By Nafeesah Allen
As one of the top bartenders in New York City, Karen Fu has become well known among top-tier drink makers. Making her footprint bicoastal in Los Angeles has only further expanded her reach over the last two years, just in time for bars, clubs, and restaurants to close, open, and close again over the course of the pandemic. Never one to miss an opportunity, Fu has used this time to volunteer as Vice Chair of the Grantmaking and Nonprofit Partnerships committee and Editor of the COVID-19 Resource Page for the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF). The pandemic has given restaurant owners and workers pause to reflect on the sustainability of the hospitality industry, especially with regard to decent wages to support their workers’ livelihoods. Fu recalls her journey from bartender to workers’ advocate and highlights the opportunities that COVID-19 provides patrons to level set on worker’s rights.
NA: How has your career in bartending evolved?
I was motivated to bartend by writers who carried on both trades with fantastic zeal. Somehow I landed my first dive bar job at 1020 in Harlem after taking a crash course, then I was hired as a server at the renowned craft cocktail bar Please Don’t Tell (PDT). I’ve been lucky to have experienced a versatile range of leadership roles over twelve years as a bartender. I’ve been a consultant; bar manager; beverage director for small independently-owned businesses—like PDT, Mayahuel (RIP), Donna Cocktail Club—and bigger companies like Momofuku and Frankie’s Spuntino; and hospitality groups, like Made Nice, Golden Age, and Happy Cooking. Ultimately, the satisfaction of curating a memorable time for guests through food, beverage, hospitality, and conviviality is a wonderful daily reward, along with being part of a community that is constantly teaching and learning.
In candid retrospect, talk about diversity and inclusion started in the hospitality sector about seven years ago. So, hiring women was just teetering at the forefront of public conversations, barely making room for acknowledging scant and imbalanced BIPOC representation. I have felt in-between worlds—not being Taiwanese or American enough—grappling with a second-generation immigrant identity. Yet, being Asian American also means that I hope to dispel and resist the model minority myth. It is an oppressive tool that perpetuates white supremacy at the expense of Asian Americans and that mentality drives a racial wedge between us and other BIPOC.
RWCF has reinvigorated my dedication for activism and emboldened the steadfast belief that the food and beverage world has to urgently address how it can create more equitable, sustainable environments, structurally and culturally. RWCF is a nationwide advocacy and action nonprofit created by and for restaurant workers. Through community-building, grantmaking, and impact investing, RWCF is focused on four core issues: wage fairness and career ladders, gender equity and sexual violence, racial justice and support for the immigrant community, and mental health and substance abuse.
NA: Why did you become bi-coastal and what opportunities has that presented?
After 15 years in NYC, the push to move to Southern California was for a change in lifestyle. I think settling into a city of more sprawl, surrounded by nature, has creatively expanded my horizons. The future is uncertain, but at this juncture, I would like to continue advocating for restaurant workers’ rights and a pivot to the nonprofit sector, writing, and beverage consulting.
NA: If you could change anything for the workers in the restaurant industry, what would it be and why?
There are many. First, improving wages and working conditions: a higher minimum wage with non-discriminatory tips or ideally, no tipping. The tipping system is a legacy of American slavery and skews employees’ perceived value in this power dynamic. Health insurance benefits for all restaurant and service workers is a must. Providing it prioritizes our quality of life and equal opportunity for all. More hiring should be done in the name of intersectionality and business structures should shift to foster inclusivity and diversity. We need advocacy for mental health services, ethical supply chains, unionization, and worker-owned cooperative models in which workers share profits and democratically operate the business. Last, I would push for better legislation regarding immigration policy, which directly affects vulnerable and marginalized workers.
NA: We hear a lot about restaurants and bars closing, but how have restaurant workers been affected by the pandemic?
The livelihood for restaurant workers depends on battling persistent challenges: low minimum wage and wage cycle, high turnover, poor job mobility, lack of healthcare coverage, and overall poor protections. Much unseen labor exists in the hospitality sphere. Thriving in chaotic service situations is a honed skill, dependent on workers’ ability to easily adapt under pressure and think quickly in fast-paced, multi-tasking environments. Restaurant workers have a tough backbone to effectively cater to guests while aiming for high record sales with physical and technical dexterity, but this can be untenable. The demand supersedes the mental stamina.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended and uncovered the fragility of America’s restaurant workforce. Undocumented workers and their families who comprise 10 percent of all restaurant employees in the U.S. and 40 percent in urban areas like Los Angeles and New York especially have suffered from long-term income loss. Ravaged with restrictions, shutdowns and little federal aid, restaurant workers have struggled to survive on unemployment benefits (if they qualify) and depleted savings. On average, over seven million workers lost jobs with employer-sponsored health insurance (from February to June 2020). But, only 25% of accommodation and food service workers actually had these benefits pre-pandemic. Line cooks have the highest risk of mortality while working with a reduced team and higher safety precautions. Guest-facing staff have met increased sexual harassment and diminishing tips as they are asked to regulate mask-wearing safety measures. Restaurant workers largely feel abandoned and drained. We can do better to help them and their families hang on.
NA: How can consumers and customers help these efforts?
I would dissuade folks from using delivery apps (due to punitive commission rates charged to restaurants) and ask that they call the business directly to make their delivery and take-out orders. There will be a continued expansion of takeaway and prices will increase as businesses attempt to lure back its regular customer base. It goes without saying that immigrant and BIPOC-owned businesses will be disproportionately impacted due to resources and capital.
As the industry rebuilds, I hope to see a deeper appreciation and respect for the profession and the overall dining experience. My advice is to go out with mindfulness, by behaving with grace and patience, and acknowledging that dining out is a luxury.
A number of restaurants may incur service charges to cover what is the equivalent of hazard pay or, in some states like California (one of seven without tip credit), a tip percentage of gratuity (with proper disclaimer and option to remove) may supplement health insurance for the staff. So, please tip well (20%) as the majority of staff are working out of necessity. Most are unvaccinated and uninsured.
Last, join RWCF to call for change in the hospitality industry. I encourage people to check out our partners for organizations in our grantee network who support restaurant workers. Of course, follow us on social media to watch for the launch of our Racial Justice Fund.
Nafeesah is a freelance writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She graduated cum laude from Barnard College in 2006, earned a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University in 2009, and completed the postgraduate program in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India in 2013. Nafeesah received her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2019.