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One of the irritating things about owning a Chinese Restaurant is the fact that among Caucasians and Asians alike, we're pretty much down there on the "least appreciated professions" ladder. Somewhere near personal-injury attorneys and representatives of the IRS. The top urban myth we hear about constantly is that we're notorious for solving the problem of stray kitties in our neighborhoods by utilizing them, rats, and other furry woodland creatures with which to make Chow Mein. Additionally, a few bad apples can spoil the whole bunch; it's hard to get out of your head the filthy, open kitchen of a bad take-out joint; and harder not to assume that all Chinese Restaurant kitchens are similarly unclean. Stories of laborers who are little more than indentured servants abound (despite the fact that Chinese restaurants, in particular, are consistently targeted by the IRS as well as the labor department for audits of their business records).

The straw that may break the camel's back may be the recent rash of labor-law violation suits being brought against high-profile Chinese eateries in New York City; some of whom are accused of paying as little as $1.40 per hour (without benefits). This story not only made the English-language press but also the World Journal, the New York-based Chinese-language paper with the largest national circulation of any in the United States. It seems a revolutionary group of restaurant workers (a heretofore unheard-of concept absent Union support), with the aid of of The Urban Justice Center and big-time law firm Shearman & Sterling, has filed a complaint against a place called Saigon Grill. Then they went after Ollie's Grill and Noodle Shop. This writer knows little about the Saigon Grill chain; but is intimately familiar with the Ollie's group and their reputation.

There's Gold In Them There Noodles!

Now, Ollie was an American who embraced and loved the concept of the Chinese noodle shop. The noodle shop concept is simple; roast pork, soy-sauce chickens and roast duck (heads-on!) hang in the window in front, to entice the appetites of would-be eaters, and inside, the meats are served as a topping to myriad variations on noodle soup; handmade noodles cooked fresh and placed in broth with veggies and other garnish. It's cheap, fast and tasty - and good for you. Ollie took the noodle shop out of the teeming side-streets of Chinatown, gave it an upscale makeover by outfitting his shops with retro furniture, modern colors and really cool lighting fixtures, and plopped his new shops down in high-traffic areas all over New York. Success was immediate. But underneath the veneer of lime-green formica, gleaming modern fixtures and the latest designs in plates, bowls and other tableware, lurked a dirty secret. Venture down into the basement kitchens of these dining places (ostensibly to make a trip to the rest room), and one will witness a dozen or so Chinese and Latino workers, toiling away in the heat with no ventilation to speak of, in filthy conditions. (Hey, the bathrooms weren't that clean on our last visit, either.)

Ollie died a year ago or so. He left behind an empire built on noodles, cute waitresses and cheap labor.

The Chinese are an envious bunch (but aren't we all to one degree or another?). Other Chinese restaurateurs knew that the heirs, successors, assignees and beneficiaries of the recently demised "Ollie" were living pretty high-on-the-hog, driving around in Bentleys and displaying other trappings of wealth.

The rumor-mill really started churning when it became known that the remaining Ollie's partners had invested in several multi-million dollar residential high-rise condominium buildings in Flushing, New York, and were selling one-bedroom units in these ostensibly luxurious buildings for over a million dollars apiece; with four-bedroom penthouse units peaking out at seven million dollars! (All this money, by the way, entitles residents to look out of their floor-to-ceiling windows onto the industrial wasteland called College Point Boulevard, a stinking canal (the inlet from the East River which once provided the water for the park-like setting of the 1963 World's Fair, but was now Flushing's stagnant equivalent of Love Canal; yet another industrial wasteland on the other side of the canal on Willet's Point Boulevard (a preponderance of automobile service facilities and junk-yards), and finally Shea Stadium in all of its glory.) The fact that the Ollies' people had become luxury landlords a' la Donald Trump made a lot of their peers turn green with envy. As green as the jade hanging from the neck of a $1,000-a-night female "companion." The kind found at the private clubs frequented by wealthy Chinese businessmen. These clubs bear little resemblance to the gaudy, neon-lit dance clubs that the Chinese hoi polloi patronize; they serve not just Cognac, but Remy Martin X.O.; not just Champagne, but Dom Perignon etc.

How Did They Get Away With It So Long?

About twenty years ago, long before I met her, my wife was in the employ of a chic new Asian Eatery on the upper-West side of New York City. The poor young thing, who at that time had little command of English, was a waitress. A recent immigrant from Taiwan, she merely accepted the fact that she had to climb stairs; steep cement ones without any non-slip coating nor rubber treads; in order to carry enormous trays of hot food up from the kitchen, and then soiled plates and other tablewares back down. (She's always had a great work ethic). For this she was paid about $100 a month; plus tips. Now, because of the casual/fast atmosphere of the restaurant, and the average per-diner charge being less than $5 per visit; the tips were poor, at best. She was under-paid and overworked. (In fact, her doctor attributes her "tennis elbow" not from having pursued the sport of the idle rich, but from having to jostle those trays with bent elbows and wrists).

Prior to her elevation in the Chinese Restaurant world to the revered position of "waitress," she was a bus-girl in a bustling restaurant and club on 14th Street. She lived, at that time, on the lower east side of New York, about 30 blocks away. But each day, come rain or shine, she'd walk to work on 14th Street and 7th Avenue. This was in order to save the fifty cents that the Subway cost back then ($1.00 savings round-trip). She worked hard and saved every penny. Now, to give you an idea why someone would take the job described in the above paragraph; suffice it to say that a bus-girl at that time was paid $75 a month and ten percent of the tips earned by the waitresses she was assisting.

Save a Penny; Lose Dollars (and More)

Before the recent crackdown on the use of illegal immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security (which has absorbed the familiar "Immigration and Naturalization Service"), Chinese restaurant workers were easily available to those who'd want to risk their fortunes and potentially their freedom violating laws prohibiting the use of illegal workers. The Chinese cooked the food, and the Latinos washed dishes and cleaned up; the workers who showed the most practical knowledge were even elevated to the position of cutting vegetables or frying rice.

The 1970s marked the spread of the "Empire Szechuan" restaurant chain (well, yeah; empire - there were a lot of these cookie-cutter designed places around town). Started by a seamstress from Taipei, soon she was a multi-millionaire with about 15 restaurants all over the city. The concept of a modern restaurant of spartan design, serving such tasty morsels as Pork in Garlic Sauce, Beef and Broccoli and Hunan Chicken basically killed the old Cantonese chop-suey parlor, with the black lacquer lanterns with red silk cloth; and the occasional blue, red or yellow fluorescent cove-light against the wall. The managers and partners in the Empire Szechuan chain went through help like a hot knife through butter, because there was no lack of eager young immigrants waiting to earn U.S. dollars to save or send home to the family.

What's the Outcome To Be?

We have yet to see how the slow-moving cogs of jurisprudence will chew up the Ollie's labor litigation. The World Journal, which I do not cite as a source here because I am dubious about their viability as a reliable news source, would have one believe that the Ollie's group has already paid fines in excess of $1 million; however, the litigation is pending and only a handful of attorneys and legal workers currently know whether a settlement is on the table or if the case will go to trial.

So What's the Point?

The point is, this case is the tip of the labor-law violation iceberg in the restaurant industry. It would do any student of civil rights or labor law good to follow carefully the peculiar intersection of minimum wage litigation with immigration violation (some of the Ollie's plaintiffs do not have authorization to work legally in the U.S. and admit it).

The second point is that there are changes afoot in the way the Chinese restaurant industry is doing business. Some violators have been scared into compliance, but many insist upon continuing "business as usual," certain that their humble establishments will not be the target of the next investigation (or worse, revolt).

The final point this article makes is that it's a relief to know that there's light at the end of the tunnel for those of us whom operate legally have some hope of having the playing field evened. It's impossible in today's extremely competitive marketplace to turn a profit when one is competing against establishments with far lower employee compensation costs than one's own.

For a long time, I believed that paying employees a decent wage and providing industry-leading benefits would be a way to a) find good help and b) keep them for a long time. Sadly, this has not been the case because the fickle dining public in my business sector are drawn to low-priced destinations, with whom I just cannot compete. The very customers who talk "civil rights" and "minimum wage reform," ironically, more often than not think nothing of eating at a buffet restaurant wherein the employees earn a pittance for their labor.

Related Topics

A Day Without ImmigrantsChinese Restaurant HouseChinese Restaurant SyndromeChinese Restaurant


Eater.com http://eater.com/archives/2007/03/ollies_workers.php (Accessed 4/7/07)

Website of the Columbia Spectator: http://media.www.columbiaspectator.com/media/storage/paper865/news /2007/02/23/News/Eateries.Face.Boycott.Over.Labor.Issues-2739763.shtml (Accessed 4/7/07)

"Ollie's Restaurant Workers Sue, Complaining of Underpayment" by Steven Greenhouse, The New York Times, March 30, 2007

"UWS Asian-Food Crisis Spreads as Labor Problems Hit Ollie's, Too" "Intelligencer" section, March 29, 2007, Website of New York Magazine, http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2007/03/labor_problems_hit_ollies_too.html (Accessed 4/7/07)

Citysearch.com reviews: http://newyork.citysearch.com/profile/7169062/ (Accessed 4/7/07)

The writer's familiarity with the subject of Chinese restaurants.

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