How one cook chases a paycheque when apps have turned restaurant work into a gig-economy hustle

Richard Morgan

NEW YORK (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Zia Sheikh is like a lot of restaurant veterans. Since 2003, he has worked in dozens of kitchens, from sketchy to bougie to straight-up fancy. He once got seven stitches after slicing off a fingertip.

He has hidden in the employees’ bathroom during anxiety attacks. He has cooked meals for Barack Obama, Hugh Jackman and Katie Couric. And, as a Pakistani American, the 37-year-old has navigated an industry that privileges wealth and whiteness.

Born on Staten Island, he has managed top kitchens in New York and Philadelphia since 2009. He got into the game before the debuts of a USD15 minimum wage (2015), Instagram (2010), Chopped (2009), US Michelin stars (2005) or Yelp (2004) swerved restaurants’ fates. Now he is one of hundreds of thousands of manual laborers pioneering a new economic era for his profession – as a gig worker signed into Pared, an app restaurants use for on-demand hires. Sheikh works in the New York City metropolitan area, where 64,130 restaurant cooks make up the nation’s largest such labour pool, as measured by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2018 – all earning an average of USD15.34 an hour (USD31,910 a year).

Because diners are largely kept in the dark about the well-being of kitchen labour, at The Washington Post’s request Sheikh kept a diary of three weeks of life as a Pared worker. Since joining last May, he has worked more than 160 gigs at more than 70 restaurants, earning USD18,845.10 over 1,156 hours as a prep cook, line cook, event cook and dishwasher. Pared is essentially his only job (in that time, he has worked only nine gigs with other apps), and he has been favourited in Pared by 14 venues. But the diary clarifies why Sheikh also has founded Restaurant After Hours, a mental health nonprofit group for kitchen workers. Pared and its digital ilk highlight the industry’s open secret that every dish is built around the same three ingredients: blood, sweat and tears.

“Other professions have hard, unappreciated lives: teachers, cops, firefighters, nurses. But they have health insurance, 401(k)s, severance . . . unions, pensions. We have none of that,” said Sheikh. “Athletes get used up, too, but they have the chance at million-dollar contracts. We just get used up. There’s no quality of life while we work. And no quality of life promised after we retire. It’s all take and no give. It’s a broken system that breaks us, too.”

In three weeks of cooking gigs, Sheikh averaged USD755.43 a week in pay. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Academic studies and industry surveys routinely flag immense personal woes for restaurant workers, including addiction, depression, exhaustion and insomnia. A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a government agency, found that food-service workers had the highest rates of substance-use disorders and third-highest rates of heavy alcohol use of all job sectors. (In 2017, after toilets at 30 of his 31 restaurants tested positive for cocaine, Gordon Ramsay called the drug his industry’s “dirty little secret.”) An analysis of more than 150,000 restaurant workers by 7Shifts, a restaurant employee scheduling software company, calculated restaurant workers’ average tenure: 1 month and 26 days. Surely all the cocaine had systemic accomplices.

In three weeks with Pared, Sheikh worked 18 of 21 days – at a house dinner catered by Jean-Georges one night, at a Guggenheim gala another. He spent 70 hours tediously slicing or washing produce – 100 pounds of onions needed peeling and dicing, 20 cases of mushrooms needed slicing, 760 grapes needed halving. And an additional two hours daily commuting on New York’s infamously unreliable subway. He was always late to his therapist.

He was given a leaky USD27 plastic sauce gun instead of a professional metal model. Staff “borrowed” his personal tools. After asking for one-inch cubes of butternut squash, a manager yelled they were too big and then cheered “perfect!” when Sheikh made them 1/8-inch instead. Even with 15 Pared workers hired for a gala dinner, one catering company was understaffed and deputised three staff cater-waiters to help plate. Sheikh changed clothes in the freezing night air on the deck of the USS Intrepid so as not to disturb diners inside.

In total across the three weeks, his weekly averages were USD755.43 for 41.7 hours. Those gigs’ hourly rates ranged from USD15 to USD20.25 and averaged USD17.64, 18 cents above MIT’s Living Wage Calculator for New York. Pared publicist Alina Tichacek said users nationwide work an average of 18 hours a week for USD20 an hour, so roughly USD360. New York’s individual food-stamp threshold is USD445 a week. When demand is down, Sheikh makes as little as USD150 a week with Pared. Noting that Pared is a private company, Tichacek declined to disclose Pared’s earnings, but she said it has scored roughly USD14 million in venture capital.

One recent morning, Sheikh woke up at 5.30 to gigs whose wages teased incrementally higher amounts, and he beat himself up for not letting them take over his day off. “There’s always a part of you that’s screaming inside ‘WHY?! WHY DID YOU PASS ON SO MUCH MONEY?!’ ” he wrote in his diary about potential USD108 and USD195 payouts, “but learning to step away and rest is important, too. Instead I slept in and did some gardening with my roommate in the afternoon.”

On a recent Saturday on Pared, Bouchon Bakery at Rockefeller Center posted a prep cook ad at 7:35 a.m. offering USD20 an hour – increasing to USD22 at 8.02am. Later that morning, Belcampo put up a 10.19am post for an USD18-an-hour line cook gig that crept up to USD24 by 11.03 – a USD6-an-hour raise in just 45 minutes. Similarly, an event-cook gig at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center went from USD20 an hour at 3pm to USD26 by 9pm.

Planned-ahead gigs are less attractive to cooks because they offer minimal payouts. And day jobs are difficult because the gigs demand cooks be on-call at all times. Pared is not Uber for kitchens; it is Uber surge pricing for kitchens. It’s a system that, whatever Pared’s intent, seems to prioritize desperation and urgency for both management and labor. And it’s gaining popularity – now operating in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, with more expansions planned.

Pared was founded in San Francisco in 2015 by Dave Lu, a marketing and product veteran at Apple, Cisco, eBay and Yahoo; and Will Pacio, who was a chef at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, then at his French Laundry, before running IT for the Keller restaurant group. While Pared has rivals – Instawork, Jitjatjo, Qwick, Shiftgig – it has emerged as an industry gold standard trusted by high-profile restaurant leaders, including Keller (who, along with a Taco Bell executive, is also an investor), José Andrés, Tom Colicchio, Dominique Crenn and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. More than 30 Michelin-starred restaurants use Pared. Even Washington’s famously woke Busboys and Poets uses it.

Like much of Silicon Valley, built on the disruptive philosophy to “move fast and break things,” Pared touts choice, convenience, entrepreneurship, flexibility and opportunity. Like many apps before it, its compelling engagement has had unintended – and largely unmentioned – consequences. The company line is that Pared is LinkedIn with paycheques, but the reality for workers such as Sheikh is that it’s more like Tinder’s reduction of courtship to nonstop strings of “hey” and “wyd?”

Airbnb created booms in rents. Uber decimated public transit. Freelancers in New York had to pass a law to codify that their work is never free. The gig economy has thrived on what Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian indicted as “hustle porn.” The New Yorker stated it plainly in the headline of a viral essay: The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death. So, in restaurant workers’ minefield of illness and inequity, what good is Pared?

“We’re so different from Uber,” said Lu, a Pared co-founder. “They’re turning people into drivers. Instacart turns people into shoppers. We’re not turning anyone into cooks or dishwashers. We’re just helping them connect with their needs. Clearly, there’s a lot of need.” (Pared said its 100,000 users have an average of seven years of experience; as Lu put it: “We don’t send Chipotle workers to Minibar.”) “There’s no upward mobility for an Uber driver,” he added. “It’s pretty much just that. We’re trying to level people up. You can get hired full time.” Lu positioned Pared as a “school of hard knocks” alternative to “culinary school and debt.”

Sheikh grumbled at such optimism. “Pared lets kitchen staff work more hours in a broken system,” he said. “Is that helpful for quick bucks? Yes. Is it a solution to the industry’s problems? No.”

To that end, Sheikh has shown up to his gigs as a double agent of sorts as founder of Restaurant After Hours, researching the mental health and emotional landscapes of the profession while sharing with strangers his struggles with addiction (he has been sober since December 2018) and connecting them to free therapy sessions.

The likes of Lu and Sheikh are not reshaping the restaurant industry alone. Ritchie Torres, New York City’s youngest city council member and head of the council’s investigations committee, has introduced a bill to ensure tipped on-demand workers (such as those in food delivery) actually receive that income. And New York state Sen. Jessica Ramos, who chairs the state legislature’s labor committee, is considering New York’s response to AB5, a California law that went into effect on January 1 and seismically rewrote gig-economy essentials.

“The endless lurch of the gig economy is rigged against safety nets and towards exploitation,” Torres said.

Ramos agreed: “My unapologetic interest is that workers have the right to collectively bargain. We don’t want the gig economy to be a new Walmart. If one app is out of line, that’s one too many.”

Sheikh has also been hoping to recruit help from a bartender who left the profession – but so far, he has been unable to connect with Representative. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY.

Meanwhile, on a recent Monday after his therapy session, Sheikh looked ahead to a new week at Pared and a projected income of USD240.