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How 'Cheap Eats' Affect The People Who Make And Serve The Food


On Thursday, a nationwide campaign called A Day Without Immigrants encouraged immigrant employees to stay home from work or to close their businesses for the day to make the contributions of immigrants more visible by their absence. Nowhere did this message come across more clearly than in the restaurant world. In cities across the country, restaurants either closed or operated with minimal staff.

But in an essay for NPR's The Salt blog, restaurant owner Diep Tran offered another side to this story. She wrote about how immigrants are part of a food service economy that keeps prices low for customers but keeps employees in a state of perpetual poverty. And she wants diners to think about how their addiction to cheap eats affects the people who make and serve that food.

Diep Tran is with us now from KPCC in Pasadena, Calif. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

DIEP TRAN, BYLINE: Thanks so much for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, you specifically call out those cheap eats lists that are very popular and common in local papers and, you know, magazines and on websites like Eater. So what's wrong with these lists?

TRAN: The harm I see in these lists is that they perpetuate a consumer demand for cheap food, which in turn suppresses wages of immigrant workers in the restaurant industry. And I think what's most insidious about these cheap eats is that they're kind of marketed as a celebration of immigrant food.

MARTIN: You grew up around restaurants. You said you spent your childhood in relatives' restaurants. You say in the piece, like, (reading) I watched my aunts and uncles work 16-hour days only to charge cut-rate prices for their food. And I also witnessed the grueling hours that their employees put in, also at cut-rate wages. It's a cruel reality that immigrant enterprise is powered by the cheap labor of fellow immigrants.

But you also point out that this is a way that a lot of people can get a foothold who don't have other marketable skills, especially whose English is limited, though, right?

TRAN: What ends up happening is that immigrants exploit themselves, exploit their children. Like, I was 10 years old when my relatives' first restaurant opened, and we just helped in every single way. And I don't want to demonize immigrant restaurants. I mean, they are just trying to make it, right? But it's the consumer demand for cheap food that drives the cheap prices.

MARTIN: But why isn't that a choice that you can make and then customers can eat or not eat there? I mean, it does seem as though you're putting it on consumers to voluntarily stop taking advantage of low prices. Why should they?

TRAN: I think that restaurants charge a price that they think the market will bear. So when they're hearing complaints from customers like this is too expensive for Vietnamese food, this is too expensive for a bowl of pho, they take that in. And it creates pressure for them to keep suppressing the wages.

Every time someone comes in and eats my $10 pho and they complain about how expensive it is, I take it as a win. Like good, so I'm doing a service so that it helps recalibrate - like, this is what a bowl of pho should cost if you care about workers.

MARTIN: You know, the argument is that people who offer lower prices is to the benefit of people who make lower wages because the people with more money can shop wherever. What do you say to that?

TRAN: I actually don't know what to say to that, I have to say, because if workers got paid more, they could afford more.

MARTIN: You suggest that these lists, instead of being called cheap eats, they would be called affordable eats. Why is that better?

TRAN: I think cheap has a value. You know, it's like the race to the bottom. And because that's only the time in publications where you have immigrant restaurants featured, is on these cheap eats lists. So the only area in which we're valued is our cheapness and not the deliciousness of the food.

MARTIN: That's Diep Tran. She's the owner of the Good Girl Dinette. That's in the Highland Park neighborhood in Los Angeles. She's a contributor to NPR's The Salt blog. Her piece is titled "Cheap Eats, Cheap Labor: The Hidden Human Costs Of Those Lists." And she was kind enough to join us from KPCC in Pasadena, Calif. Diep Tran, thanks so much for speaking with us. I'm hungry now.

TRAN: (Laughter) Good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Diep Tran