Café Overlook serves up change for the restaurant industry
Working in the restaurant industry is no walk in the park. Workers face long hours, often on holidays, with low pay and no benefits, conducting physically exhausting tasks in an environment known for its toxicity.
But the nonprofit Service!, which got its start supporting vulnerable restaurant workers in the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, is working to change that narrative through a new partnership with Franklin County.
Café Overlook offers a 360-view of downtown Columbus in a spacious dining room, with made-to-order food and a curated salad bar. In addition to committing to a wage of at least $15 an hour, benefits and other employee supports, the café is a training field for employees to learn new skills.
The café sits on the 16th floor of Franklin County’s municipal court in the location of the county’s former cafeteria, which was shut down during the pandemic. The creators of the café want to make a new model for private/public partnerships in the food industry.
“We're trying to change the restaurant industry,” said Letha Pugh, one of the cofounders of the nonprofit.
The partnership with Franklin County commissioners has provided $350,000 in start-up funds so far, and the county is committed to providing up to $4.25 million over the course of a three-year contract. There are also options to extend that contract.
Pugh and Sangeeta Lakhani, the executive director of the nonprofit have both run restaurants. They and co-founder Matthew Heaggans said the industry has long been problematic for workers.
“It's long hours. It's a lack of pay, no benefits. You're expected to come into work when you're sick, which is crazy. You miss every event with your family and [you’re] not there for those family moments like Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas, all of the big holidays – those are the days that you work the hardest, right? And then there's nothing at the end of it. It's not like you got a bonus for working those extra hours,” Lakhani said.
But Lakhani and Pugh say they are shaping an environment that respects workers and nurtures their growth.
The attitude is paired with those tangible benefits, like job training, living wages and health care. And a social service agency partnered with the effort takes the support a step further by offering childcare assistance, transportation assistance and uniform assistance.
Pugh said that the assistance works to remove the barriers often present for low-salaried workers.
“And [when] we've seen when these barriers are removed, folks are more able to come into work and not have to worry about those things. We want an environment where they want to be there, they want to come to work,” Pugh said.
Lakhani said it’s not easy for struggling restaurants to provide some of the benefits associated with a higher standard of living, but the partnership with Franklin County is making it possible. She said the blueprint they are forging at the café should be replicated where possible.
“So then we can go to restaurants or other counties and be like, ‘Well, here's what we figured out, here's how you can bring labor back, here's how you can provide benefits at a more reasonable rate or, you know, sustain it, and to be able to educate the labor force,’” Lakhani said.
The project took several meetings a week for nearly a year to launch, but even after only a few weeks of operating – and a lot of hard work and elbow grease – the results have been positive.
“We have learned that there are people who do want to work. And they want to be here. They want to learn, they want to grow and challenge themselves. People have a lot of barriers keeping them from where they want to be,” Pugh said.
Lori Thomas came on in the beginning. She said her skills in the kitchen were quickly realized and she mastered a few jobs before becoming an expediter.
Though she’s worked in restaurants in the past, the café offers something better.
“They are just very different from any other job I've ever had. It's like you can tell they care when you come here, you know? So, I'm always happy to come to work every day,” Thomas said. “Here, you kind of feel like you're a part of the business more, you know? Even though we know we're not the owners or managers, everyone has a voice in what's going on here. This is different than any other job I had, even when I was a manager at other places, I still just felt like I was just there.”
Thomas said she is learning the skills she’ll need to open her own restaurant one day. And, she was pleasantly surprised to find the leadership supportive of her goals.
“Typically, managers don’t want to hear about you wanting to do something else. But here, they don’t mind. That’s what they want. They want to help you achieve what you want to achieve,” Thomas said.
With the vast majority of restaurants operating without the supports the Café Overlook has access to, and pummeled by inflation from multiple angles, Lakhani said consumers have to change their mindsets when it comes to paying for restaurant fare if they want to see meaningful advancements in the standards for restaurant employment.
“You have to be willing to pay for it. If you want somebody to make a livable wage, and you want the burger that you want, and you want it to be fresh, not frozen -- all of that costs money. And we have to change, the customer has to change that mindset. No restaurant will succeed, no program like this will succeed, nothing will ever come of anything if people don't change their mindset,” Lakhani said.
The Café Overlook is on the 16th floor of the Franklin County Government Center, 373 S. High St., in Columbus. It’s open for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., on weekdays.
Visit servicerelief.org for more information about the nonprofit organization Service!