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Restaurant workers tell stories through Qns. Museum exhibit

Fekkak Mamdouh (l.) and Saru Jayaraman are co-founders of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which is exhibiting a collection of restaurant workers’ photographs at the Queens Museum of Art. Photo by Rich Bockmann
TimesLedger Newspapers

Some 75 percent of Americans eat out at least once a week, though few get more than a passing glimpse into the lives of the people who cook, prepare and serve their meals, according to a new exhibit.

With the exhibition “107 Stories: Through Restaurant Workers’ Eyes,” currently on display at the Queens Museum of Art, the Restaurant Opportunities Center seeks to tell the stories and give voice to the more than 10 million people who work, often under arduous conditions, in the $1.7 trillion-a-year industry.

“Everybody eats out,” said ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman, “but very few people know what goes on in back.”

ROC was founded after Sept. 11, when 73 employees of the Windows on the World restaurant, on the 107th floor of Tower Two of the World Trade Center, died in the terror attacks.

Jayaraman said 300 employees lost their jobs that day, and another 13,000 would be lost throughout the industry in the months afterward. She and co-founder Fekkak Mamdouh started the organization to improve conditions for the low-wage workforce.

According to ROC’s research, the median wage for restaurant workers has stagnated below $9 per hour because the minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13 has not increased in more than 20 years.

“At almost every restaurant you go out to, particularly in casual restaurants like Applebee’s or TGI Fridays or Outback, there is typically at least one worker who is homeless, about to be homeless or just left homelessness,” Jayaraman said.

A selection of 20-plus photographs and video installations from the exhibition show the day-to-day realities of restaurant workers, from the mundane tasks of their labors to their lives outside their occupations.

One poster shows a worker named Frank, the caption informing his job titles include “server, busser, cashier, breadwarmer.”

“A lot of pictures show how fast-paced it can be,” Jayaraman said.

Another photo shows a man riding his bike on a street. “Delivering food isn’t as easy as you think,” the caption reads.

“Many delivery workers are hit by cars,” Jayaraman added. “They also have to deliver in the snow and rain.”

Still, others document life outside the work place, such as a worker’s favorite meal at a local Chinese restaurant. One shows a protest with a ROC member holding a sign reading, “I worked at W.T.C and I say no to war,” above the Henry David Thoreau quote, “How wonderful it would be to see the world through one another’s eyes.”

“They show people’s lives — not just how they work, but how they live,” said Jayaraman.

The exhibit “107 Stories: Through Restaurant Workers’ Eyes” is on display at the Queens Museum of Art, at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, through March 4.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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