Sanctuary restaurants provide ‘a place at the table for everyone’

The Local Pizzeria in Albany Park displays their sanctuary placard on the restaurant’s front door. (Katie Watkins/MEDILL)

By Katie Watkins

Over the past several months, small yellow signs have been popping up in the windows of cafes, bars and restaurants across Chicago. Their red and black lettering carries a powerful message: “Sanctuary restaurant, a place at the table for everyone.”

The signs are part of the national Sanctuary Restaurant movement, which seeks to create spaces free of sexism, racism and xenophobia. The initiative was started by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group for restaurant workers, and Latinx advocacy group

For many restaurant owners in Chicago, including Jerry’s co-founder Mindy Friedler, the decision to become a sanctuary restaurant seemed like a “no-brainer.”

“When it comes to zero tolerance for sexism, racism and xenophobia that seems to me the very minimum a business could do,” Friedler said.

As the granddaughter of Eastern European immigrants, Friedler added that the issue also resonated with her on a personal level.

“Had America not been the shining light, my family would have been wiped out,” she said. “When you’re starting to talk about walls and bans, as a business owner and as a human, it makes me uncomfortable.”

With locations in Lincoln Square and Andersonville, Jerry’s is one of the latest Chicago spots to become a sanctuary restaurant. (Katie Watkins/MEDILL)

Jerry’s, which specializes in gourmet sandwiches and craft beer, has locations in Andersonville and Lincoln Square, and is one of over 250 sanctuary restaurants nationwide.

Although the term “sanctuary restaurant” echoes that of a sanctuary city, it is not a “legal designation” and sanctuary restaurants are not designed to harbor undocumented immigrants. Rather, they aim to “resist hate and harassment in the industry” and create “a place at the table for everyone,” according to the movement’s website.

In Chicago, there are now about 24 participating restaurants, with the number steadily increasing. Honey Butter Fried Chicken was the first Chicago sanctuary restaurant, with places like Bistro Campagne, Hopewell Brewing Company and Brightwok Kitchen quickly following suit.

Brightwok Kitchen founder, Jeremy Klaben, said it was a team decision to become a sanctuary restaurant. Staff leaders at Brightwok, which serves Asian-inspired, cooked-to-order stir-fries in the Loop, thought it represented their pre-existing values.

“I wouldn’t say sanctuary restaurant defines who we are, but it definitely is something that we care a lot about, and the main reason is just the type of language we use in our space,” Klaben said. “We don’t stand for any bit of hate, we don’t tolerate that at all, or discrimination of any kind. That’s pretty much what it means to us.”

Klaben said he was also interested in joining the coalition of restaurants because of the potential to learn from and share ideas with other restaurant owners in the network.

In addition to displaying the sanctuary restaurant placard, restaurants that join the sanctuary movement can participate in webinars and seminars on various topics such as know-your-rights trainings. There is also a hotline set up where people who witness hate or discrimination at a restaurant can text TABLE to 225568 for support.

The restaurant industry employs close to 2.3 million foreign-born workers, accounting for more than 23 percent of restaurant employees, according to an analysis of census data by the National Restaurant Association. In addition, 45 percent of restaurant chefs are immigrants, and immigrants own 29 percent of businesses in the restaurant/hotel sector.

“If you come to the country and you don’t necessarily speak a lot of English, restaurants are one of the few places that are going to offer opportunities for those entry-level positions,” Friedler said. “They also offer an opportunity as you’ve been here longer to grow and to advance, which we’ve definitely seen.”

Luis Garcia, the owner of The Local Pizzeria in Albany Park, experienced firsthand the opportunities that restaurants can provide for immigrants. When he moved to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 16, Garcia said he spoke no English, but was able to get a job as a dishwasher at one of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant chains. There, he worked his way up and eventually became a general manager.

Luis Garcia, owner of The Local Pizzeria, says customers are welcome regardless of their beliefs. (Katie Watkins/MEDILL)

Now the owner of his own restaurant, Garcia was drawn to the inclusive message of the sanctuary restaurant movement.

“It is symbolic, and to let the community know that you’re not alone,” he said. “You’re welcome to come here regardless of who you are and what your beliefs are. We don’t care we treat everybody the same.

“And that’s what I’ve been teaching my staff to treat everyone the same and give everyone an opportunity.”

Two of Garcia’s employees said they enjoy being part of an inclusive environment.

Stefanie Perez, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2003, has been working as a manager at The Local Pizzeria for about a year.

“I feel proud to work in a restaurant where we don’t discriminate against anybody,” Perez said. “It’s important for me because I’m an immigrant and I don’t like when people discriminate against me because I speak Spanish.”

High school student, Anneli Cers, 17, who has also been working at The Local Pizzeria for about a year, echoed Perez’s sentiment.

“I think it shows the community that restaurants as well as businesses are welcoming, and that regardless of what may be happening in politics, that we accept immigrants, and that is what this country stands for, that is what this city stands for,” Cers said.

All three restaurant owners said the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, although they have received a few complaints via phone calls, emails and negative Yelp reviews.

“Overall, it’s a very positive thing,” Klaben said. “We’ve had a lot of people come in and say ‘I believe in what you guys are doing.’”

Photo at top: The Local Pizzeria in Albany Park displays its sanctuary placard on the restaurant’s front door. (Katie Watkins/MEDILL)