The restaurant industry is a wild place to work. Restaurant owners and managers frequently cut corners by squeezing their employees in a variety of legal and illegal ways. Violations of a host of worker protection laws—from unpaid wages or overtime, to dangerous working conditions, to sexual and racial discrimination—are all too common. In addition, restaurant managers, like managers elsewhere, believe that they best way to motivate their employees is through humiliation, intimidation, favoritism, and turning different groups of workers against each other on the basis of race, gender, job classification, immigration status, and so on. The Cheesecake Factory is one example that illustrates these conditions.
Cheesecake Factory is a darling to developers, investors, and customers who dislike nutrition, and recently opened its ninetieth restaurant. Their winning formula is opening upscale restaurants to anchor malls in affluent areas. Cheesecake Factory is one of the most profitable restaurant chains in the US, with double the sales-per-square-foot ratio of the industry average. The San Francisco location, atop Macy’s Union Square, has almost three hundred workers and reportedly brings in $18 million in sales yearly.
Cost-cutting imperatives and incentives from corporate headquarters led store managers to deny workers breaks until March 2003. A 2000 law established that every day a worker misses a thirty-minute unpaid meal period or a ten-minute paid rest period, they are entitled to an hour of pay. As workers in business across the state asserted this right by suing their employers for denying breaks, Cheesecake Factory managers announced that out of the generosity of their hearts, they would begin providing breaks by requiring workers to report an hour early, fold napkins for 30 minutes, take a lunch break, and then work a full shift. This unpopular practice led Cheesecake Factory to then implement an onerous “breaker” system that required servers to tip out their relief server $5, effectively paying for breaks. Three exasperated waitresses in San Francisco went to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to learn about the law.
DLSE staff told them they could either file a class action lawsuit with a private lawyer or file individual wage claims that DLSE claimed they could resolved within three months without the added burden of costly attorney’s fees and drawn out litigation.Cheesecake Factory leaders Marilyn Smith and Laura Lannon hoped they could win justice quickly by organizing seventy workers to file individual wage claims. It turned out that Cheesecake Factory had no intention of cooperating with an investigation, and DLSE, the State agency responsible for enforcing the labor laws of the State, wasn’t particularly invested in pursuing the case.
When Young Workers United encountered the Cheesecake Factory workers a year later, while doing educational outreach about the new San Francisco minimum wage law, their claims had gone nowhere while the Schwarzenegger administration had cut DLSE’s enforcement budget. YWU trained the workers on campaign strategy, escalation of tactics, media messaging, and labor law. Out of this process the workers decided to launch a campaign to use public pressure and direct action to force the company to settle the claims quickly rather than continuing to stall.
The newly-formed Cheesecake Factory organizing committee became public in June following a meeting of thirty workers with three demands: swift payment in full, no retaliation or appeals, and reform the breaker system by paying the relief waiter a higher hourly wage without tips. Within two weeks, a dozen Cheesecake Factory workers marched into the restaurant with a letter signed by sixty workers in support of these demands to deliver it to General Manager Jeff Resnick. Laura Lannon read the letter out loud to the lobby of the restaurant while Mr. Resnick frantically called the police.
The campaign heated up over the summer. By organizing around the claims, we increased the pool of claimants to almost two hundred, and began uniting the (mostly white and young) servers in the front of the house with the (mostly latino immigrant) kitchen workers. We learned that Cheesecake Factory was happy to cut corners on sanitation as well as labor practices. Workers reported chronic plumbing problems stemming from the restaurant not having the plumbing to accommodate its volume of work. This led to flooding of sewage water into the kitchen, the water going out altogether, or just hot water. On the busy Fourth of July weekend, the hot water shut down, and rather than close the restaurant, management reportedly instructed dishwashers to dip dirty dishes in room temperature sanitizer and send them out to customers again.
With more direct action came victories. Cheesecake Factory workers began regular leafleting of customers about all these issues. In early August, a mass call-in to corporate headquarters got the company to announce two days later that they would implement statewide our demand for a higher wage for relief servers. At the same time, the San Francisco Bay Guardian wrote an article covering the Cheesecake Factory case. On Labor Day, about thirty Cheesecake Factory workers and other YWU members rallied in front of the restaurant. Management was so afraid we planned to enter the restaurant that they flew managers in from corporate headquarters, they stationed a manager to guard the entrance to the kitchen with a frying pan, and posted San Francisco police at every entrance to the building. Later in September YWU members leafleted the customers at the grand opening of the Corte Madera store.
On September 29, Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez joined seventy YWU members to protest the Cheesecake Factory and demand they adopt a Code of Conduct signed by ninety CCF workers to improve workplace practices. With chaos in the street and in the lobby, Supervisor Gonzalez was followed by a KQED camera crew into the restaurant, where Manager Resnick and Area Manager George Gundry refused even to discuss workers’ concerns. Rather than talk to their own employees about ways to improve working conditions and settle all the claims, Cheesecake Factory corporate decided they’d had enough and entered mediation with a class action lawyer in Southern California over all the San Francisco claims as well as some other parallel but unrelated lawsuits.
While YWU members chose to support the lawsuit settlement, we all recognized that it wouldn’t improve all the other problems at work besides breaks. So we got five members of the Board of Supervisors and community leaders to sign an Appeal for Justice to the company asking for not only a settlement but that Cheesecake Factory be a model of good working conditions across the board. In November, YWU delivered the Appeal for Justice with Supervisor Chris Daly, and held a boisterous protest in front of the building.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that the denial of breaks is the tip of the iceberg at Cheesecake Factory. Workers report an array of humiliations at the hands of General Manager Jeff Resnick and his entourage of managers who run the restaurant like frat boys on a hazing mission. Erratic schedules routinely lead workers to lose their health benefits without notice; off-the-clock work in various forms is common; and some workers have money deducted from their paychecks for meals they never eat. Rather than comply with the law that requires a break by providing workers with eight-hour shifts and a break, Cheesecake Factory has chosen to schedule workers for shifts shorter than six hours and then simply not pay for any hours over six, or to force workers to leave at six hours on the dot even if that means losing out on tips they’ve earned. The depth and breadth of disrespect for workers at Cheesecake Factory make clear the need for an ongoing organized presence in the restaurant industry to hold ruthless employers in check.
Download the Appeal for Justice to the Cheesecake Factory, presented to Cheesecake Factory management for delivery to David Overton, Cheesecake Factory CEO by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and lawyers fighting for workers' rights at the restau