Sure. So, my name is Saru Jayaraman and I am 41 and I co-founded and run a national organization called the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, ROC United; I’m also the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. ROC is a national organization based in New York, but I am personally based in Oakland, California.
We started the organization just after 9/11 together with workers who lost their jobs at Windows on the World, which was the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. We have, over the last 15 years, grown into an organization of almost 25,000 workers, hundreds of restaurant owners, and several thousand consumer members pushing for better wages and working conditions in the industry. We've published about 45 reports and three books on the industry. We have pushed many pieces of legislation and several have passed on this industry. We have worked with some of the nation's highest profile restaurant owners to make real industry change. We've opened our own restaurants. We now own two restaurants called Colors: one in New York and one in Detroit, and we're opening a third one in Oakland, California.
So, you know, we've been named repeatedly one of the most influential groups in the industry, so we definitely know a lot about this industry.
I'll ask you this question, then, which is important to understand and convey to my readers the way the game industry is coming across to outside of the videogame space: What did you make of my reaching out to be interviewed for this?
You know, I didn't understand it. I was open to it. I mean, mainly because I live in the Bay Area and, honestly, we've heard a lot from tech workers in general that a lot of what they're experiencing in many ways is similar to some of the conditions we're hearing about in the restaurant industry -- and I've actually had two experiences, one, from an IBM worker, and two, from a videogame worker's parents reaching out to me personally and asking for help as a labor lawyer because of labor issues. So, when you first emailed, I didn't quite get it but thinking about it and now hearing you talk about it, it makes perfect sense.
I was on a plane some months ago and sitting next to a couple, and they asked what I did and I explained it to them and they said, "Oh, please help us. Our son is in the videogame industry and this is what's going on." So, it felt like he was deep into it and they had a bit of outside perspective and were kind of asking for help.
There's multiple prongs to all of this, and one of them is to help humanize the industry and medium, but another is I feel like the entire industry is that kid asking you for help.
Where, it's like -- so, the book that you wrote, Forked, which I don't think you mentioned, and by all means please feel free to give context for that after I ask this question.
I mean, could you write a book like Forked if you were looking at an industry where there's industry-wide NDAs and even lifelong NDAs for many people? If, on top of that, there's a press that never writes about labor in meaningful ways or ways to push for meaningful change -- or that often doesn't even realize that it can? How impossible would it be to write a book like that if all the information you had to get, you had to get yourself?
I mean, you're basically stating where we were 15 years ago. [Laughs.]
We were going up an industry where there was a universally accepted mythology that this industry has the smallest profit margins of any industry in the United States, there's no way to actually pay workers a decent, livable wage. You know, the industry is basically dominated by these celebrity chefs and they know what they're doing and they know best as the managers and employers. The accepted way of doing business that the NRA [National Restaurant Association] puts out is the only way of doing business.
I mean, all of those myths were exactly the myth -- and the thing you talk about, with the videogame industry being so unique, was exactly what we heard over and over again: "The restaurant industry is so unique. It has the smallest profit margins. It's not like any other industry. You cannot raise wages in this industry. Restaurants would collapse, and menu prices would go way up. There's just no way to do it."
And it's taken 15 years of writing and research and organizing and mobilizing and getting some fabulous restaurant owners on our side in dividing, really, the opposition in that way, to change the public narrative on what's possible in our industry. So, absolutely not.
And then the piece about NDAs? I mean, most of the people in our industry consider themselves to be very skilled professionals. You know, maybe the world doesn't see it that way and the NRA doesn't see it that way, but most people in our industry consider themselves to be skilled professionals and, unfortunately, a lot of them have been trained in a methodology that makes them think that the profession requires them to do things like stodging, or work for free or work under tremendous abuse. It's just about changing what the profession looks like and means and having it really be a true profession. And so, I don't think it's impossible at all. I think it's exactly where we were.
In the game industry, the way that a lot of those practices are defended, and especially the much more exploitative practices, is there's a rallying cry that it's a passion industry. I know that in sports, there's a similar way to talk about things where they -- like, in the NFL, everything is to uphold the integrity of the game, even though there's injustices, cowardice, and exploitation going on. What's the uniting concept in the food industry in the face of --
Oh my God, that's -- it's the same thing! I mean, that's how you get people to work for free coming out of -- you know, paying tens of thousands of dollars for culinary school, they literally have people working for free in the fanciest, fine dining restaurants all over the country. For free. Because it's the passion and it's the integrity and it's the art.
Our industry, right now, after so many years of doing this, is going through the worst labor shortage in the history of this industry because they finally reached a point where they grew so dramatically on this horrible business model. They grew so exponentially and they cannot find enough workers anymore that are willing to put up with these practically free to slave labor conditions.
They're out of workers. They literally cannot find enough people. And so, that passion thing is exactly what our industry uses to say, "You should be in this for the art and the creativity and the passion, and you should work for free to do it."
It's not a sustainable business model. I think the industry itself is waking up and seeing it is not a sustainable business model.
What are things that can make an industry wake up or, as you said in the case of the food industry, there was a shift in the way the profession was thought of. What actually helps change that? If videogames are about 15 years behind your industry --
-- not that it's a 1:1 thing, or I'm asking for GPS coordinates --
-- but I'm in a position where I started my own project because there is nowhere to report on this. I do feel like these are important issues.
It's a global workforce. It's an industry that likes to brag about how much revenue it's generating and how much of the culture it's driving, but these very basic things are still not being addressed.
I'm not asking you to get out your prescription pad.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Well, I mean, that's the point. It takes so much work to get people to understand. You know, it took us -- it couldn't be any one thing. It really took us, what we called, surrounding the industry. So, it took the research and the policy work on the one hand. It took the workers standing up and moving the policy work. It took getting employers on our side through over a dozen years of building relationships with employers who -- those standout employers, and there are always are those, at least one or two in every industry, that actually believe in what you're doing, what you're talking about.
There are people who are well known in every industry who secretly or maybe not-so-secretly share values with good working conditions and people who care about livable jobs, livable wages, livable working conditions. And so, it has taken us a dozen years to identify those key people that agree with us. To have them form a group of their own that breaks away from the industry mold, to then be willing to be public about their stance and say, "The NRA doesn't speak for us. We actually believe in something different."
Even to move their minds, in terms of what is possible and how you run a restaurant, get them to make changes in their own company. Beyond that, set up your own models. Like, we opened our own restaurants in order to train thousands of workers to move up the ladder so we could shift the industry's perspective not just on how much they pay people but which people they hire in which positions because our industry is so racially segregated.
So we do what we called surrounding industries on the research, we've done the demonstration project, we've done the dividing the opposition in terms of the employer's side, and if you were to ask me what it would take in the gaming industry? I think it would take some amount of each of those but maybe not -- you know, there's been so much work, especially over the last couple of years, by workers. Between the Fight for 15 and Walmart workers rising up, I just feel like there has been a national conversation shift about what constitutes a decent job and a good business model and hiring practices. I don't think it would take 15 years for the gaming industry to do this. I just think they need to latch onto what other workers are doing and, frankly, identify themselves. That's gonna be the key. Identify themselves with the working class. Which, maybe they don't do right now.
Yeah, I'm not sure if there's -- I don't think the workforce is at that point yet. And I'm not sure what it is. I'm sure that you've heard of stories like The New York Times piece about Amazon from last year.
Books like Forked or even Kitchen Confidential -- or maybe you scoff at being mentioned in the same breath as Anthony Bourdain, but when books like this come out, what do you feel is their net effect? Do they have a measurable impact?
In videogames, the culture isn't even such that you can put out a book like that because the impression is that no one is interested.
I'm serious! It's not a joke!
If you were to write a book on working conditions in the gaming industry, you don't think the gaming industry itself would care? Is that what you mean? You don't think --
I don't even think you can get a publisher to care is what I'm saying.
[Pause.] Really? Are you sure about that?
I am positive.
To me it seems like such a sexy topic.
I think we're both unusual, though.
'Cause I thought the same thing about your book, but I don't know that every person would.
I think the average reader, you know, a person who cares about videogames a lot, they're gonna want to read about how their favorite series came together. But the thing about the game industry is that a lot of that information is so gated, too.
So, we get a lot of self-made historians writing books or things that are composites from dribs and drabs from reporting from people who are no longer in the industry or are willing to talk about parts but not all.
Yeah. You know, I had an earlier book -- I don't know if you've seen it -- called Behind the Kitchen Door, which I think sold more copies than Forked, at least in its first year. It hit a bunch of best seller lists, and part of it was that when people saw the title, Behind the Kitchen Door, and the cover, they assumed it was like Kitchen Confidential, like, "Ooh, uncover the secrets of what you don't know what's really happening in the kitchen, the gross and salacious things that are happening in the kitchen." And I gave them some of that, but most of it was about working conditions and so kind of drew them in with in -- so I just wonder if it were more framed as "come find out about what's really behind this game industry," because I do think there's a general consumer interest in, like, this weird world. [Laughs.] It does seem a little nefarious and underground and shifty. You know?
It is weird. I often ask people, "What do you think is weird about the game industry?" It's an interesting litmus test of whether they're up for being honest in assessing what's unusual and also possibly what's unique in a positive way. But a lot of people, what I found, when I thought about starting to do this project was the people I talked to who were higher up in the industry and doing really well -- I doubt this will surprise you -- they had had no perception at all that there were problems. They had no idea what I was talking about. [Laughs.]
Yeah. Or, maybe, it's like chosen oblivion, you know?
Maybe they do know and they just don't want to know.
Yeah. Well, so, I'll shift gears here.
I'd be curious to hear you talk about Yelp. How do you feel that has changed awareness of abuses in the labor force and the restaurant world? Has it?
Well, no. Yelp has thus far been unwilling to work with us. In fact, if you post a comment on Yelp about labor issues in a particular restaurant, they'll take it down within 12 hours.
So, we created our own diners' guide app, and I will say the existence of Yelp made out diners' guide a lot more interesting and popular among consumer. Mark Bittman wrote about -- the food writer at The New York Times -- wrote about our guide and on the day that he wrote about it something like 100,000 to 150,000 people downloaded our app. So, we created our own guide that talks about, like, these restaurants provide good wages, these don't. We rated restaurants on wages, working conditions, and mobility. Our app is definitely not as sophisticated as Yelp and we're trying to actually work with some tech partners to overhaul it, but the point is that I think there is a lot of consumer interest in something like that. But thus far, Yelp has been unwilling to do anything about it or OpenTable, and part of it, again, is that they haven't yet seen the kind of data that shows them there's a market interest in labor issues, so that's what we're trying to amass. Part of it is that they are somewhat actually beholden to the industry. We have found that Zagat’s, and all of these -- you know, they have relationships with the National Restaurant Association that we have seen make them afraid to put labor conditions on their guide.
Yeah. They have relationships with the industry. OpenTable certainly does. Zagat’s certainly does. They have relationships in the industry. They have certain ins in the industry that they need, they need to continue their relationship with the industry that the industry leadership would be pissed if they worked with us because most of the industry leadership would be exposed as being horrible employers.
So, that's why Zagat's wouldn't put labor in their guide. OpenTable would not, for sure. There's a financial incentive.
In Forked's section on diners, it ends with a passage about Zagat's, asking why it doesn't have a category talking about workers. I'm curious, because it's also true with videogames: Why is it even among people who claim to really love a thing, there's this barrier where they don't want to be interested or don't want to concern themselves with thinking about the people that are making the thing they love? What do you think is the disconnect there?
Yeah. Well, I mean, on the employer side, I do believe it is feigned ignorance. On the employer side, if you're hearing from some industry leader that they don't know about this, I do believe strongly that's feigned ignorance. That's what we've seen in our industry. They know full well that they rely on very cheap labor and poor working conditions.
On the consumer side, it has taken many years of education and pushing. We've actually had tremendous success in moving consumers from caring exclusively about local and organic and the pigs and the cows to actually thinking about the workers. We've worked now over the last eight years on a specific initiative to actually move the "food movement" that cares about local and organic and sustainable to take up labor issues as a core issue. And we've been really successful. We've gotten all the leaders of the "food movement," Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel, Anna Lappé all to say labor is now probably the top issue we need to deal with in the food system.
That has really shifted a lot of consumers thinking about what we should care about when we eat out or when we go to the grocery store. You know, a lot of the new food writers are writing about food-labor conditions. Every time there's a new food conference, labor is always now an issue. It never was before. It's a very different world than it was eight years ago.
Eight years ago, what we did is we created the Food Chain Workers Alliance. We brought together the worker organizations throughout the food chain, from farm workers to meat and poultry processing workers to our own restaurant workers. We created this alliance and together we kind of pushed, pushed, pushed on the food movement to say, "How can you have a sustainable food system if you don't have sustainable working conditions?"
So, in that case, I mean, we had something that perhaps the gaming industry didn't have, which is we saw this burgeoning "movement" in our industry really shift our industry around local and organic.
And we saw consumers really play a big role in that. Like, consumer interest actually changed that. And in that case, your question about books? I mean, books is what drove that movement. Books and film is what caused people to know anything about local and organic and sustainable.
And so, looking at that, we realized, "Well, here's an opportunity. We need to both push that movement to expand its definition of sustainable food and we need to replicate that movement's success."
And so, I would say in the gaming industry, if there's any conversation about any aspect of sustainability, whether it's -- I don't know, if there's any conversation about green or environmental concerns, if there's any conversation about any other aspect of sustainability, it might be an opportunity to attach, "Well, there has to be sustainability in terms of the people producing it."
And with the consumer world, I mean, I just think that our experience moving consumers on this issue provides some hope that there is the potential to move consumers of other industries. We actually hired a top message-testing firm to do a whole series of focus groups with "foodies" about what would make them move from caring about local and organic to what would make them care about workers, and we used that to create a whole consumer association called Diners United to mobilize a ton of consumers around our issues.
So, it is totally possible. I think it takes some research to figure out, "Okay, what do consumers of videogames really care about? What makes them like one game over another and what would make them want to weigh in, also, on the production of those games?”
It's interesting. You use the word "sustainable." In videogames, it's exacerbated by -- there's this phenomenon in videogames which definitely doesn't happen in the food world. Basically, just, people hit a certain age and they lose interest in buying videogames. The Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony kind of things.
Maybe they still buy and play stuff on their phone. But in videogames, there's always been this thing where people age out or move on or just stop paying attention to videogames. So, it's almost like it's more difficult to get traction from the consumer base in that sense.
But on top of that, you mentioned many of those authors and the only figures I can think of who are comparable in the videogame space -- they tend to be more rallied around defending videogames against accusations that were made decades ago, which is that videogames are not a waste of time and they're a viable artform.
You mentioned surrounding the industry.
No wonder it's so difficult, because there are no correlate figures in videogames' case.
Yeah. Yeah, but you do have these people who -- I mean, I know, because I've interacted with them. You do have these people who make a name for themselves winning awards developing games.
Some of them have come up through the ranks and have some values. I do think it could be possible -- to me, maybe the correlate in the gaming industry to a Michael Pollan or an Eric Schlosser is an award-winning game developer who's like, "Things have gotta change in our industry." I -- thinking about, okay, who has influence in the gaming industry? Who has notoriety? Who has the profile? Who has a platform? Any of those people could do, and I do think they are -- one thing that's a little bit different, I think, about the gaming industry, is that there's a tiny amount of democracy, maybe, that doesn't exist in other sectors because you can have, for example, a young person of color that is a developer and could eventually become a really well known developer. It seems to me. Maybe I'm wrong. The person I'm thinking of is like this. And so, he's gotten some notoriety and attention and I think he could be somebody that you could start with, because I know he shares our values.
You mentioned democracy and it's interesting. You mentioned in Forked, I think talking about McDonald's and Swedish restaurateurs and franchisees who are talking about how it would be irresponsible to have the poor get too poor and the rich too rich. Do you remember what I'm talking about? You were writing about fast-food jobs and McDonald's and there's mention in the prose you wrote about how there's an Americanized treatment of these types of jobs or that the way --
That's a component in the game industry, which as it's gone from being so Japanese-based to be very American-based. But what does that phrase mean, though, "a distinctly American attitude to industries." What does that mean?
[Sighs.] Unfortunately, I would say until recently, it has meant kind of a race to the bottom: What's the most we can grind out of people for the least amount? Yeah.
And that's I think has -- a couple of years ago, we reached the highest levels of income inequality since The Gilded Age. I do think the Fight for 15 and OUR Walmart and Occupy created a narrative shift in our country that is rejecting that whole idea of grinding the most out of people for the least. And so -- and, we're seeing this in our industry. Like, there is a wholesale rejection of the business model by workers who are, frankly, leaving the industry and saying, "I just can't make this work anymore."
"It doesn't make sense anymore for me to go to culinary school and come out and work for free. I just can't do it."
So, I do think the nation is shifting, but until a couple of years ago and hopefully we're not going back on this direction over the next four years. I don't think we will at the leadership level.
But I do think the populace, even those that voted for Trump -- one thing you should know is that every minimum wage measure that was on the ballot on November 8 passed. Every single one. People voted to raise the minimum wage even on the same ballots that they voted for Trump.
So people are generally, wholesale rejecting the idea of just crazy amounts of income inequality and that the rich should just continue to get richer and the poor should just continue to get poorer and that it's okay to squeeze people for everything that they've got.
Like, people are rejecting that idea now, in my opinion, more than they have in the last several decades or they have in the last couple of years thanks to things like the Fight for 15 and the fast-food workers, Walmart workers, workers are rising up and people are responding and Occupy did help with some of that. So, I do think the narrative shift is changing and as I said before, I think what it will take in the gaming industry is at least some people -- maybe it's those key leaders, whoever it is, those high-profile people identifying with -- even if it's not empathy, sympathy with the workers who are rising up and saying, "Like those workers, we also need to change our business model.” You know?
I don't want to lock you into a binary, but given what you just said, what do you think is going to happen for contract workers? That's a huge part of the game industry.
Yeah. Well, I was gonna say that earlier -- I don't necessarily agree that non-contract workers are going to be okay because what I do see happening is the growth of the subcontracting world is gonna hurt all workers, contracted and non-contracted.
Yeah. I mean, if employers increasingly feel like subcontracted workers are preferable because they're cheaper and they're disposable, then they're gonna be preferred. We've seen this happen in other contexts. I mean, if you look at immigration and you have an underclass of workers who are cheaper, that drives down wages for all workers, immigrant and nonimmigrant, because the immigrant workers are going to be preferred. They're cheaper and the employers will drive down wages as a result.
So, we've seen this happen across the board and my fear with contracting in general -- first of all, we're seeing even in our industry and more broadly among thought leaders, among funders, among writers, the idea of subcontracting is currently being overblown even beyond its actual percentage of the economy. So, the Silicon Valley kind of gig workers, like Uber workers and these kinds of workers, subcontracted workers are still less than three percent of our economy. But the way you hear some of the people talking even at the Department of Labor and at all these levels, the national level, it sounds like subcontracting is taking over our entire economy.
[Laughs.] And it will if we allow it to.
Right. But it isn’t sustainable for workers.
If we think that it is this big and we suddenly start saying, "Oh, well, nobody even knows who their employer is anymore," and to me, that's the danger. If we say, "Okay, it's all about the subcontracted worker and these people don't even know who their employer is anymore, therefore we should shift away from employer accountability to universal solutions." Like, they're talking about -- I'm sure you've heard about UBI, or universal basic income, and universal benefits or what they call portable benefits for Silicon Valley subcontracted workers -- that's what we should shift to. Well, that takes the onus off the employers who are still subcontracting their workers and still employing tons of people who should still be held accountable for good employment conditions. So, I don't want to over-blow or overstate the subcontracting piece and I also don't want to let subcontracting allow us to take the onus off employers either for subcontracted or contracted workers. We have to still keep pushing on accountability for all employers whether they're subcontracting or not. So that means they have to pay higher wages to all workers, subcontracted and not.
Yeah. So, in the videogame world, there's a thing called crunch, which is basically a fancy way of saying poor project management. So, people wind up working just ridiculously long hours as they try to push to a milestone. That tends to be the main problem that when labor is written about in videogames, that's it. There's a whole host of other problems, and especially in the contractor dynamic there's a whole other host of problems there.
I don't want to create a hierarchy of people's pain and struggle, but is there similar stuff in the restaurant world where there's a problem that people get distracted by when it's discussed, but it it typically overshadows from others that are just as important if not more so also being discussed?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But let me ask you: Can you tell me what the people you talk to, what does the workforce say are the top problems? Do they say it's the amount of time that they're putting in? Is it the way they're treated? What do they say are the top problems?
Oh, man. Well, obviously ridiculous hours is bad. There's dynamics where people don't get credit for the work they've done, especially if they're a writer. There can be pretty glaring cases of sexual harassment. There's a company up in Canada where they circulated a memo that told all female employees to blindly follow orders and not challenge orders from male superiors --
Oh my God.
Oh my God. Wow.
I'm just coming off the holiday break so I have a bit of holiday brain here, but there's a whole bunch. I mean, if you want, I have a document where I keep an inventory of these, but there's a whole ton of them. It's not just the hours. Those hours can be filled with many other offenses.
I think the average amount of time people are able to stick with the industry is about eight years, and then they tend to leave and they go either into software where they get paid more and don't have to work themselves to death and there are some people I know who have left the game world to get into the wine world.
But universally, everyone who leaves the game industry tells me the same thing, which you can probably guess: They say that they're much happier and way less stressed and they make more money.
When they leave?
Hmm. Wow. And so, they did it while they did it because they loved it?
Or was it this idea that they could become the next League of Legends or whatever? [Laughs.] Did they have an idea that --
Yeah, there's been these eclipsing things going on. The economy crashed about eight years ago and game production budgets at that major scale have still continued to go up by a factor of 10 every time there's a new console that comes out.
Yeah. Totally like our industry.
Really? That's just like the food industry, too? How?
We've been exploding exponentially, like, as every other sector has had crises or shutdown. Even during the economic crises under Bush, our industry just continued to grow and grow and grow.
It's like consumption -- the things people do when they're depressed and unemployed: eat out and play videogames. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] It's very true. It's very true.
But yeah. And the times that I have talked to people who are higher ups at studios for this project, they tell me either that their revenue keeps paces with their costs, so they don't need to have existential conversations about whether they're going to put themselves out of business. I mean, it's completely just eroded -- there used to be a middle tier of studios and now it's just really big expensive games that cost millions and millions of dollars and then there's a marketing budget for them that's at least equal to, if not double, the cost of production. There's that and then there are small, independent developers. People who are making games on their own and are looking to get published and get picked up.
But there's a lot of struggle and a lot of starving and there's also -- same as in the food business or any other industry -- a lot of glorifying of struggle. There's a lot of pain that comes from that.
Yeah. But people generally don't complain -- they complain about hours and abuse and exploitation. You haven't heard people complain about the wages? Or they have? The salary?
It's weird. I'll ask about that, but wages -- even off the record, people won't really talk about it. So, I'm relegated to paying close attention to things like Glassdoor or just stories that I hear. I think people -- understandably, I think people feel it's tacky to be asked, but they won't really tell me much about it anyway.
And you don't -- you can't get government data on how much people are making, generally?
I'll have to check on that. I've wanted to. I've also been trying for a couple years to find someone who works at a major bank who has to cover the game industry. I just haven't been able to find anybody.
Yeah. I know this data has to be tracked, but I don't know where to go to find it.
I mean, if you're interested, I could have our research director -- they're looking at occupational codes all day long everyday. I could have them take a look --
-- and see what they can find on gamers, if you want.
I would love to have that information.
Yeah, I'll ask him if he can do that. I don't know what they would be coded as in the government code, but we'll look at it. I mean, that's interesting that they won't talk to you about salary. You were saying -- is it similar? Absolutely. People -- when you first start talking to restaurant workers, will kind of use these, "I just want to be treated with dignity and respect." And you really have to really kind of scrape behind the surface to get at the things like the things you described: sexual harassment, lack of breaks, incredible poverty, worst wages of any industry in the United States.
I mean, one of the things that's really changed -- you asking what will it take, is gathering this data, especially government data, other data, and then spitting it back to the workforce and say, "Did you know you're the lowest paid workforce in America? Did you know you're the largest and lowest paid workforce in America? Did you know that this industry is, meanwhile, one of the most profitable and the fastest growing and still you're the largest and lowest paid workforce?”
Some of that has really helped in shifting workers thinking about, "Wait a second. I thought this was just the way our industry is, this is normal." It changes what is "normal" and helps people understand it's not at all normal or acceptable for you to be paid the way that you're paid.
So, I wonder if in the gaming industry if it might take that kind of mirror on itself. That's where book, information, that kind of stuff does become really important because having the industry have a mirror on itself -- even if it's not for those industry leaders who may pretend not to care or not to look at it, but certainly for the workforce. I mean, all those workers in the gaming industry, if they knew there was a book about them, I bet you bet some of them at least would read it.
And if they could read the fact that, "Wait a second. Our industry operates like this and then the rest of the world doesn't work like this and it doesn't have to be this way and it's totally abnormal?" It would start to change their thinking about their own industry and whether they're willing to talk about things in their industry, and that's a good first step.
Yeah. That's what I'm trying to drive towards with all of this.
I just started this because I wanted to get a sense of it and there was no where to go to read about it and as I mentioned, for 11 years I've been an entertainment journalist and very curious and asking a lot of questions. And, of course, the more questions I asked, the more questions I had, and the more questions I continue to have.
And the more places I go to, which is what brought me to you.
But I found -- I don't think you state this explicitly in Forked, but I found a commonality among the way managers treat their people, which is that people who have struggled tend to treat their people better. I don't know if you'd agree with that conclusion. Do you think that's an assertion to make?
I mean, it depends.
I guess the question is how often you think exploitation is an active choice.
Hmm. I don't think it is. I think for most people in our industry, they are simply following what they think is the only way of doing business, which they've been taught for forever is the only way of doing business by the National Restaurant Association.
So, I think a lot of those people have suffered and struggled and are still management in some of the -- I mean, I've interviewed fast food workers who talk about managers who really horribly suffered and are underpaid and now are managers of the same fast food restaurants, exploiting other workers just because they've gotten a little bit of power. So, I don't think that it's always a choice. I think it's the way people are trained.
That, to me, is the danger in believing that employers and owners always know best, because they definitely don't. They don't always know best. You know, sometimes it does take push from the outside to change things.
No, I don't think it's a choice. I think the people who somehow are able to think differently or outside of the box, in my experience, either are very unique individuals who just -- like, in every industry there are those unique individuals who are like, "No, I'm just gonna do things differently because I just don't think it's right."
Or, increasingly, I'm finding people who come from outside of the industry in are the people who are like, "This is crazy and absurd and not how it should be going and so I'm gonna do things differently."
Like, we've had people come out of finance or white-collar America or whatever and come into the restaurant industry and said, "This makes absolutely no sense." One of my favorite stories is the head of Blue Bottle Coffee --
-- classical musician, I think a trumpeter or a -- I can't remember what he was.
He was one of the co-founders and came into the industry and was like, "This is crazy! We need to pay everybody $15!" And they do. ! And they're one of the fastest growing gourmet coffee shops in America.
They're great. They're delicious. [Laughs.]
Yeah. They don't come at all out of the restaurant industry. So, sometimes it takes people coming from the outside to make this choice. Yeah.
Some people -- sometimes it just takes really brave people from the inside. Last year, we had a huge, groundbreaking shift when Danny Meyer agreed to sit down and work with us to make a huge change in his restaurants. He's, like, the foremost fine-dining restaurant owner in the country. That just created this groundbreaking shift. We counted 189 restaurant companies following his footsteps after he made that move.
But that conversation with him and I came after 10 years of building relationships with his company and his peers until finally he was not afraid anymore and willing to sit down with me. [Laughs.]
And he later told reporters that he, prior to that conversation, would hear my name and run in the opposite direction because we were always seen as the troublemakers in the industry.
But we had, over time, chipped away at the notion that this is crazy and radical and, you know, the wrong thing to do to making him realize that actually this probably is the right thing to do. But that narrative, that overall national narrative shift I think helped a lot in helping moving Danny which is why I'm saying I would not recommend thinking about a shift like this in the gaming industry isolated from all the other tremendous shifts that have been happening with workers and income inequality over the last couple of years. People in the gaming industry have to ride on the change narrative of the nation and say, "Look, we're part of this story of income inequality too. We may be at a different level, we may be paid differently, it might be a slightly different industry. But every industry is different but faces many of the same challenges around income inequality. There's a throughline with every industry about 'is this a sustainable business model for the people who work in it or not?'"
I had one employer with my first book say, "Sustainability, to me, is that everybody in the business thrives and grows as the business grows." If that can't be said for people in the gaming industry, then you can't call it a sustainable business model.
It can't be said.
Well, I mean, you can say it but it's not true.
[Laughs.] Right. Exactly.
What do you think it says about us as a culture where, we mentioned McDonald's before and I don't want to single them out too much, but you talk about the high road and the low road. Many of the restaurants you write about that take the low road are sort of able to become very popular and successful, but meanwhile they stomp out the local character of many towns. What do you think that says about anything that those places are able to become as successful as they are?
I think it's been a bad history and I think it's changing. McDonald's is actually not doing well right now and they're desperately trying to change their image. In fact, a lot of these chains are struggling to change their image because it's not just on worker issues. Definitely the food movement and healthy food and all of that has pushed at them and picked at them until they are struggling right now. But I will say worker issues have become more of an issue. Consumers are thinking more about it. They're preferring places like Panera, which is actually having conversations with us and thinking about how to improve working conditions. They're preferring places like Chipotle. They're preferring places that actually are -- at least attempting or projecting a desire to do things differently.
McDonald's is actually struggling right now. So, I think what it says is that we have gone through this period of economic inequality growing over -- I would say a 50-year period. I mean, Reagan and the Bushes totally increased that, but then we did go through a push back on that over the last at least five to seven years since Occupy where people are really rejecting that idea. So, I don't want to believe that what we experienced in those first 50 years with Reagan and the Bushes defines America. I think it defines one notion of America. It certainly didn't define America all the way up to the '50s when there were good full-time jobs with benefits for most people -- for most white men who worked. [Laughs.]
I was about to say, yeah. Yeah.
[Laughs.] So, there is a world we could return to like that or change and be completely different but at least come back to sustainable wages and working conditions. I don't want to believe that that says something about us as a nation or a culture.
I think that is one ideology that has succeeded through the McDonald's and the Walmarts of the world, but I don't think can last. Oh, I don't think it is tenable.
I think it's not tenable because people and industries, which are comprised of people, have breaking points. And I think what concerns me with the game industry is it's a massive industry but everyone I talk to for this just -- the problems are very much on the surface, but I don't see many people asking the questions or writing about it or trying to raise awareness of it. I may just be a weird person because I find it really interesting, but yeah. I don't know. I think about it and I also realize that it exists in a much bigger sense where it's not just up to some journalist doing a project. I do get the sense there's a lot of pushback from the industry. I've been threatened by many game companies who are upset I'm doing interview outside of their PR channels. There's been all sorts of things I've run up against. So, it's not so much I'm here asking what I should do, but it's interesting to hear because you're saying things have improved.
They have. I mean, there's a long way to go.
A long, long way to go. But I do think we have at least gotten to the point where the narrative has shifted.