring. 

The Right Place

Torbert Street Social is in Wilmington’s downtown district, and location can influence diversity. Similarly, Ubon Thai Kitchen & Bar on the Wilmington Riverfront has had a diverse front of the house since it opened, says owner Wit Milburn. He doesn’t know if that’s because minorities own the restaurant. “I just see myself as an American-owned business,” he says.

But a restaurant in the affluent suburbs may lack the same representation. That was Anderson’s experience when he worked in Kennett Square eateries.

“If a restaurant is located where there is a high volume of minorities, chances are you will see more minorities working for that restaurant,” Acuna says. He added that if only 10% of the residents in an area are Latino or African American, the chances are that less than 10% of the staff of restaurants in that area will be a minority.

Dana Herbert, owner of Desserts by Dana, agrees. “If it’s an area that doesn’t have as many minorities, we’ll certainly see that reflected in the staffing — just because there’s a local pool of people that they’re pulling from,” he explains.

McCary is an exception to that theory. He lives in Philadelphia. “I don’t have to work for Platinum, but I respect what I do,” he says. 

The Right Stuff

The gregarious McCary is also in the right job. The bartender position is one of the most coveted. “You have a lot more freedom, and, generally, the bartender makes a little more money — it’s a job everyone looks forward to getting,” says McCary, who started with Platinum as a busser.

Johnson & Wales graduate Dana Herbert says there is a noticeable lack of minorities in college hospitality management programs. Photo courtesy Dana Herbert

Going from busser to bartender takes ambition, regardless of color. “I’m a competitive person,” McCary says.

Acuna started serving when he was studying engineering. “I knew on the inside that I wanted to work my way up,” Acuna says.

But it’s not necessarily easy for people of color. The adage “you need to be twice as good to get half as much” still has legs, says Ashby, who regularly recites it to her four sons. “I want to get them to understand the world we live in.”

Few would argue that working in the front of a restaurant requires patience, poise and social skills, making the higher-paying front-of-the-house positions harder to land — regardless of color. “You need to be extroverted,” McCary says. Interviewing for these jobs is rigorous, he adds.

All that can intimidate some applicants, particularly if they speak English as a second language. Those from another culture may feel uncomfortable describing an unfamiliar cuisine to a guest. Consequently, people talk themselves out of applying for higher-paying positions.

Kitchen employees, meanwhile, don’t need to worry about minding their Ps and Qs in front of paying customers. “The personality in the back of the house is totally different,” Acuna says.

Although rare, some employees move from the kitchen to the dining room. One such employee with Hakuna Hospitality is now in a high-level position. But when Acuna has asked some if they’d like to try serving or receive management training, they balk; they’d rather stay in their comfort zone.

At Taverna, one kitchen cook moved to a server position. But he bucked the norm. “I’ve worked with a lot of people in the kitchen, and they don’t necessarily want to be in the front of the house,” Jariwala says. “You have to want to talk to people.” 

Even in the front of the house, he’s seen bussers prefer to stay in a lower-paying job because they don’t want to interact with guests. 

Changing with the Times

So how does the industry increase diversity in the front of the house? Start young. Children need role models. 

“My husband and I own a business, and we’re teaching our children about it,” Ashby says. “The culture we came from, the schooling we came from — they didn’t teach that.”

Bartender and general manager Willie Anderson makes it a priority to have a diverse staff at Torbert Street Social. Photo courtesy Big Fish Restaurant Group

Having parents in the hospitality industry can be a plus. “If your father is a manager of a very successful restaurant, maybe your kids will take a serious look at being a restaurant manager,” Herbert says. “He is providing for his family, and it can be lucrative. When I was coming up and in school, I didn’t think of it as an option; I didn’t know anybody who was a manager.”

Mentorship isn’t limited to parenting. Ashby wants her teenage employees to look back on their time with Crystal’s Comfort Food and consider it among the best experiences of their lives.

Herbert, who graduated from the University of Delaware’s hotel, restaurant and institutional management program before getting a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University, says there aren’t as many people of color in college hospitality management programs as there are white students.

Increased training in management and front-of-the-house skills in a pre-college setting or vocational program can help. Instead, many initiatives for low-income students or adults emphasize culinary skills. There are exceptions. For instance, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart program teaches culinary techniques and management skills to high school students.

Everyone, regardless of color, should have access to the same job opportunities, Acuna maintains. Those openings have increased since the pandemic altered the industry’s landscape. Nationally, industry employment is down 3.1 million from expected levels. Seemingly every eatery is looking for help.

Before the pandemic, front-of-the-house positions at popular restaurants didn’t turn over as frequently as kitchen jobs. That’s changed at some establishments, which might be more willing to hire people without the requisite skillset and train them.

“This is the time to move up,” Acuna says. “This is the time to seize your opportunity. If ever there was a time in your life where you could do better, it’s now, because the opportunities are out there for anybody willing to work hard and learn.”

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.

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