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10 Tips for Running an Ethical Restaurant

Beard Award Winners weigh in on the complexity of running a morally and economically sustainable business

Maggie Borden

May 21, 2019


JBF Awards panel at Kendall College
Photo: James Richards IV

A day before they walked the red carpet for the 2019 James Beard Awards, a group of leading chef advocates gathered at Chicago’s Kendall College, the culinary school of National Louis University (and a sponsor of the Awards), for a thoughtful discussion of the nuances of leadership as top toques and entrepreneurs. The panel, centering on the idea of the “new ethical restaurant,” featured Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alums Christine Cikowski, Rick Bayless, and newly minted 2019 Beard Award winners Kwame Onwuachi and Kelly Fields. Moderated by the James Beard Foundation’s chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis, the spirited conversation revealed much about the triumphs and struggles that come with trying to achieve success when you’re concerned about more than just the bottom line. Read on for 10 of their best insights.


On the definition of an “ethical restaurant”:

Kwame Owuachi: [The definition of] an ethical restaurant is caring about your employees in totality. Making sure you’re being thoughtful. You’re asking the right questions, you’re getting to know people. It’s not just clocking in and clocking out.

Christine Cikowski: It means doing business while you’re doing good—you can’t divorce those two things from each other. We try to run our businesses in a way so that we can sleep at night. I can’t be okay with our businesses being profitable and knowing someone is being exploited.

Kelly Fields: Arriving and being successful doesn’t mean anything if you arrive alone. Everybody who’s clocking in and coming through the door is rising with us.

On the challenges of balancing a sustainability philosophy and the practicalities of business:

Rick Bayless: The biggest challenge that we have not solved yet is the fact that what we pay for labor has gone considerably up over the last few years. I’m super thankful that the industry as a whole is paying people better. I haven’t figured out how to make that a sustainable part of our financial picture yet, because we are built on very labor-intensive food. We are finding ourselves moving into a more equitable place in terms of restaurant salaries, and I’m trying to figure out how to do that but still maintain the menu that people expect from our restaurants.

On how to bring more people along, from staff to diners to the media:

KO: I think the conversation needs to shift more towards inclusivity as an industry in order to bring everyone along. We need to educate people more about these “ethnic foods.” And it needs to be from the top down—there needs to be more diversity in the food critics, in the editorial staff. So that they’ll seek out these types of cuisine, [because] they have a personal connection.

CC: We have to work on professionalizing our industry. We were recently part of a marketing class that used [our business] for a case study. What we got back is that the perception of the restaurant industry is that it’s all low-wage jobs. Until there’s legislation to support a lot of the things we’re doing, like having paid sick leave for everybody, or a national paid parental leave policy, we can’t escape the reputation.

KF: Willa Jean is my goal, it’s nobody else’s. But I have to find what my servers’ “Willa Jean” is. It’s exhausting to do that for 145 people. But to keep people engaged and buying into the bigger picture, it’s what we have to do.

On cultivating an educated and invested team:

RB: Teach [food waste reduction] more seriously in culinary schools, so that everybody who comes out with a full knowledge of how to reduce food waste, and why local sourcing is essential for the health of all restaurants in your community. All of that needs to be taught seriously, not just as an elective on the side. I think culinary schools can help us lead the way.

CC: Building in leadership training for your staff is super crucial. We only do it once a month; I wish we could do it once a week. But we’ve made it part of business model to educate and train. We build it into our model because we believe we see a ROI.

KF: We sit down as a management team at least once a week and go over what’s happening with staff, what they need from us. But you’re not a manager unless you’ve bought into this way of running a restaurant. It’s who we are, and it’s not some conscious thing, and every day is a recalibration of our direction to make sure we get to the right end.


Learn more about the James Beard Awards.