Erin Wade was already an innovator when eight years ago, she opened her dedicated mac and cheese restaurant, Homeroom in Oakland, California. The idea hit her after she returned home one night from her job as an attorney with a craving for the dish. She realized there was no place she could get any, that mac and cheese was never thought of as a restaurant delicacy or main dish. So she set out to change that.
But Wade didn’t stop there. She wanted Homeroom to stand for much more than delicious comfort food. “We definitely sell the world’s best mac and cheese,” she says, “But we use that as a vehicle to create positive things for our community and to try to change the [restaurant] industry.”
Right now, 100% of Homeroom’s leadership team is made up of women and people of color, which Wade says is extremely rare. While the restaurant industry is incredibly diverse, she explains, it is mostly white males who hold the leadership positions.
To help push the industry forward, Homeroom has a distinct set of what Wade sees as feminist values. These include leadership being highly communicative and collaborative with the rest of the staff. “If people come in to communicate a problem, they will also be there to help us solve it,” Wade says.
Most notably, Wade has made a name for herself by inventing a groundbreaking color-coded system to protect her staff against harassment by customers. This system, which is now known as Not on the Menu, has been adopted as a recommended best practice by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is used at restaurants and bars around the country.
Wade began to develop the concept for Not on the Menu five years ago, when her female staff members requested a meeting regarding harassment they had experienced by customers. “At the time, what was happening was not that no one was reporting it,” Wade says, “but that it actually wasn’t being taken seriously [by managers].”
When she heard the stories from her staff, Wade couldn’t believe it. “Because we are a feminist company,” she says, “It was sort of shocking because we had at the time a number of male floor managers who were some of the most sensitive, lovely men I’d ever met. So, it was pretty clear that if even these guys are not getting it, it’s hard for men to understand why things are threatening for women, because their experiences are different. We decided we had to come up with a system that did not depend on managers using their judgment.”
Here’s how the system works: If an employee feels at all unsafe, they simply say a color to their manager. Yellow means they are getting a bad feeling or creepy vibe. Orange means some comments have been made that could be construed as threatening. Red means there have been overtly sexual comments and/or touching.
“All that a staff member has to do,” Wade says, “Is say the color to the manager, like orange at table 2.” If there’s a yellow, the staff member has the option to give their table to the manager. If orange, the manager is required to take over the table. If red, the manager must eject the customer from the restaurant.
“So there is no judgment,” Wade explains. “You don’t have to talk about your story. Just say a color and someone comes in.”
The system is designed to respect where different people are at. “The whole point is to make staff members feel safe and comfortable,” Wade says, “and for all of us that’s going to be really different depending on our lived experiences.”
Not on the Menu has been more successful than Wade could have imagined. Not only does it remove customers who are acting inappropriately, but it has actually reduced the number of serious incidents. “Very few people walk into a restaurant and stick their hand up someone’s shirt out of nowhere,” Wade says. “They start by checking them out across the room, testing them with low level comments, then they escalate. So this changes the power dynamic at a really low level that doesn’t allow it to escalate.”
Before Not on the Menu was implemented, Wade says every woman employee on her staff had a red story to share. Now, she hears maybe one per year.
Wade didn’t want this system to stay confined to Homeroom, though, so she wrote what became a viral article for the Washington Post. As the article gained widespread recognition, Wade was asked to testify in front of the EEOC.
Soon, she was fielding requests for additional resources, so she created posters and zines outlining the system.
Wade hopes this method continues to spread. “1 in 10 Americans work in restaurants,” she says, “So if every restaurant used it, it would be a big change.”
There is a lot more Wade hopes will change in the restaurant industry. For one, she hopes to see a large increase in female owners. Right now, only 7% of restaurants are women-owned. She believes that number should climb to 50%.
Shifting the power dynamic, Wade says, is one of the best ways to bring about positive change. “I think when we have the opportunity to live and apply our values, we have the opportunity to revolutionize the restaurant industry.”