As thousands of Philadelphians marched in protest against racism and police violence towards Black people, calls for change and justice have echoed through the city’s food scene. Last week, staff at two popular food businesses organized to hold owners accountable for words, actions, and work culture that they say shows a lack of respect for Black employees, and staff in general.
It stared on May 31, when, in a Instagram Story on his now-deleted account, Scott Schroeder, co-owner of the acclaimed Queen Village restaurant Hungry Pigeon, wrote, “Thank you Black America. You had me at hip-hop and fried chicken✌ ❤️.” The chef later posted: “Looting, rioting, and setting things on fire is dumb. Seeing people of all colors and ethnicities standing up against the police state is absolutely fucking beautiful though.”
In response, a group made up of former Hungry Pigeon staffers and current staffers laid off during the pandemic came together to write an open letter on Medium condemning Schroeder’s posts.
“We wish to publicly denounce his anti-black rhetoric as well as his recent lashing out at former employees who have directed legitimate criticism at his business practices and his behavior on social media,” the workers wrote. The letter went on to demand an apology for both the racist Instagram comments and bullying behavior from the chef towards staff, alleged to have happened at the restaurant and via social media.
Philadelphia contacted Schroeder, who issued a public apology for his comments via the magazine on June 3, without addressing the bullying allegations. The same day, Hungry Pigeon co-owner Pat O’Malley reached out to a wider group of currently laid-off workers and former staff over email, apologizing and asking for feedback about the working conditions and culture at the restaurant.
Schroeder initially told Eater he sees his Instagram comments and the allegations of bullying as separate issues.
Now, Eater has learned that he plans to leave Hungry Pigeon, which he and O’Malley opened in early 2016.
Schroeder announced his plans to move on from the restaurant in an email to staff (current and former) on June 6, writing, “I am sincerely sorry to anyone I have made feel this way. But actions speak louder than words so Pat and I are currently working out the legalities of me leaving the restaurant permanently. I’m not going to pursue a chef job either. I’m going to think about all of this and what you have said and make a change. Including taking sensitivity training before I am anyone’s chef again. I have heard you and do not take this lightly.”
He apologized directly to Black employees, specifying some by name.
Schroeder opting to leave after this staff callout is a surprising outcome in an industry long known for allowing prominent white male chefs and restaurateurs to thrive even when unethical, abusive, or illegal behavior towards staff becomes public knowledge. And worker organizing in the hospitality industry is rare — only 1.3 percent of food service workers are in a union, according to 2018-2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported by The Counter.
Conditions like low wages, long hours, inadequate facilities, and no benefits — along with violations like wage theft, sexual harassment, racial and gender discrimination, and verbal and even physical abuse — are so commonplace in restaurant culture that making efforts to reform a broken industry on workers’ terms feels impossible.
“I was really impressed that my former coworkers were able to organize, put pressure on him, and hold him accountable,” a former Hungry Pigeon back-of-house employee says of Schroeder, while also noting that because most of the restaurant’s workforce has been laid off due to the pandemic since mid-March, the workers didn’t have as much to lose by speaking out. “When I was working there, sometimes we would murmur around organizing, but of course no one organizes in restaurants. It’s just too scary, in my experience,” the former staffer says.
But in Philly, there’s at least one example of currently employed workers inspired to come together and push back on racist actions.
During last week’s protests against police brutality, iconic gourmet grocery chain Di Bruno Bros. posted a sign on the door of its Rittenhouse location offering free lunch to police officers. In response, more than 30 staff members signed an open letter to management demanding an apology; a reversal of the policy, which also included allowing police to enter the store without masks, going against Pennsylvania’s pandemic regulations; a meeting with management on their own terms; and reparative action.
Management responded publicly less than 12 hours later, dropping the preferential treatment for police, agreeing to meet with the staff coalition, and promising no retaliation for employees if they opted to walk off the job on June 5 in an organized strike to protest the company’s actions.
Third-generation Di Bruno Bros. owners Emilio Mignucci, Bill Mignucci Jr., and Billy Mignucci also committed to making donations to organizations fighting for racial justice, and said they will require racial bias training sessions for management and develop a minority recruitment program. (Since the free meals for police policy was dropped, Di Bruno has received pushback from pro-police customers, and John McNesby, president of the PPD’s police union, threatened a boycott.) Di Bruno did not response to Eater’s request for comment.
For the Di Bruno staffers who spoke out, the response from management felt like a victory.
“I’m proud of what we did, and I’m proud of how the company responded. They are willing to move forward, and I’m proud to stay on with the company and help them move forward,” says an employee who signed the letter. “The important thing is that they understand it’s a continuous dialogue, not just one meeting.”
At Hungry Pigeon, the former staffer is also cautiously optimistic, balancing a hardened pragmatism and the desire for things to change for the better.
“Knowing [Schroeder and O’Malley], I do believe they’re both people who want to do the right thing, but they are straight white men in the food industry who can get away with a lot,” the former employee says. “My hope is that this is the moment where Scott is actually going to do something different. You have to hope that people can change, or why do you bother trying?”