New York City is known for its cutting edge trends and progressive––if not pushy––residents. The city’s latest demand? For restaurants to be more ethical.
In recent years, NYC consumers have begun seeking out restaurants that fit their high standards of social responsibility, from inclusive hiring practices to sustainable ingredients. Restaurants seem to be responding to this demand, as reflected in the growing number of vegan or zero-waste establishments. As environmental sustainability has risen from a niche issue to the forefront of global politics, NYC eaters have translated their social ethics into their dining choices.
Veganism, for example, is no longer just a health trend. In fact, the production of meat and other animal byproducts makes up the second biggest factor in human-made carbon emissions, just after fossil fuels. Meanwhile, on a national scale, the food waste crisis can be essentialized in NYC itself, which sees an excess of 40% of all food produced for human consumption while almost 1.2 million New Yorkers go hungry each year. Of course, the list goes on. Other issues consumers look for in their restaurants include supporting local vendors, ethical farming practices, self-sufficient gardening, fair trade goods, and eliminating single-use plastics.
However, consumer ethics goes far beyond the food on the table. While the desire for sustainability is a major component, behind-the-scenes ethical practices are arguably more important. Public-facing ethics are easy to market––such as the food itself, how it’s produced, and if it contributes to the environmental movement. However, many restaurants still haven’t caught up in terms of creating a foundation of basic human rights for their employees, namely surrounding equal pay and inclusive hiring. Eating organic, vegan food feels slightly insincere when the people serving it are still marginalized and exploited.
One such hypocritical example is By Chloe, the fast-casual vegan chain that New Yorkers flock to. Despite its noteworthy efforts in product sustainability and changing the landscape of plant-based eating, the company has failed ethical labor standards, including multiple lawsuits and a two-star employee rating on Glassdoor amidst claims of verbal harassment and unsuitable working conditions.
Other, less-publicized ethical concerns in the restaurant industry include price sensitivity, diversity in front-of-house staff, and how the establishment fits into the context of the neighborhood. While NYC is notorious for its steep prices, restaurants can still make a market-level profit while offering happy hour deals that make it more accessible. Other questions to consider include: is the restaurant capitalizing on a gentrifying neighborhood without any regard for the existing community? Does it feel like a safe space for people of all orientations? These considerations are not about marketing a restaurant as inclusive or publicizing their ethics, they are about responsibly managing your business and letting your operations speak for themself.
In this day and age, consumers have more of a voice than ever. Social media is a key platform for diners to take a stand. For example, customer outrage over blatant displays of cultural appropriation or offensive decor has reformed the consciousness of many NYC restaurants. Dissent from diners has successfully removed caricatures of accused rapists Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer on the walls of The Palm and blackface posters at the famed steakhouse, Keen’s. Social media backlash surrounding Lucky Lee’s, a white-owned Chinese restaurant that claimed to be different from traditional Chinese establishments in its “clean” cooking, ultimately led to the restaurant’s quick closure. These instances are symbolic of the power consumers have in shaping the way a restaurant presents itself. The most successful changes stem from consumer demand, whether via social media or simply asking the right questions.
NYC consumers have notoriously high demands, many of which now include comprehensive ethical practices. In order to stay competitive in the ever-growing industry, restaurants must find new ways to attract customers. Catering to the sentiment of consumer responsibility is not just a maneuver to attract more customers nor a means to stay relevant, but is a social need that must be filled.