Photograph by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Rodale
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Chef Evan Hanczor of egg in Brooklyn, here doing a demo of smoked goat shoulder, thinks all food workers should be able to buy the restaurant's ingredients at cost or close to cost.
Photograph by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Rodale

When Employees Buy Restaurant Ingredients at Cost, They Get More Than Better Food

Sometimes it takes just one person to push an obvious solution to a complex problem. When it comes to getting nutritious food to restaurant-industry workers—the dishwashers and busers most diners never see—Chef Evan Hanczor just might be that person.

Restaurants employ many workers who are, ironically, undernourished. (At the recent James Beard Food Conference, one chef of a fine restaurant flat-out stated, “most of my workers are undocumented.”) Restaurants have lots of buying power, and can purchase fresh ingredients for low cost because they do it in bulk, directly from the seller with no grocery-store middleman.

At egg restaurant in Brooklyn, Hanczor allows all 25 employees to buy virtually any ingredient the restaurant purchases, virtually at cost. (He adds 5 percent or less to save in a fund to keep the program sustainable as it grows.) Every server and line cook has a daily, low-priced farmers market at work where the fine ingredients are literally the same as those served at an acclaimed New York City restaurant.

At a time when the definition of a “sustainable restaurant” is growing to include fair treatment of workers, as well as of the environment, Hanczor is promoting better nutrition security for his workers.

“We rolled out the program a year ago,” he says. “Food workers are undernourished or poorly fed as a population and I think that’s crazy. We have all this food at the restaurant and George [Weld, Egg’s owner] and I thought we should open our larder to everyone who works here.”

Hanczor leaves order forms the kitchen—spreadsheets on which employees mark which foods they would like to buy and in what quantity. Everyone has access to the order form at all times. Staples like eggs, dairy, grains, flour, and salt are always available, as are some produce items. (Egg focuses on seasonal cooking, so some produce is only available in-season.) Employees even order large cuts of meat for entertaining and parties at home. When the deliveries arrive, the prep cook puts employee orders aside and employees pick up at the end of their shifts and pay at the register.

Potential benefits to restaurants are many. The program attracts the best employees as a benefit that costs the restaurant little to nothing. The restaurant’s buying power increases. Some employees live in areas with low access to fresh food, so the program could provide more tools for healthier eating and less time off work. (As a benefit to society, this should lower health care costs over time.) Also, when employees take great ingredients home and cook with them, they get excited about the restaurant, increasing buy-in. I.e.: “Try the steak—the cut of meat is amazing.” Hanczor calls this excitement the program’s “ripple effect.”

The farmers that Hanczor buys from like the program, because they get more money when restaurants buy direct than when they sell to grocery stores. Plus, they don’t have to deal with the time and labor cost of farmers’ markets. Employees like it because they save money, get better food, and don’t have to take time for trips to the grocery store or farmers’ market.

But even if the only result was employees getting better food at a lower price, it would be worth it, according to Hanczor. “It needs minimal management so we haven’t had to increase prices at all. It’s a small extension of already-existing responsibilities.”

The program complements Hanczor’s dedication to paying restaurant workers a fair wage. His commitment was deepened at the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change, a three-day invitation-only training for chefs to be food activists. Run by the James Beard Foundation and the Chef Action Network, the Boot Camp teaches chefs that they have a role in food policy and introduces them to other like-minded chefs nationwide.

After all those catty reality shows, people think chefs have no problem speaking their minds. But Hanczor described the benefit of Boot Camp: “Chefs are in the kitchen with work that is craft-based and has a tangible result. Policy work is less clear edged, with philosophical discussions face-to-face. The confidence that comes from being told that chefs’ voices are powerful, knowing that chefs have an obligation to speak, and having a support network are the three points of the policy triangle at Boot Camp.”

His employee-buying program is a great example of why chefs are getting involved in food policy. It usually takes someone on the ground, someone dealing in food and with the people who work in the food industry—some 14 million in all—to come up with the obvious, yet innovative solutions.

Hanczor believes supporting an employee-buying program like his would make a good bill. “I’ve thought a lot and I can’t come up with a reason why it shouldn’t happen at every restaurant that cares about sustainability in their sourcing and food supply chain. It’s really exciting with a lot of fiscal and social benefits, and I wish more people would do it.”

Katherine Miller, President of Chef Action Network, says “Evan is doing what we want all chefs to do: Use their voice at the table, in their communities, and in the halls of Congress.”