Big tips make headlines. Consider the almost $500 gratuity on a $6 bill received by a Steak ‘n’ Shake waitress in Indianapolis, or the $1,000 that host Ellen DeGeneres gave Edgar Martiroysan, the pizza delivery guy at the Academy awards. But reality is far less lucrative for most restaurant workers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet in a notoriously low-paid industry.

“The largest workforce in America can’t put food on the table—except when they go to work,” says Saru Jayaraman, who advocates for change both as an advocate and as a researcher at UC Berkeley.

Jayaraman believes 2014 may be the year that these employees, some 10 million strong across the United States, get the pay raise they’ve been waiting for—for 23 years. “There’s so much anger right now towards big corporate groups,” she notes, citing a new commitment to minimum-wage workers across the country and in Congress. “There’s incredible momentum right now for our work.”

Meanwhile, the wage debate is also going local. In California alone, campaigns are under way in Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland to join San Francisco and San Jose in setting a minimum wage higher than state law. Similiar initiatives are in the works in Los Angeles and San Diego and, indeed, in cities and states around the country. Trendsetter San Francisco’s proposal would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Jayaraman, who oversees Cal’s Food Labor Research Center and co-founded Restaurant Opportunities Center United, is the subject of my story for California, the alumni publication and website of UCB.

For localites: Jayaraman is featured on a panel discussion tonight, The Hands That Feed Us: Labor in the Food System, as a part of Cal’s Edible Education program.



Cover image: Alanna Hale

Who could have predicted that the price of toast would get so many people fired up? So when the editor of Edible San Francisco asked me to tackle the $4 toast saga under the premise of exploring the real cost of food I was happy to oblige.

It’s pretty clear that while some consumers are willing to pay more for organic greens, grass-fed beef, hormone-free eggs, local dairy, and sustainable seafood, many haven’t thought about bread, that humble kitchen staple made from that foundation food wheat, in quite the same way.

Josey Baker, the main subject of my cover story for the magazine “Burnt: A Heated Hullabaloo Over $4 Toast,” says it best: “People aren’t used to buying bread that’s priced appropriately because they’re used to buying factory-made bread using shitty ingredients, where the grains are grown by farms that are supported by hefty government subsidies. The public is lagging behind in seeing bread as an agricultural product.”

Baker doesn’t pretend to have all the answers here and neither do I. But it’s clear that a movement is building around growing quality whole grains and crafting breads for optimal nutrition and taste in an environmentally sensitive manner. And all that costs money. Local, stone-ground, heirloom wheat, which brings to mind Portlandia‘s over-the-top sketch on the provenance of food (is the chicken local?), is now part of the bread making discourse in Bay Area baking circles and beyond.  Who knows, artisan flour–cue eye rolling now–with a price point to match, may one day be as commonplace as heirloom tomatoes.

If you can’t get enough of this toast stuff, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge two other recent additions to the oeuvre: Writing for CHOW, John Birdsall traces the roots of $4 toast to Japan (proving the Bay Area can’t claim credit for every food fad). And in a compelling and compassionate story about one woman’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, John Gravois at Pacific Standard uses the controversy over the cost of bread as a jumping off point to explore how toast can offer comfort during challenging times.

For now, let’s give the final word here to the Brits, where tea and toast are cultural and culinary icons. The people across the pond, who brought toast to America, think San Franciscans are balmy for forking over so much for a slice. But too late folks: Artisan toast is already showing up on menus in London.

The bread that launched a brouhaha. Photo: Alanna Hale






Juhu's Preeti Mistry Photo: Naomi Fiss

As some of my readers know, I moonlight as a guide for Edible Excursions, a culinary tour company that leads intimate groups of guests on gourmet walks in San Francisco, Berkeley, and beyond. In addition to feeding folks well and introducing them to a new neighborhood, we serve up a side of edible education in these three-hour tours.

This week mark’s the one-year anniversary of our launch of the Temescal Tastes Tour, which I designed, to showcase the diverse range of eating establishments in this thriving North Oakland community with a hipster village vibe. Temescal Tastes was dubbed best of the Bay’s neighborhood eat-arounds by San Francisco magazine last year. To celebrate our milestone, we took 26 college students on a wander through the ‘hood yesterday, a rare Friday jaunt for us, since we typically start the tour at the farmers’ market on Sunday.

The students were delighted to eat, of course, as part of a food writing class. They were also intrigued by the stories of the food professionals who took time out of their busy days to share their stories. Preeti Mistry of Juhu Beach Club‘s playful presence can be found in her food, her restaurant’s ambiance, and in her presentation to the group, who ate up every word about her winding path through the culinary scene while noshing on potato pavs. Jena Davidson of the Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop explained why she left the fine dining world to open a food-oriented corner store, even though she didn’t know a ton about cheese at the time. She served mac & cheese topped with their signature sweet cock sauce (that’s honey & Sriracha in case you were wondering). And Danny and Henry, cool caffeine geeks at Cro Cafe, patiently explained the nuances of all things bean related, while students soaked up the charm of their alley store and sipped on some freshly-brewed Sightglass coffee.

A highlight of the day: Alison Barakat (aka Bakesale Betty) making a personal appearance, blue wig and all, to talk shop with the class while they tucked into her fried chicken sandwiches, which have their own cult following. A long line of people by the store with no sign enjoyed hearing snippets of Barakat’s back story while they waited for their lunch. Details like how she arrived in Berkeley from her native Australia and landed a job as a line cook at Chez Panisse, where she first learned how to make buttermilk fried chicken.

Mani Niall of Sweet Bar Photo: Paige Hermreck

Today, I’m soft launching a new Oakland tour for Edible Excursions, this time in the Uptown area, which has rapidly earned a reputation as a dining destination. We’ll visit relative newcomers such as Stag’s Lunchette, Duende, Bar Dogwood, Sweet Bar Bakery, Two Mile Wines, and Plum Bar, as guests get a feel for the flavor of this entertainment district, which is experiencing a long overdue renaissance. Retail and residential elements are in the works, but it’s the food, drinks, and arts scene that’s creating energy and luring folks back to the neighborhood. And, as always, it will be the people behind these edible enterprises–as much as their well-executed dishes and carefully-crafted cocktails–that resonate with guests.

As I told the food writing students: It’s an honor and a privilege to showcase the people who produce our food. And it is.

You might also like:

A Culinary Confession
Any Females in the House? Oakland’s New Wave of Top Women Chefs
Mistry Revealed
Stag’s Lunchette & Bar Dogwood: Winning Combo in the Heart of Oakland
How Sweet It Is
Bay Area Food Tours: Behind the Scenes with Edible Excursions Founder Lisa Rogovin


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