The restaurant industry in the US runs on immigrants. But it remains to be seen if those in power even noticed or cared on the day the immigrants left.
It was high noon in Washington, DC—prime lunch time—but instead of the usual crush of office workers buzzing about the sidewalks in search of food, a curious sight greeted onlookers: closed restaurants, dark sandwich shops and shuttered restaurant chains dotted the streets.
While thousands of immigrants were striking from work and taking to the streets to protest the anti-immigrant rhetoric and executive actions of US President Donald Trump, the jobs they normally occupied still needed doing. One of the most noticeable areas where immigrants occupy a great deal of the jobs in the United States is in the restaurant industry.
At District Commons, a sit-down restaurant near The George Washington University in downtown DC, the lunch hour was jammed with people as usual, but without around two-thirds of the usual staff on hand. John Hendrix, the manager of District Commons, said his beverage manager was acting as a host, the owners were in the back helping with dishes, and everyone was learning how to do new jobs on the spot. The restaurant printed out special menus for the day, reflecting the limited options the kitchen was offering because they were short-staffed.
“Our staff is more than two-thirds immigrants,” Hendrix told DW. “They are the backbone of this industry, without a doubt.”
John Zittrauer, the manager of Burger Tap & Shake, a local DC chain of fast-food burger restaurants, was similarly slammed at lunch, and similarly short-staffed. “I was on trash, I was bar backing,” he told DW. “I have immigrants in the kitchen, bussing tables, running food to the tables. They’re the lifeblood of the restaurant. It was intense during the lunch pop we had,” Zittrauer said, referring to the increase in activity in the joint during the lunch hours. “I wouldn’t want to work like this regularly.”
Hendrix also said that since Trump’s election, he had seen the levels of fear in his staff increase. “The fear was non-existent before,” he said, “and now everyone has a legitimate fear of being sent back to a place where they don’t want to go.” He added that he had a young woman on staff who was in the country illegally, and who had just joined the Navy ROTC at her university to try to find a path to citizenship. “These are serious, life-changing decisions people are making based on fear,” he said.
Luigi Diotaiuti, the head chef and manager at Aperto, an upscale Italian restaurant, said he chose to keep his restaurant open on Thursday, because he couldn’t afford to close. Dioaiuti, himself an immigrant from Italy, did say that several of his employees also chose to strike today, and despite being open, the restaurant hung signs in the window expressing their support.
“We are all immigrants,” said Dioaiuti of his restaurant, which he chose not to close on Thursday, because he said he couldn’t afford it. “We all are, from the owner on down. It’s a fact, if you stop all immigrants from coming to this country, the agriculture, the hotels, the construction, the restaurants, the cleaning businesses will stop.”
But even if all those industries ground to a halt, would Trump or his supporters even care?
“I’m hoping that with our address on Pennsylvania Avenue, or on K Street where there are so many lobbyists, that it was more difficult for people to eat, so that would affect them, and it would be noticed,” said Zittrauer, referred to the street where the White House is also located. “But I’m not optimistic.”