Whether as a summertime gig in high school, a lifetime career, or otherwise, nearly 20 million people work in the food, beverage, and hospitality (FBH) industry in the United States. But though the sector provides more than 10 percent of Americans with jobs, it's hardly the easiest, just, or most equitable industry in which to work. That’s largely why Jenny Dorsey, a chef, author, activist, and Well+Good Changemaker founded Studio ATAO, a non-profit organization that advocates for equity in the FBH industry through community-informed research, programming, and education.
After its launch in 2018, Dorsey's initial focus for Studio ATAO—for which she is also executive director—was events. The organization's flagship dinner experience, Asian in America, offers a symbolic exhibition and dining experience highlighting Asian American identity through food, drink, virtual reality, and poetry. But then pandemic restrictions rendered in-person events impossible. Dorsey and her core team of five people—who have backgrounds in business, public health, political science, education, media, and (of course), food—embraced this as an opportunity. They sought to expand Studio ATAO's focus to tackle social justice topics within all facets of the food and beverage industry. (In the midst of the pandemic, Asian in America continued, but as a virtual cook-along event.)
- Jenny Dorsey, chef, activist, and the founder of Studio ATAO
Since then, the team at Studio ATAO has created toolkits to dismantle tokenism and improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in media organizations. It has also advocated for more equity in food and beverage media and created standards for media brands to use when covering food.
Most recently in 2022, Studio ATAO launched a new program called The Neighborhood’s Table, which aims to combat gentrification and create a framework for hospitality businesses to connect with their local community and invest sustainably in their neighborhoods. They’ve also designed a comprehensive educational curriculum called Food Systems 101, which offers those working within the FBH community an accessible way to learn more about food politics through a social justice lens.
Today, Studio ATAO just unveiled a series of in-person events across the nation called Hospitality Worker Town Halls, which are geared toward discussing issues that hospitality workers across the U.S. face and co-creating solutions from the ground up.
At its heart, Studio ATAO aims to function as an agent for positive change in the FBH industry, and below, Dorsey shares how it's been going since the dawn of the pandemic, along with what's next both for herself and the organization.
Well+Good: What initially inspired you to launch and ultimately rebrand Studio ATAO?
Jenny Dorsey: We started touring Asian in America in 2018, and we launched a new experience in 2019 called Hidden, and we were trying to figure out how to push these experiences forward. And, to be honest, I was getting really burnt out: All of the cooking we were doing, plus all of the logistics and planning that goes into plating food for 55 people and essentially building a restaurant overnight... it can take toll.
So when 2020 hit, it came with a bit of a silver lining: We could no longer do these events, which was the the main way we made money. And while challenging, that [break] also gave us a good opportunity to reflect on what we actually want to do and the direction we wanted to take this business. I asked myself, "Okay, what is the problem we want to solve with Studio ATAO? What research do we need around that? Who do we interview? How do we write toolkits around it? How do we get those things implemented?"
W+G: What are some of your biggest frustrations when tackling equitable standards in the FBH industry?
JD: What frustrates me is when I see owner-activist chefs saying that the current system is a bad one. And then they have the exact same system at their own organizations. If you're not consciously intervening and making equitable changes in your own organization, then you are upholding the existing system. No one likes to hear it, but that is the reality.
"If you're not consciously intervening and making equitable changes in your own organization, then you are upholding the existing system." —Jenny Dorsey, Studio ATAO founder
There's also the [unjust] working conditions of the FBH industry. People who work in hospitality generally understand that they often don't get to eat dinner with their family, and they have these hours that are weird and opposite of society. There are plenty of people willing to do that, but there has to be some giveback. Everyone wants—and deserves—to work in an environment where you feel taken care of, your voice is heard, you're paid appropriately, you're respected, and where your team members take care of you rather than swear at you. Honestly, these demands aren't that insane. And if, for whatever reason, people don't feel like [businesses] can offer that, that's a conversation [workers] just need to have internally.
Sometimes people leave a business because they'd rather have a better, healthier work environment than make a bit more money, get yelled at every day, and feel terrible about themselves. I think, for the first time, people are starting to realize that protecting your emotional bandwidth and well-being is a key component of life, and that these are things that should be respected at work.
W+G: Speaking of protection, displacement seems to be a common theme within the restaurant and hospitality industry, and one that creates significant systemic issues across the board. According to your research, how has gentrification impacted the restaurant business?
JD: There are too many restaurants in America. Nobody likes to hear that, but if you look at how many restaurants there are to how many people there are in the cities, restaurants have exponentially increased, and the same number of people live there. So everyone's competing for the same resources; we have too much supply. And that supply needs workers, and those workers are being displaced because of gentrification.
For instance, if your restaurant is located in a fancy part of town and it takes three hours to get there on public transportation [from other parts of town], and you're only willing to pay $10 an hour, it's going to be hard to find someone to come in at 9 a.m. and leave at 2 a.m.
There are all these systemic barriers, and it's very disheartening to hear folks that say, "Well, me, restaurant owner, me, hospitality business owner, I'm frustrated, I'm experiencing this problem, but I am doing nothing about these general wider systemic problems that I am situated in and recognize. Instead, I'm going to blame it on the fact that people don't want to work anymore." Which is simply not true.
W+G: There's clearly a lot of work to be done within the industry to creative positive change. How does Studio ATAO define success in terms of equity and striking positive change?
JD: Being able to see little bits of my work translated and interpreted by other people in a way that actually helps them take action feels really meaningful because I believe you can't have people take action by force. The only way to really get people to take action is to inspire them, encourage them, and make them feel heard and validated. And so when I see people actually acting on the things that we've done, I feel like that they're implicitly saying, "I feel encouraged and validated and inspired." And that feels really good.
W+G: What’s next on the horizon for Studio ATAO and you?
JD: I'm headed to get my master’s degree in education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education this fall, and I'm going to be working on adult education, specifically for food. For the Studio, the newsletter is always the best place to learn what we're up to. We have a lot of things going on, and hopefully, some new things debuting very soon.
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