What is the true cost of cheap eats?

Ethnic food is expected to be cheap. Who actually pays?

by Cassidy McCombs, Contributor

Who doesn’t want to find a local food joint that serves authentically tasty cheap food? Many online food blogs have grown in popularity by releasing lists that feature cheap spots with food — such as street tacos or tikka masala — for less than $10. In San Diego, like most cities featured on cheap eats lists, these bargain restaurants are usually located in immigrant-dense areas. Las Cuatro Milpas in Barrio Logan, Mona Lisa in Little Italy and Phuong Trang in Clairemont are just three examples of options that match their ethnic enclave. But these hidden gems come at a high cost of exploitation.

The restaurant industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy and employs some of the lowest paid workers according to a 2014 report released by the Economic Policy Institute. While the industry does include high-quality jobs, most employees work grueling hours for low pay. Many live in poverty, and a large percentage are immigrants.

Ethnic cuisine is expected to be cheap and tasty for middle-class white Americans looking for a new place to Yelp. Diep Tran, chef and owner of Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, recently wrote an article featured on NPR which explained her struggle with underlying racism in the food industry. Being raised in a family restaurant, Tran experienced first-hand the long days her family worked to serve cut-rate priced food only to pay their employees similarly low-wages. Tran’s own restaurant now receives Yelp reviews that her restaurant is “too expensive for Vietnamese food” because of her prices match the cost of supporting well-paid employees and providing quality ingredients.

Tran and her family are an example of how many immigrant entrepreneurs opened cheap restaurants to afford the high cost of living in America. However, this business model has become a trap. There is now a cultural expectation that devalues labor in the restaurant industry in favor of inexpensive authentic meals. The exploitation of immigrant labor has historically been viewed as cheap. Be it enslaved African American on plantations, Chinese immigrants on the railroads or Central and South Americans on agricultural farms, prioritizing price over labor is a path American idealism has thrived on. The restaurant industry is no different.

Cheap eats further trap immigrant businesses in their role to fulfill the historically cheap cost of labor in communities of color. It does not cost these restaurants less to produce the same quality of food as a competitor, it simply makes them cut their wages and ignore job safety. While it seems exciting to find local gems around San Diego State and the surrounding city, these specials cost significantly more than ten dollars when looking through the lens of immigrant exploitation.