In Other News, Water Is Wet
So the good ol'Iowa City subreddit threw up some links to some sweet Twitter tea that got spilled yesterday in a (presumably ongoing) thread about the shitty places downtown to work for and the equally shitty people that run them. In general, my reaction was one of cynical amusement: my sister's high school job was in McDonald's and the stories she brought back convinced that I didn't want to go anywhere near the food service industry for a job, so I stuck with my prototypical white middle class kid high school job and worked at Hy-Vee.
But the amount of people who were surprised by any of this was kind of astonishing. The food service industry can be incredibly shitty and exploitative and in a town where there's a ready supply of cheap labor, you can always be replaced and there's not a great deal of motivation to treat your workers well. Why give the college barista a raise when you can fire them and replace them with another barista? Is it shitty? It sure is. But also: it's Iowa City, baby. Downtown business loves some of that sweet, sweet student labor.
(Digging into it, there weren't too many surprises: The Sanctuary has a good beer list, but it's never been my go-to place for beer. The Bread Garden I've long thought of as sketch and this only proves it. The one that hurt me a little was Z'Mariks witholding tips. They were my jam back in college. As much as I'd like to take to the barricades over the Java House, I just don't care- and neither does anyone else- they'll keep right on going there. If y'all won't vote with your feet and keep Fairgrounds (pour out a latte for Fairgrounds. Loved that foccacia toast) in business, then why should I join your coffee revolution? Especially since I can make coffee at my house for a lot cheaper.)**
The other thing that surprised me: the number of variations of, "well, this has been an open secret in Iowa City for years."
Oh sweet child, no. I can assure you that the longtime denizens of this town are very well aware of the shortcomings and character flaws of these business owners. They just don't give a shit. If you move in the right circles in this town and know the right people, it won't matter if you kick puppies in your spare time. Once you're in the rarified air of the upper crust, you'll be fine. There will always be a core constituency of townies that will keep you going.*
The real issue here is a structural one. At some point in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Iowa City food scene got sort of eclipsed by these big ownership groups that ran multiple establishments downtown. (There's the Mondonaro Group, the Etre Group, the Nate Kaeding Bunch and one other that owns like Coach's Corner and a few other places that I didn't know about.) The consolidation of the food scene, if memory serves was sort of a weird gentrification almost of dowtown that's been happening over the course of the past two to three decades.
I grew up in the late 80s just after Bushnell's Turtle and Barbara's Bakery left the scene- but Gringo's was still downtown, there was an Arby's downtown. There was a Burger King, Hardee's and a Pizza Hut downtown-- and I want to say a Rocky Roccoco's at one point? Also- who can forget Great Midwestern Ice Cream? The food scene downtown was perhaps, a touch too corporate/chain restaurant-y for the times we live in, but it's demographic was broad. There were fancy places downtown you could eat at- but if you were just regular folks there were places for you as well. (Nostalgia is a helluva drug, but I'd call the late 80s-early 90s the best Iowa City food scene since I've been alive. La Casa was still a restaurant, damn it. Remember La Casa?)
By the time I was in college, most of the chains were gone. The Old Capitol Mall was a shadow of it's former self-- and old classics like the original Fitzpatrick's, Pizza On Dubuque and Easy Place Chinese (pour one out for Easy Place Chinese- still the standard by which I judge all other crab rangoons- they managed the perfect balance of crab and rangoon.) The era of the Ownership Groups sort of took over, but now, I've gotta wonder: has their uppence finally come?
The Post-COVID era for the Iowa City food scene could be very interesting indeed. You have to think that given downtown rents, pressure has got to be ratcheting up-- and as this Twitter thread/social media explosion proves, their labor supply can be ornery as well. (The Java House is apparently attempting damage control already- which to me proves that they're either a. worried about public reaction or b. there's some truth to the Tweeters.) If COVID takes out some of the ownership groups that are past their expiration date- or maybe forces them to retool and revitalize their business model- and if that includes better working conditions for workers, then I'd call that a good result.
COVID cost us a Cactus though. So who knows what else it's going to take out when all is said and done?
There's talk, whenever these kind of things bubble up, of just doing away with tips and paying servers a decent wage. I've never worked in that environment, so I'm loathe to take a position on the issue- but if shitty tipping practices are so widespread and endemic- maybe it's time to pay your servers a decent wage and tell people to stop tipping?
Change will be slow in coming, I'd imagine- if it comes at all. As consumers, it's on us to a. be respectful and polite to your servers and b. tip. Because shitty business practices and exploitation of restaurant/food service workers?
"In other news, water is wet."
*Hey, remember when the Post Office moved? In general, it was a fantastic move for them. Cheaper real estate and way more accessible to ALL PARTS of the community-- but there was that core constituency of townies that pitched an absolute fit about it-- they didn't quite use the words, "the darker side of town"- and you know what they mean when they say 'darker'- but some of them were sure as shit thinking it. Those people are the core constituency of townies I'm referring to here.
**The Dumpling Darling cultural appropriation mess is almost another post in and of itself. I would say the following though: brown/black face should have been way more sketch than it was back then, but if the Governor of Virginia can still have a job, I don't see why the owner can't apologize and move on from this. Also, if you're going to Dumpling Darling for an authentic Asian cultural experience, y'all need to check your Googles and do better. They're dumplings. No more, no less.