Cheap Eats, Cheap Labor: The Hidden Human Costs Of Those Lists

February 13, 2017

Those all-too-common lists of cheap places to eat are part of a broader restaurant culture that devalues immigrant labor and ignores the consequences, says commentator and restaurateur Diep Tran.

By 
Diep Tran
Illustration Credit: Alex Reynolds/NPR

Everyone loves a cheap eats list. A treasure map to $1 tacos! $4 banh mi! $6 pad Thai! More often than not, the Xs that mark the cheap spots are in the city's immigrant enclaves. Indeed, food media is never so diverse as when it runs these lists, its pages fill with names of restaurateurs and chefs of color.

These lists infuriate me.

Before I became a restaurant owner, I spent my childhood in my relatives' pho restaurants. Because of that, I have deep compassion for and understanding of the pressures facing immigrant restaurateurs.

I watched my aunts and uncles work 16-hour days, only to charge cut-rate prices for their food. And I also witnessed the grueling hours that their employees put in, also at cut-rate wages. It is a cruel reality that immigrant enterprise is powered by the cheap labor of fellow immigrants.

Restaurant workers are already among the lowest paid workers in America. Many full-time workers rely on public assistance to make ends meet. Often enough, restaurant workers could not afford to eat at the restaurants where they work. And at the bottom of this system are the employees of the restaurants on these cheap eats list.

American enterprise has long been a gateway to the American dream for many immigrants. But much of it was also built on exploited labor. Enslaved African-Americans built Southern plantations. Chinese immigrant workers built the railroads. Latino migrant farm workers are the backbone that turned California into America's agricultural powerhouse.

This view of people of color as sources of "cheap" labor bleeds into our restaurant culture: Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap. And so pulling together a "cheap eats" list rather than, say, an "affordable eats" list both invokes that history and reinforces it by prioritizing price at the expense of labor.

At my restaurant, an appetizer of spring rolls is $7. A chicken banh mi with house-made mayo and a side of fries or slaw is $12. A chicken pho is $11. I use sustainably grown chickens; the vegetables are from the farmers market. My staff are paid well over minimum wage. Generally, though, my prices are compared not to other restaurants that use sustainable ingredients and work towards paying their workers a living wage, but to Vietnamese restaurants where bowls of pho run $7, banh mis are $3 (or you can buy two and get one free). And because of that focus on price above all else, I've been criticized for being too expensive. I've been told flatly by Yelpers, customers and food reviewers that my restaurant is too expensive "for Vietnamese food."

I'm fully aware of the irony here: My family and I came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1970s and '80s. My relatives, like so many immigrant entrepreneurs, did what they had to do with their restaurant to survive and created a business model that worked for their time. That business model became the dominant model. It continues to be the dominant model. That business model is the one the ultimately traps the entrepreneur who would like to break out of this mold.

I have worked hard to combat the underlying racism that drives so much of the "celebration" of "cheap eats," and I believe that consumers and food media can play a large part in this fight. We need to rethink the very idea behind cheap eats lists. We need to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves about immigrant resourcefulness and tenacity also makes us willfully blind to the human cost that makes the $3 banh mi possible.

These lists are part of a broader restaurant culture that devalues labor and ignores the consequences of that devaluation. And these lists make it difficult for immigrant businesses — and I include my own here — to break out of the trope that equates communities of color with cheap food and cheap labor. I don't see treasure in cheap eats. Restaurants where workers are paid fairly and the food respected? That's the true treasure.


Diep Tran is the chef and owner of Good Girl Dinette, a popular Los Angeles diner serving local, seasonal Vietnamese comfort food.

This essay was crafted in response to a summit on racism and difference in food, staged at Rivendell Writers Colony by The Southern Foodways Alliance and Soul Summit.

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  • February 13, 2017