The Employees at This James Beard Award-Winning Chef’s Restaurant Just Voted to Unionize

Workers at a restaurant run by a James Beard Award winner have officially voted to unionize.

The staff at the Korean American spot Kim’s in Minneapolis on Thursday voted 65 percent in favor of forming a union. The vote took place after the restaurant’s owner, Ann Kim, and her group, Vestalia Hospitality, failed to voluntarily recognize the union last month. Since then, management has been working to drum up anti-union sentiment among Kim’s workers, as displayed in internal messages leaked to the self-described “food antagonist” Joe Rosenthal, which he shared on Instagram.

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“Kim’s being a union restaurant is such a benefit to Uptown, because I know improving our jobs will also improve the restaurant for everyone,” Kaylee Murphy, a bartender and server at Kim’s, said in a statement. “I’m excited for the future and look forward to bargaining a contract.”

The chef and restaurateur rose to national acclaim in 2019 when Kim won the Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest and made an impassioned speech to the crowd to chase your dreams and “fuck fear”—a phrase that has become her rallying cry. What followed were glowing profiles in national media, appearances on David Chang’s influential podcast, and a starring role in an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table Pizza. Her pizza-driven places like Young Joni and Pizzeria Lola became legit dining destinations when visiting Minneapolis. And just this week, The New York Times wrote about how Kim was a key person in making pizza across America as great as it is now. Kim’s is the latest restaurant in her growing hospitality group. She originally had Sooki and Mimi in the same space, but closed that restaurant last fall to reopen as Kim’s and lean into her Korean American heritage more.

Back on May 28, employees at Kim’s told restaurant management that they planned to form a union, according to the Star Tribune. Since the restaurant didn’t recognize the group, staffers held an election. (Some 60 people work at Kim’s.) They’re being represented by Unite Here Local 17, a hospitality and craft beverages workers union in Minnesota.

One of the workers’s biggest contentions was that their schedules varied so widely they couldn’t predict their pay. “You can’t rely on your paycheck being the same every week or every two weeks,” Murphy told Eater Twin Cities last month. “I’m not really sure if I have a part-time job or a full-time job; if I’m going to have 10 hours, 25 hours, or 35 hours. It makes life a little hard to plan for.”

In the month prior to the vote, Kim posted on her personal Instagram account that she believed the restaurant did not need a union. And leaked internal messages showed that management was dissuading staff from voting in favor of forming one. According to the posts shared with Rosenthal, the team sent several messages via the restaurant’s scheduling app from June 10 through June 24, including one with the title “Top 7 Reasons to Say NO to the Union,” signed by Kim herself.

“A lot of the themes are familiar,” John Logan, the chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University, told Robb Report about the anti-union campaign. “The purpose of anti-union campaigns, typically, is to create an incredibly stressful dynamic in the workplace … It’s not the fact that they want a union that’s stressful; it’s the fight. You’ve got this intense ‘vote no’ campaign and anti-union campaign that’s sort of causing the stress.”

One of those leaked internal communications also acknowledged the bind the restaurant—like so many other restaurants—was in when it comes to scheduling. “We hear you. Some of these things we can control, like our culture and our desire to work as a team where your individual voices matter,” one message read. “Some things we can’t control, like how many guests we have and how many people we need on a particular shift.”

Ann Kim, the owner of Kim's and a James Beard Award winner
Ann Kim, the owner of Kim’s and a James Beard Award winner

Following the vote, Kim said in a statement shared with Robb Report, “From the beginning, our goal has always been to give our team members the opportunity to participate in a fair election and cast their own vote. It was important to me that everyone’s voice was heard. I respect the election results and look forward to working with the team as we move into the future.”

Now the employees of Kim’s will work to negotiate a union contract with the restaurant, a process that could take months, if not years. They’re aiming for wins like better pay and benefits, stability, and respect in the workplace.

While Kim and her team tried to say that these issues could be worked through without a union, the majority of Kim’s employees have decided that the way forward is through organized labor. Logan said that these sorts of workplaces have been historically difficult to unionize, and that the efforts can be contentious at such small establishments. The owner, he explained, may feel a sense of disloyalty or a loss of control. Restaurants, in particular, can often feel like a family environment—hence the “family meal” employees eat before service begins—and very few people enjoy being part of family drama.

“It takes a lot, in a sector like retail or food services, to withstand that,” Logan said. “And then still to say, ‘No, this is not about disloyalty. This is not about hating the place we work. We love the place we work. We want it to be better. We want to improve it. We think that us having an independent voice will make a better place to work.’”

That’s how the pro-union Kim’s employees see it too.

“Every step of the way my coworkers and the community have given me the courage to continue, we have true solidarity,” Aaron Rose, another bartender at the restaurant, said in a statement. “I look forward to bargaining in good faith and making Kim’s the best restaurant in the Twin Cities.”

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