Employees of Northwest Portland bistro Alouette are on strike and unionizing, alleging a “lack of support” from owner Wei-En Tan (Stem Wine Bar).
On Monday, July 18, a group of employees under the name Alouette United posted a statement on Instagram announcing their intention to unionize and describing their experience working at Alouette. “Our success in these first six weeks is a testament to the aptitude and professionalism of the staff,” the Instagram post reads. “This success has come at the cost to our physical and mental well being. As a result, we recognize that this business model is not sustainable and requires transformation.”
Cali Krajcik and Adrian Groenendyk — front- and back-of-house employees, respectively — have attributed the decision to unionize to a lack of guidance or support from ownership, chronic understaffing leading to excessively long workweeks, and safety issues within the restaurant that have caused health concerns among the staff. Alouette is one of several restaurants and food service businesses in Portland that have unionized within recent years, from the country’s first federally recognized fast-food union at Burgerville to the workers union at the collectively owned vegan restaurant Mirisata. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning surrounding the unsustainable expectations of restaurant work, an uptick in labor organizing around the country has specifically addressed issues of workplace safety and work-life balance within the food and beverage industry. The rise of unions at smaller restaurants, as opposed to franchises and chains like Starbucks or Voodoo Doughnut, is a somewhat rarer phenomenon within the Portland restaurant industry.
Alouette opened May 27 in Northwest Portland, with a menu designed by Sunshine Noodles chef and owner Diane Lam. According to Tan, Lam was hired to design the menus and help launch the business but didn’t plan on staying in a hands-on role. “She hoped to grow the next chef out of this enterprise, and to not be hands-on since that’s how the new chef could shine,” Tan says in a written statement. “That was always to plan, to have an entrepreneurial spirit take the lead at Alouette. The idea would be that she would start everyone out but not be as present operationally once the menu had been fixed and kinks worked out.”
Groenendyk and Krajcik, however, have described their understanding of Lam as the restaurant’s main chef, who has creative control over the menu and structures of the kitchen. Both employees say they have not felt much leadership or guidance from either Lam or Tan, especially during service. Employees say the restaurant is understaffed in both front and back of house, which means many employees end up working more than 60 hours a week. The restaurant does not employ any prep cooks, which means chefs end up staying for both prep and dinner service. “Back of house has not been fully staffed since we started,” Groenendyk says. “The salary is good for a 40-hour week, but when you get to 60-plus hours, it’s not worth it.”
In a statement to Eater Portland, Tan and Lam say that staff “mentioned” the lack of dishwasher during those opening weeks, but that concerns about needing a designated team member for prep were not surfaced. “If they had spoken to us about having one, which they did not, we would have discussed with them,” Tan and Lam write.
Because of the restaurant’s small staff, Groenendyk and Krajcik say many employees take on operations work on days when the restaurant is not open, meaning employees will work several days in a row without a break. “I was asked to work every day — I remember working 13 out of 14 days once, with one day off,” Krajcik says. “Our bosses didn’t want anyone to go into overtime, but asked us to work every day.” Tan and Lam suggest that several team members sought overtime hours that management had “no issue” paying out, although they felt “worried about their well-being.”
Lam acknowledged that she may have placed too many responsibilities on managers when the restaurant opened, which has created challenges within the restaurant. “My initial inability to follow through with some of their training likely added stress to the work environment, but, going forward I have learned to make sure I place skilled leadership in place,” Lam writes.
Groenendyk and Krajcik say Lam has rarely showed up in the kitchen outside of the soft-opening period, more frequently dining in the restaurant; they also say Tan has rarely worked during the restaurant’s service, which has caused confusion among the staff regarding wine menus and staffing. Instead, Groenendyk and Krajcik say they’ve encountered both Lam and Tan more frequently as customers. “Ultimately, the biggest grievance was the owners dining in the establishment but not working during service or supporting employees,” Krajcik says.
(Tan challenges the idea that she was not contributing to the business, saying she primarily arrives closer to 7 a.m. to work on wine inventory and menus, and when she does dine at the restaurant, she tips “extremely generously.”)
Another issue causing regular frustration among employees is the conditions of the building — in particular, the non-functioning air conditioning. “We didn’t discover we didn’t have working air conditioning until the middle of our last heat wave,” Krajcik says. “When we knew the heat wave was coming, we came together and decided not to open.” Tan says that when she found out about the broken air conditioning unit, she asked Krajcik to compile quotes for repair options, and allowed the restaurant to close after hearing the request from employees.
Earlier this month, Tan decided to demote Krajcik from manager to front-of-house employee, due to mistakes made when it came to payroll, tip-sharing, and other managerial duties, including ones related to the air conditioner replacement. After Krajcik was demoted, the employees wrote a letter to management, announcing their decision to file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board and sharing a list of grievances, including their concerns about hours and distribution of labor. (There is no indication on the National Labor Relations Board website that employees have submitted a request for an election as of yet; Groenendyk says the union plans to officially file Wednesday, July 27, in the afternoon.) Groenendyk describes the response from Lam and Tan as “disappointing,” and, on July 16, employees decided to go on strike. “The frustration was so deep, most of my coworkers in front-of-house positions just wanted to walk out,” Groenendyk says.
After Alouette employees began their strike, they discovered — by trying to make a reservation on the restaurant’s website — that the business was going to close for repairs. Because the closure may take several weeks, employees considered the decision to be a temporary layoff and union-busting tactic. They say management has not shared details that would allow them to file for unemployment if an agreement were reached. “It feels like they’re trying to get us to leave voluntarily,” Groenendyk says.
In an email, Tan said the organization of the repairs closure significantly predates the strike, and that it was explicitly not an attempt to union-bust. “Their lack of open communication prior, as well as us needing the time to deal with structural and water damage and repairs to our restaurant at the same time meant we have had to close,” Tan writes.
In general, Tan has felt upset with the way the union has communicated its needs; in particular, she says the union relied heavily on language related to revolution, at one point quoting Trinidadian historian and Marxist C. L. R. James by saying “the rich are only defeated when running for their lives.” “I do not believe in unionization being used as a weapon against small business owners who are in debt and literally opened the restaurant 6 weeks ago — especially when no open communication was attempted before the union organizing effort,” she said.
To Groenendyk, however, the decision to unionize isn’t one born out of a desire to attack or harm the business, but rather in solidarity with their fellow employees and in an effort to improve the business as a whole. “We’re already getting backlash about ‘hurting a small business,’” he says. “Our point is to make a sustainable business. People think of a small business owner as ‘a job creator,’ but they are also dependent on us. Solidarity has been our driving force.”
Correction: July 20, 2022, 1:11 p.m. This article was corrected to show that Alouette opened on May 27. It has also been corrected to more accurately specify Groenendyk and Krajcik’s roles at Alouette.
Updated Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at 7:50 a.m.: This story has been updated to note the lack of evidence of a National Labor Relations Board election filed by the union at this time.
Updated Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at 10:37 a.m.: This story has been updated to include a timeline of NLRB filing from the union.