Two Madison labor groups released a new kind of dining guide Tuesday that rates 139 central Madison restaurants on how they treat workers.
The guide awards up to seven stars based on factors such as starting wages, health insurance coverage and sick pay. Food quality doesn't play a role.
The big winners: Ian's Pizza, Ancora Coffee, the Dayton Street Grille, the Plaza Tavern, all of the Food Fight restaurants and the numerous public dining establishments operated by UW-Madison.
"At the end of the day, if you don't have great people and treat them well, it's hard to grow or be successful," said Greg Frank, a Food Fight managing partner who said he was pleased with the company's rating.
The guide is an effort to spotlight the good guys more than to shame those who fall short, said Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers' Rights Center, which produced the guide with the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South-Central Wisconsin.
"We're really holding up those employers that go above and beyond," Hickey said. "Hopefully by highlighting them, the other restaurants will see something they can aspire to."
Ten of the 139 restaurants received no stars, and 28 just one star.
"It doesn't mean they're bad employers," Hickey said. "It means they haven't yet figured out a way to structure the business to provide good wages and benefits."
Fifty restaurants in addition to the 139 rated ones got inconclusive grades — denoted by question marks — because the guide's authors could not confirm certain policies. About 30 percent of the total 189 restaurants cooperated with the researchers, Hickey said.
The information came from multiple sources, including employee handbooks, Hickey said. Restaurant owners were surveyed and 308 employees representing all 139 rated restaurants were interviewed either in-person or online. All restaurants were shown the results and were able to correct errors, Hickey said.
Pete Hanson, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, called the guide "well-intended" but questioned whether the methodology was sound. He took strong issue with the wording of much of the guide's introduction, which calls the quality of restaurant jobs "often distressingly poor" and claims racial and gender discrimination is widespread in the industry.
The guide "is filled with erroneous information and plays on stereotypes about the restaurant industry" that are not true, Hanson said.
Rabbi Renee Bauer, director of the interfaith coalition, said the group stuck to objective measures, such as whether full-time employees are eligible for health insurance and whether employers provide an accurate, written way to record work hours.
"Even then, we know people will poke holes through it," she said. Workplace climate, for instance, was not a factor the group could measure, although it's extremely important, she said.
In at least a couple of cases, the dining guide spurred restaurants to improve wages and benefits. The Weary Traveler Freehouse decided to up its contribution to employee health insurance coverage from 50 percent to 75 percent of costs.
"It came as a very pleasant surprise to everyone," said executive chef Joey Dunscombe, whose family is insured through the Weary Traveler.
The Food Fight restaurant group, based in Madison and employing almost 1,000 workers, realized while gathering information for the guide that nine of its non-tipped employees made less than $8.75 an hour, said Frank, the managing partner. That's the minimum hourly wage a restaurant must offer to non-tipped workers to get a star in that category,
The restaurant group, which operates such popular restaurants as Eldorado Grille and The Coopers Tavern, upped those salaries, Frank said.
In an example of the sometimes tricky politics of the food industry, even though Food Fight fared well in the wages and benefits survey, it was a target of union criticism two years ago when the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus chose it to run two restaurants in the building.
Food Fight workers are not unionized. Union workers picketed the building's grand opening.
Bauer said unionization did not factor into a restaurant's rating, even though her group and the Workers' Rights Center support unions. She noted that all of the unionized restaurants, including the Dayton Street Grille at the Concourse Hotel, finished near the top.
While no restaurant received all seven stars, the unionized restaurants run by UW-Madison, such as the Rathskeller and Ginger Root, earned the most stars they were eligible for: six. Because the restaurants don't have tipped employees, that wage category did not apply.
Ian's Pizza was the only other restaurant to earn six stars.
"That's awesome, especially next to all those other great companies," said Adam May, Ian's marketing director. "Most of the core values Ian's really sticks to come from our employees. We really try to put them first."