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Behind the Kitchen Door: Extreme Inequality and Opportunity in Houston’s Vibrant Restaurant Economy

Restaurant Opportunities Center of Houston’s latest report is the most comprehensive examination to date of the Houston-area restaurant industry, drawing on 553 worker surveys, 27 structured interviews with restaurant workers and 13 employer interviews, along with other industry and government data. The study offers a vivid picture of the state of the industry and makes recommendations to improve Houston’s economic development, public health and workplace conditions for the city’s restaurant workers.

Houston is America’s fastest-growing city and its vibrant restaurant industry has been called the “most dynamic and diverse food and drink scene in the nation.” However, research indicates that the restaurant workers whose labor makes Houston’s growth possible are being left behind. The majority of restaurant jobs in Houston remain low-road jobs defined by low wages, few benefits, and poor working conditions.

Key findings include:

  • 51% of Houston’s restaurant workers are paid an hourly wage that would not support a family of three above the poverty level. Workers also reported overtime and minimum wage violations, a lack of training, and unsafe workplaces.

  • 51.9% of restaurant workers of color earn below poverty wages, as opposed to 34.3% of white restaurant workers. White workers earn a median wage of $11.82, compared to $8.32 among workers of color.

  • Nearly all (93.1%) of surveyed workers were not offered employer-provided health insurance, and almost two-thirds (61.3%) have no health insurance at all. As a product of not having access to healthcare or paid sick leave, many workers are preparing and handling food while sick.

The report also offers solutions specific to policymakers, employers, customers, and workers, including:

  • For workers: Policy makers should support legislation that ensures workers have access to paid sick days, increase the minimum wage, and raise the subminimum wage for tipped workers to match the overall minimum wage. They should also support job-training programs, ensure that restaurant workers and their families have affordable access to healthcare, and protect workers from erratic scheduling and violations of federal, state, and local anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity laws.

  • For employers: Adopt systematic and fair hiring and promotions practices — including anti-discrimination and harassment policies — and enhance job quality and employee retention by increasing wages and developing scheduling practices that meet both employer and worker needs.

  • For customers: Support responsible restaurant owners who provide fair wages, benefits, and opportunities for workers to advance.Speak to employers every time you eat out and let them know you care about livable wages, benefits, and opportunities for women and people of color to advance in the restaurant industry.

Find the full report here.