Reform in the Back of the House

Why Things Are About to Change for Philadelphia’s Immigrant Restaurant Workers

Story by Allyn Gaestel

Photography by Alan Chin

Published on

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Dionicio Jiminez and the Philadelphia restaurant scene are rising together. Formerly co-owner and head chef at Xochitl, Jiminez partnered with the city’s loudest and biggest restaurateur, Stephen Starr, on El Rey, a Mexican street food-inspired restaurant in the classy Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. “I’m a dreamer,” Jiminez said of his enviable career rise. “I have to dream every day.”

But it hasn’t always been rave reviews and trendy menus. Hailing from small-town Mexico, Jiminez trekked through the desert to start from scratch in Philadelphia in the late 1990s, joining his brother and the small community of Mexicans in the city.

“I came here in ’98, illegally,” he said. “Like everybody, I started working in restaurants.” The community was much smaller then, and more intimate. Jiminez can recall sleeping in a single South Philly apartment with 15 other guys, not because they couldn’t get another place but because they were all trying to save. The plan was to make money and head home. “I thought I would come for one year,” Jiminez said. “[I thought,] ‘I’ll go check it out and see what’s going on.’ I didn’t really want to stay here. The idea was that I was coming to make some money to open a place in Mexico, but it never happened. Instead I opened a place here.”

Soon, his friends and neighbors were joining him in Philadelphia. Most of the Mexican community here comes from the state of Puebla, and many of the early immigrants came specifically from Jiminez’s little town called San Mateo. “It’s a little chain,” Jiminez said. “One guy brings another, then another, then he brings the family. It gets bigger.”

The Poblanos were a good fit for the restaurant scene. Jiminez had worked as a sous-chef in a nice restaurant in Mexico City before he migrated north. He had to start over in the U.S., and his first job was as a dishwasher at Vetri, an upscale Italian restaurant in Center City. At the time he was working two jobs — one day, one night — to save, but it was at Vetri where Jiminez started to put down roots. He was comfortable in the kitchen, and Marc Vetri, the eponymous owner and celebrated chef, noticed. Within a year Jiminez was working as a line cook, and within two years Vetri and partner Jeff Benjamin had sponsored him for his green card.

After eight years working as a sous-chef at Vetri, Jiminez opened Xochitl, his upscale Mexican restaurant in Headhouse Square. Over the years he also moved out of his cramped apartment, though he stayed in South Philly, the hub of the city’s new Mexican community, convenient as it is to Center City restaurants. “Now I live in a single house with not so many people,” Jiminez said. “When I decided to stay here I wanted to move on. I found a better place to live. I have a family and am established here.”

The Twin Restaurant and Immigration Boom

Jiminez is one of the thousands of workers holding up Philadelphia’s growing reputation as a first-rate food city, one on par with more traditionally cosmopolitan locales like New York and Los Angeles. Walk down any street in Center City and you are bound to stumble across a number of destination restaurants. Tucked down alleyways or crowding sidewalks with long lines and people dining al fresco, bars and restaurants have come to define the Philly ascent to hipness. And the small plates stack up. Leisure and hospitality represents the second fastest growing industry in the city, up 15 percent in the last decade, and one of only two (with education and health services) that is growing at all. During the same period, the total number of jobs in Philadelphia dropped by 3 percent, according to a March report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Within Center City, Philadelphia’s wealthiest area, the hot restaurant scene has shot up property values. “It’s probably been the most important thing for central Philadelphia’s commercial prosperity,” said Domenic Vitiello, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s restaurants and cultural institutions… that make the street life, as well as living there and visiting, exciting to people. That’s all wrapped up in the logic of downtown development today.”

More than a quarter of restaurant jobs in Philadelphia are held by people who were not born in the U.S. It’s a disproportionately high representation given foreign-born workers make up only 18 percent of the city’s overall workforce, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a national non-profit that advocates for restaurant workers. Asians and Latin Americans are the largest foreign-born groups working in the restaurant industry, with Latin Americans making up 10.7 percent of restaurant workers now, up from 6.2 percent in 2010 and compared to only 6.9 percent of Philadelphia’s overall workforce.

Dionicio Jiminez left his home in a small town in Mexico in the 1990s. Now he is the Executive Chef at Stephen Starr’s El Rey Restaurant.

The interdependence between the restaurant industry and the immigrant community is impossible to ignore.

“All of us opening, and all of us telling our workers ‘if you have friends’… I think they may have enticed their friends who may have been deciding where to come,” said Jeff Benjamin, the partner at the Vetri family of restaurants that first employed Jiminez. Benjamin, who himself migrated to Philly by way of New York, settled here in the late ’90s to help Marc Vetri open his flagship restaurant, Vetri. The pair has already expanded to four locations, and looks to reach seven by 2014.

Jiminez states the situation in clearer terms. “They [immigrants] need a job and the owners need workers,” he said. “It’s longer hours, especially in the back of the house, the kitchen. Nobody wants to work that many hours. A lot of people don’t want to wash dishes.”

In the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, the number of restaurants in the city grew by 39 percent. In the latter 10 years of that period, the city’s Hispanic population grew by 44 percent, and the city’s Mexican population by a whopping 150 percent — from 6,220 to 15,531, census data shows. In South Philadelphia the growth rate is exponentially higher, with the number of Hispanics more than tripling between 1990 and 2010, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The imprint of the growing immigrant community can be seen in the neighborhood’s historic Italian Market, where pasta shops are now crowding against taquerias and Mexican-owned businesses.

“Parts of the Italian Market have been revitalized by this community,” said Erika Almiron, executive director of the immigrant human rights organization Juntos. “People always say the Italian Market should be called the International Market, or parts of it the Mexican Market.”

The interdependence between the restaurant industry and the immigrant community is impossible to ignore.

That growth is part of a tidal change for Philadelphia. The last decade was the first since the 1960s that the city’s population has increased, rather than declined. Yet despite the city’s large Mexican population, it is a discreet community. Many people live without documentation, hiding from authorities. Others are simply busy in restaurant kitchens that most of us never see.

But for the first time in a quarter-century, major change is coming in the form of a federal immigration reform bill now being hammered out in Washington. Immigration reform carries the potential to transform the way now-undocumented immigrants, as well as those like Jiminez who are here with green cards or temporary visas, work with the restaurant industry they make possible.

The change in regulation will have manifold impacts, but the most obvious for the restaurant industry comes in the form of e-verify, a nationwide online verification system to check the immigration status of potential employees. E-verify will mean a large shift for restaurant owners who currently rely on the documentation workers present without any easy way to verify its authenticity, making for something of a de facto don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation.

On the other side of that verification, however, looms the bill’s greatest possibility for change: Its pathway to citizenship. While nothing has been decided yet, the latest iteration guarantees undocumented U.S. residents a process by which they can eventually become citizens if they meet certain requirements, including a clean background check, registration with the authorities and fulfillment of other obligations like paying taxes and fees.

Jiminez remembers the everyday anxieties of life before he got his green card. “You always live afraid… every single day you’re an immigrant, you leave your house, you think about if something is going to happen.” Jiminez was of the rare set that earned his green card with the help of an employer; that or having immediate family with legal status in the States have been the only methods undocumented immigrants could use to change their status. The pathway to citizenship is significant because there has been almost no way for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status — something many Americans have not understood.

Expansion and Reform

Brightly painted skeletons, elaborately dressed and grinning, welcome you into the Los Catrines Tequilas restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. Inside, ornately carved dark wood offsets traditional Mexican paintings and a bar sparkles with bottles of tequila. There are dozens of varieties, inspired by owner David Suro-Piñera’s love for tequila culture and history — when I met him he was fresh back from a trip to Mexico, where he was studying early signs of distillation technology with academics and bartenders. Since following his ex-wife from Cancún to Philadelphia in the 1980s, Suro-Piñera has ridden the wave of Philadelphia’s restaurant renaissance. With his heart split between Philadelphia and Mexico, he is in a prime position to explain the other side of the restaurant surge.

He remembers one day in the mid-’90s when a man named Efren wandered into his restaurant, asking for directions to New York. Efren had just crossed into the U.S., heading to New York to meet his cousins. His coyote, the guide hired to take him, dropped him in Philadelphia instead. He walked the streets, lost, until he stumbled across the Cocina Mexicana sign outside Tequilas.

Instead of sending him along to New York, Suro-Piñera offered him a job, and Efren stayed. It was a win for Suro-Piñera, who had struggled to fill his back-of-the-house jobs. “Those jobs, they are tough jobs. A lot of restaurants, they have a hard time finding good people,” he explained. Soon he told a couple friends in the restaurant industry about his good luck, “and they asked me if he can bring some friends… so he called friends and 10,000 friends later, you see what you see in Philadelphia.”

David Suro-Piñera, owner of the Los Catrines Tequilas restaurant, moved to Philly from Cancún in the 1980s.

To hear the restaurateurs speak is to hear them wax poetic about a city on the rise. “We’ve got one of the most vibrant restaurant cities in the country,” said Benjamin of Vetri.

Some of Vetri’s expansions have been adventurous. The partners built a pricey restaurant on North Broad Street, in an area on the fringe of Center City best known for hosting the abandoned Divine Loraine Hotel and other decaying relics of Philadelphia’s late 19th-century and early 20th-century heyday. Vetri’s move to North Broad inspired a spate of copycat investment. A developer last year announced plans to turn the Divine into high-end condos.

“We don’t credit ourselves with changing the neighborhood,” Benjamin said, “but adding a vibrant restaurant to the neighborhood has said [to potential residents] ‘we can live here, we can open a restaurant here.’”

Benjamin isn’t shy about recognizing that none of this would be happening without immigrant labor. “We do have a pretty decent-sized immigrant population working for us in the front and back of the house,” he said.

The company is known among immigrant workers as one of the better employers, the kind of people you want to work for. “Marc helps a lot of people, illegal people, people working in the restaurant,” Jiminez said. It was chance that he ended up at Vetri, but it changed his life. “If you get lucky like I did, the restaurant will really appreciate you and some can get lucky and get the papers, a green card or a visa.” But, he explained, “It depends on where you work and who you work for.”

Vetri offers all its workers health insurance after six months, as well as benefits like a 401(k), and bonuses, auto reimbursement and a dining allowance as the employee grows. “Paying a decent wage is always good but so are benefits… to entice people to stay,” Benjamin said. “The restaurant industry has a bad rap as a transient industry, people come and go, [but] I don’t think you need to if you have a good environment.”

Current laws put restaurants in precarious limbo, dependent on illegal workers and facing an ever-present possibility of a crackdown and loss of their workforce.

Not all of the restaurateurs who employ immigrants are held in such high esteem.

Vitiello, who was formerly on the board of Juntos, said that Philadelphia’s restaurant boom and the food industry in general was built on “subsidized labor,” meaning that many workers confront low wages and low benefits. Fabricio Rodriguez, of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, said of one of the city’s other major restaurateurs, “he’s just a rich dude who got extremely rich paying people $2.83 per hour.”

For workers in restaurants that don’t honor their rights, Rodriguez said, immigration reform presents a huge opportunity.

“People have rights. They don’t understand that, they’re not using them,” he said. “Giving a path to citizenship will clarify the rights they do have, on a public stage, in a mass sort of way.” That point is important to employers as well. Current laws put them in precarious limbo, dependent on illegal workers and facing an ever-present possibility of a crackdown and loss of their workforce. It is a functional but tenuous balance, and the Pennsylvania Restaurant Coalition has sent members to Washington to lobby for the reform.

Their support echoes the National Restaurant Association, which portrays reform as streamlining a patchwork of confusing local immigration policies. The organization’s official line is that a“ reliable system would help employers manage the hiring process in a timely, efficient and respectful manner, and give employers certainty about their legal obligations.” Many restaurant owners now employ workers with false documentation, so they are on the books but with a different identity. In those cases, little would change if those workers were qualified for the “pathway to citizenship” offered through proposed legislation. Reform is a way of bringing what is already happening into “the light of day, with legal standing,” said Patrick Conway, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“Why don’t we wave the carrot instead of shaking the stick?” Benjamin said. “We should reward the people who are doing well.”

Back of the House

A mile south of Tequilas is another restaurant. To get in, one has to call ahead. Peak hours are between 1am and 2am, closing time for the city’s other restaurants and bars. The entryway is less colorful — a steep three stories to the top floor of a small row house. There are no chandeliers or murals. Here, in a small South Philly kitchen, a chef we will call Maria cooks up traditional Poblano green pipian mole, made from pumpkin seeds and tomatillos, as well as tacos and sopas for the Mexican community. The chef did not want to be named because she does not have proper U.S. documentation and is not licensed to cook commercially in her home.

Maria used to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week in her brother’s small restaurant, earning a flat $250 each week. One day a massive pot of soup fell on her while she was working, severely scalding her back. Maria’s brother did not come in to help her and she did not go to the hospital, heading instead to her apartment where some friends put aloe on her back. She still has a scar.

Maria eventually dissociated from her brother and went to work for herself. Her customers are largely hungry restaurant workers who stop by after a late shift. . As time goes on, her business is expanding. Recently, she started delivering lunch to a construction crew.

With her modest earnings, Maria is supporting her mother, her sister and her son, all back in Mexico. She used to work long hours harvesting flowers, earning $10 a day. She said she “had to come” to the U.S. because there was no other way she could support her family after losing her husband and finding herself the primary breadwinner. And while she does not earn much in Philadelphia, she and her family — thousands of miles away — are getting by much better than they would have had she stayed close to home in Mexico.

Wages are a complicated story for immigrant workers. Matthew O’Brien, a doctor who works with the Mexican immigrant population through the health non-profit Puentes de Salud, said he had not heard many complaints about wages among the undocumented workers he attends to.

“For them it’s not as bleak a picture as we might imagine,” said O’Brien, who estimates that 75 percent of his patients are restaurant workers. ”Many of them were subsistence farmers with no opportunity for education or employment outside of the home… It’s a slightly more complex situation than just saying these people are living in poverty.”

“Many of them do not see themselves as victims here,” he said. “Many of them see themselves as a success story.”

Maria, who migrated to Philadelphia from Mexico a few years ago, feeds restaurant and construction workers in her South Philadelphia home kitchen.

That success looks different for everyone.

On the glamorous end of the spectrum is Jiminez, who went from dishwasher to executive chef. But another man we will call Victor has also worked in restaurants since 1998, and still works two back-of-the-house jobs. He lives in a colorful, comfortable two-bedroom apartment with his sister in South Philly and has savings ready for when he decides to do something new, like get married. He has found more success in Philadelphia than he did in Mexico, but he still lives below the radar and works excessive hours.

David Pina has lived what he calls the American dream, moving up from working in the back of the house after immigrating in 1998, to owning two popular South Philadelphia restaurants with his brother-in-law. He has done so without documentation, and budgets for regular confiscations of his car any time he gets pulled over for small infractions and gets caught driving without a license.

Efren, the man Tequilas owner Suro-Piñera attributes to beginning the immigrant wave, worked his way up from dishwasher to cook before dying in Philadelphia in 2003 of empathic cirrhosis.

On the glamorous end of the spectrum is Jiminez, who went from dishwasher to executive chef. But another man we will call Victor has also worked in restaurants since 1998, and still works two back-of-the-house jobs.

But while the individual stories vary, the community as a whole has done well in Philadelphia. That was evident on a recent Saturday afternoon mass at Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in South Philly. Babies squealed, laughed and cried, as a handful of young kids dressed to the nines in white suits and sparkly, ruffled dresses proceeded to the front of the knave for their baptism. There was a dearth of wrinkles in the church; almost all the faces were young. Well-dressed women in their 30s piled into pews already full of fathers trying to hush rambunctious toddlers. Strollers were parked in the aisle.

“In the early 2000s, people were here and working largely in restaurants and in construction,” said Vitiello, the planning professor. “When women came in significant numbers a few years later, it turned from a community of men to a community of families about five years ago.”

Philadelphia has an uneven history with immigrants. In the early 2000s it was considered a “low-immigrant” city, a characterization with deep roots despite an influx of Asians in the late 20th century, according to a paper by the Philadelphia Migration Project. City Council considered creating an Office of New Philadelphians in 2001, but 9/11 pushed pro-immigrant sentiment to the background. In the mid-2000s there were small steps toward promoting immigration into the city with the creation of the non-profit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, which currently has funding from the city and two councilmembers on its board. The city has also implemented language access services to make all city departments accessible to immigrants regardless of their ability to speak English.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of restaurants in the city grew by 39 percent and the Mexican population by 150 percent.

But during the same time immigrants in Philadelphia felt a national anti-immigrant backlash. Magaly Sanchez, a Princeton professor who co-wrote the book Brokered Boundaries: Creating Immigrant Identity in Anti-Immigrant Times, called the mid-2000s the “growing of the crisis.” Local immigrants participated in demonstrations replicated across the country to show Americans what a “day without an immigrant” would be like, in an attempt to garner respect.

Immigrant advocates sparred with the police when Philadelphia implemented the Secure Communities Policy, which allowed federal immigration authorities to access Philadelphia’s Preliminary Arrest Reporting System computer database of arrestees. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported immigrants who had any small brush with the law, which heightened the fear and silence of the community.

There was tension around the Italian Market area in 2006, when a long-standing cheesesteak shop, Geno’s Steaks, put up a sign demanding customers order in English. Despite the uproar, the sign is still next to the window, bedecked with an eagle and an American flag: “This is America When Ordering ‘Speak English!’” But across from the shop is a park often crowded with Mexicans, and the cheesesteak shops are almost like islands between waves of classical Mexican tunes.

“We have African Americans and Puerto Ricans who are struggling to get through. It would be no different for Mexicans.”

In the basement office for Juntos, wearing sparkly gold hoops and seated at a plain desk surrounded by activist posters, Almiron tried to think of how the city is friendly to immigrants. “Can you think of any way the city’s friendly to immigrants?” she asked a co-worker, then exclaimed, laughingly, “Oh! The flags! Those are nice,” referring to a series of international flags hanging along the city’s parkway through the museum district.

“The city is supportive of cultural events and Latino culture,” she said, “but we’re all more than our culture. It’s about how do we access education, dignified jobs, full lives?” Almiron expressed frustration with what she sees as the city’s failure to implement substantive reforms that would help undocumented immigrants, like a twice-failed attempt to mandate paid sick leave in the city — which would grant all workers, including undocumented workers, more rights. There’s also the fact that immigrants still have to pay out-of-state tuition at local universities, something the state senate is now considering changing with the Pennsylvania DREAM Act.

Anticipating Reform

There is no way of knowing how many restaurant industry workers go without legal authorization. Jiminez estimates that between 70 and 80 percent of workers in back-of-the-house positions fall into that unlucky category. The restaurant industry is one of the major industries that has historically looked the other way when hiring undocumented immigrants. Victor has been working in restaurants in Philadelphia for the better part of the last 14 years with a social security number he bought. “They know — the chefs, the managers know their employees are undocumented,” Victor said in a recent interview. Even restaurateur Benjamin acknowledged that checking the legal status of his employees is not his priority. “Am I doing everything I can to jump through hoops and make sure their documents are correct?” he said. “No I’m not, going back to my theory if someone wants to work hard and put in a good day’s work, who am I to stop him?” He added that he does nothing beyond the normal background checks and basic documentation, and that his workers present a personal tax number.

For Victor, the cost of living without authentic legal recognition has been his health.

Lifting three cases of beer while working as a barback in 2005, Victor ended up with a hernia. He has tried clinics from North to South to West Philadelphia, looking for someone who could help. When he went to the emergency room he was told that unless the pain got so bad that he couldn’t go to the bathroom, he would not get an operation. As a result, he has been nursing a hernia for the past seven years. He says the pain is no longer constant, but he feels it when he’s tired or doing heavy lifting.

Victor said he hopes immigration reform will result in access to health insurance so he can be treated for his hernia. Health care has been a major sticking point in the immigration debate, and there is strong pressure to keep immigrants far from government-subsidized care.

Others say the reform will have even more far-ranging impacts on the interaction between the industry and its workers.

Some restaurants are known for sponsoring workers for green cards.

Javier Garcia Hernandez is a warm, passionate activist with Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH). On an evening appearance on the new Philatinos Radio, a community station run out of the basement of an Italian Market storefront, Hernandez wore a t-shirt printed with bright pink injured cherubs limping on crutches. He bantered with a colleague for an hour about workers’ rights, and said immigration reform will address several of the major stresses undocumented workers face.

“I’m pretty certain they will benefit in many, many ways,” Hernandez said. He highlighted the possibility of building a solid life, investing in property without fear that it will suddenly disappear, and the possibility to travel back to home countries to visit family. But PhilaPOSH is an organization for all workers, not only undocumented ones, so Fernandez is familiar with struggles faced across the board. “We have African Americans and Puerto Ricans who are struggling to get through,” he said. “It would be no different for Mexicans.”

Indeed, as many immigrants jump at the chance to come out of the shadows and participate fully in American life, and Juntos has held teach-ins on the details of the bill and filled buses to rally and lobby for reform in the capitol, Almiron and other advocates still call for a dose of realism. As the bill is currently written, only individuals who have been in the U.S. since 2011 will qualify, which Almiron estimates will leave thousands outside the pathway to citizenship. “We imagine that their lives are going to go from hard to worse” she said, since the pathway to citizenship is coupled with tougher enforcement.

Furthermore, the situation in which immigrants will become citizens in Philadelphia and other cities is one of extreme inequality and poverty. “People will have working papers, but what will that mean for their ability to access dignified jobs?” Almiron said. “I think the same for anybody else in this country, those are hard to come by.”

But that will be the next battle, for a later day.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Central Asia. Domestically, Alan has followed the historic trail of the Civil Rights movement, documented the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek, the New York Times and BagNews, an editor and photographer at Newsmotion and a photographer at Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA). Alan’s work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

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