LA’s Koreatown, the largest in the United States, is known for its restaurant culture, especially for amazing Korean barbecue. From the high end of Park’s BBQ and Chosun Galbi to $15 all-you-can-eat emporiums, Korean barbecue is a mainstay of LA dining and a must-try affair for anyone visiting the city. But LA Times columnist Frank Shyong has a revealing look at the wage and labor practices that often take place at Korean barbecue restaurants.
The writer met with a butcher, prep cooks, and servers who work at one unnamed restaurant that’s currently under investigation by the California labor commissioner's office (though the restaurant in question has not been given any citations yet). His reason why points to the crux of the article, “that every choice we make in an unjust economy is morally ambiguous.” The article isn’t just about Koreatown labor and workplace violations, but rather the ramifications of a ultra-competitive restaurant market like Los Angeles and the hidden costs of “cheap” food.
Shyong starts with banchan, the included-with-the-meal appetizers and side dishes that come with traditional Korean meals:
But now I know that the restaurant loses a lot of money on banchan, and most of the time the employees aren’t even allowed to eat them. Some places offer as many as 24 side dishes, and now I think about who has to wash all of those dishes, each time, for every table, thousands of tiny plates every night — and again, when people ask for refills. I decided not to order seconds.
Shyong doesn’t mention that Korean diners often judge a restaurant by the quality of its banchan, and that asking for refills for the table’s more popular banchan is not only customary, but that restaurants are usually happy to oblige. Shyong details the plight of a dishwasher who has no choice but to work faster and harder because his employer won’t offer more hours and pay. In another instance, a manager barks at a server to cook tabletop meat faster while a line forms at the restaurant’s door.
The article mentions other labor issues surrounding this particular Korean barbecue restaurant, included lengthy unpaid breaks and hazardous cleaning solutions that allegedly damaged hands and even left one dishwasher blind.
The conundrum of Korean barbecues, like the restaurants in any immigrant community, is often the external pressures that come from either a developing area like Koreatown, as well as the customers that frequent the businesses. Shyong says Koreatown restaurant owners are subject to significant rent increases due to international investment in the neighborhood. And the columnist says the pressure to keep reasonable prices is often the source of labor issues:
When other immigrants are your best customers, you keep prices low because you’re afraid other immigrants won’t or can’t afford to pay more.
And when prices are kept low but rents keep rising, you struggle to make rent and pay your workers. You don’t market your business to wider audiences because you don’t know how or can’t speak the language. And more generally, you don’t think people who aren’t from your culture would be interested in eating your culture’s food.
But I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
So Shyong asks diners, many of whom come from neighborhoods outside of Koreatown, to think twice about very low-priced food, from a $1 taco on the street to a $10 all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue. At the end, Shyong wonders whether a big tip on the check is part of the solution, but then considers that he hears managers distribute gratuities based on seniority or favoritism:
I tipped 30% anyway. I don’t know how to solve the widespread, long-standing exploitation of our wage workers, but I know that placing a greater value on their work must be part of the answer.