Does Capital Grille Discriminate?

Olive Garden and Red Lobster are in the news this week, and it's not because inexplicably vast numbers of people are planning to patronize them on Valentine's Day.

Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC-United) has filed an employee discrimination lawsuit against Darden Restaurants, the corporation that owns the chains, charging that nonwhite workers at Darden's upscale steakhouse chain Capital Grille are routinely placed in low-paying kitchen positions while white workers are given more lucrative jobs as waiters, hosts, and bartenders (pictured).

ROC has launched an accompanying campaign called Dignity at Darden that paints a fairly bleak picture of the Orlando-based company (the world's largest full-service restaurant group), which somewhat ironically prides itself on its diversity. If ROC-United is correct, many of Darden's 179,000 employees are paid poverty wages, not given sick days, forced to work without pay, and susceptible to having their tips distributed to workers ineligible for them.

This isn't the first time the group has inserted itself like a thorn into a restaurant company's side. In 2010, ROC filed a lawsuit alleging that workers at Mario Batali's Del Posto were the victims of tip and wage discrimination. Batali subsequently filed a $6 million countersuit and got a temporary restraining order to stop protests outside of Del Posto. (He later appeared to take protests by bankers a bit more to heart.)

Regardless of the truth of the allegations against Darden, racial discrimination in the restaurant industry is far from the exception to the rule. According to ROC-United's "Blacks in the Restaurant Industry" report, African Americans comprise 58 percent of the industry's lowest-paying, quick-serve segment, compared to white workers at only 26 percent. Black workers also make about $4 an hour less than white ones. "When you're here, you're family," goes Olive Garden's well-known catch phrase. If ROC-United's charges are valid, that would mean that for some Darden workers, not all families are created equal.

Image source: Flickr member Yelp.com under Creative Commons

Rebecca Flint Marx eats and writes in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.