Opinion: Ending racism in the hospitality industry

Racism in many forms, along with a lack of diversity, continues to affect the hospitality sector – but meaningful change is possible, says Marius Zürcher

The international protests against racism and police brutality have rightfully forced many industries to do some soul searching. The hospitality industry, often touted as a beacon of diversity and openness, should not rest on its alleged laurels, but should too take this time to confront its demons, or risk getting left behind by a generation that is no longer interested in denial, complacency and silence.

In this month’s blog therefore, I wanted to shed some light on some of the ways in which racism prevails in our industry.

Although the hospitality industry in general and restaurants in particular have often been a place where diversity is more prevalent than in many other industries, not all is well. A 2015 study from UC Berkley Labor Center in the Unites States revealed that people of colour (PoC), on average, earn less for the same job than white employees in the hospitality industry. When adjusted for factors such as language proficiency and education, PoC on average earn 56% less than equally qualified white employees.

PoC are furthermore less likely to get job interviews and are more likely to be wrongfully terminated. Also, they are more likely to be disciplined with unreasonable severity. When taking on extra responsibilities, PoC are less likely to be compensated for these new responsibilities than their white counterparts are, and their job descriptions are less likely to change based on these responsibilities.

Dismantling structural racism

Even in many businesses which pride themselves for their diversity, the customer facing staff is still predominantly white. In many cases, this is not due to conscious decision-making, i.e. overt racism, but a result of structural racism. A business’ frontline staff starts out predominantly white for one reason or another, which leads many PoC to think that applying is not worth it.

Eventually, this lack of diversity may also reflect on and impact the business’ customer base, because an all-white serving staff sends the message that some people are more welcome than others. Sadly, in many hospitality businesses the latter is not just a perception, but reality: studies have shown that reception employees in hotels are more willing to give restaurant recommendations to white people than to PoC. They are furthermore more likely to be polite to white guests.

This vicious circle can only be broken by the business taking on an active role. One way to do this is to clearly communicate that you are an equal opportunity employer, thereby empowering PoC to apply to customer facing positions.

Current staff should furthermore have to undergo some form of anti-bias training in order to help them recognise and overcome their unconscious biases. In addition, it should be clearly communicated to employees – and enforced – that racism and xenophobia in any form will not be tolerated.

Forced homogeneity

Next to PoC employees and customers, PoC entrepreneurs also struggle with prevailing racism. Food related media is overwhelmingly white, which has led to a homogeneity in the restaurant industry that, as restaurateur and writer Eddie Huang describes it, has the following requirements: “Notable chef, must speak English, must be media-savvy, must have design-driven dining room, must kowtow to the scene, must have small plates, must push diverse histories through French ricers, must have toast points, must love dogs” [1].

This forced homogeneity puts many restaurants run by PoC and immigrants at a severe disadvantage from the onset. While changing this is a lengthy process, it must start with media acknowledging the problem and making a conscious effort to hire more diverse writers.

However, it is not only gatekeepers that are at fault. Customers too play their part, knowingly and unknowingly. Restaurants owned and operated by immigrants and PoC often become stuck in what some refer to as the authenticity trap – a concept I briefly addressed in last month’s blog.

This effect becomes very visible when analysing customer reviews. White customers often judge restaurants in general and ethnic restaurants in particular on their perceived authenticity. The more authentic they think a restaurant is, the higher they are likely to rate it on one of the big restaurant review sites.

While this by itself is problematic in many ways, what makes this phenomenon outright racist are some of the aspects these customers turned reviewers seem to associate with authenticity in the context of ethnic restaurants. According to cooking and nutrition educator Sara Kay, who analysed Yelp reviews, “the average […] reviewer connotes ‘authentic’ with characteristics such as dirt floors, plastic stools, and other patrons who are non-white when reviewing non-European restaurants”[2].

While the presence of these characteristics thus leads to higher scores due to perceived authenticity, they simultaneously lead to lower scores due to otherwise negative feelings associated with them. Consequently, removing these characteristics does not help, as that leads to lower scores due to a perceived lack of authenticity – hence the term ‘trap’.

European (read: white) restaurants do not have this problem, as in their case customers generally associate more positively connotated characteristics with authenticity. This is a symptom of pervasive, structural racism, which makes it difficult to address in the short term. Review platforms should nevertheless try, for example by making an effort to educate their users regarding this issue.

Similarly, non-ethnic restaurants should become aware of their privilege and try to find ways to support businesses that aren’t so lucky.

These examples highlight only some of the ways in which racism affects the hospitality industry and show that its so-called diversity leaves much to wish for. Where do we go from here? Acknowledging the problem and searching for ways that we, as individuals – be it restaurateurs, consultants, hospitality employees, writers or patrons – as organisations and as the industry as a whole, can make a difference is the most important step towards meaningful change that cannot be postponed any longer.

Marius Zürcher

About the author:

The co-owner & founder of start-up 1520 in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Marius Zürcher was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA 2018.


[1] https://www.grubstreet.com/2016/05/eddie-huang-nick-solares-food-culture.html

[2] https://ny.eater.com/2019/1/18/18183973/authenticity-yelp-reviews-white-supremacy-trap