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San Francisco's Real Food Company: A 100% Natural Service Sector Sweatshop
by Tibor Szamuely (tiborszamuely [at]
Thursday Jun 20th, 2013 12:09 PM
A small local example of the huge problem that is the low wage service sector...

Frequent shoppers at the Real Food Company may have noticed that this
store sheds employees more frequently than most yuppies change their
shirts. ‘Help Wanted’ signs are permanent front window fixtures at Real Food
for painful and obvious reasons:

At Real Food, store employees work at a frantic pace, selling expensive items,
to expensive people, in two of the most expensive neighborhoods of the most
expensive city in the United States -- and 95% of us do this for wages that
condemn us to hardcore poverty. Pay levels for most Real Food Company
staff members never rise more than a few dimes above the lowest amount that
Real Food Company owner Stephanie Hong is legally allowed to get away with
paying. There are people who have been working at Real Food for more than
five years who are paid less that $13 an hour. Others have been here for more
than a decade, and aren’t even getting $15 an hour. This store’s high sales
volume brings in plenty of money for repeated store renovations, but never
enough for pay increases. Frenetic toil for Ronald McDonald compensation
levels ensures “Chief Operating Officer” Stephanie Hong a comfortable sixfigure
annual income and a lovely condo with a spectacular view at 2140
Hyde. The phenomenal high rate of turnover at the Real Food Company helps
to keep those who haven’t been fired yet atomized, intimidated, and
bewildered, and guarantees that this abysmal set-up will continue.

The Real Food Company presents the public face of a spunky little locally
owned natural foods store fighting the good fight against GMO’s, with a
corporate mission of helping neurasthenic yuppies think they can live to be
140 by wolfing down bushels of overpriced organic kale. This is nothing but
‘Greenwashing.’ The Real Food Company is a textbook example of the
hyper-exploitation and relentless on-the-job policing of the working poor
in an ever more socially stratified United States.

Let’s take a tour of the Polk Street store, as seen through the eyes of the
people who make this place run:

1: One of many negative hallmarks of the rise of digital technologies is the
extinction of privacy. It is now a given that an individual is not entitled to any
form of privacy in any public space, especially in the workplace, and most
especially in a low wage dead-end workplace like the Real Food Company.
Take a look at the small cameras ringing the store’s ceiling behind the cash
registers. They are not aimed at the customer’s side of the register, but at the

This in-store digital surveillance system worthy of a medium
security prison isn’t for the protection of the employees in the unlikely event
of an armed robbery, but to allow Stephanie’s management minions to spy on
the harried staff, the fear being that the wage-slaves might be tempted to
steal, since their wages aren’t enough to live on. This invasive Orwellian
touch is an expression of the relentless suspicion and hostility with which
six-figure-Stephanie relates to the people she impoverishes and exploits.

2: Few people who work at Real Food spend their meager pay shopping at this
phenomenally overpriced store; the $25 jars of almond butter are a
laughingstock among store employees. But in order to work hard, we have to
eat, and this is where “Culls” come in. “Culls” are food items that are slightly
damaged or past their expiration date. Employees are allowed to buy these
for a nominal five cents per item. Culls are a form of officially sanctioned
dumpster diving, allowing the overworked and underpaid staff to keep
burning enough calories to produce enough surplus value to feed
six-figure-store-owner-Stephanie’s profit hunger.

3. Offering employees nothing and demanding everything, store managers
run staff members through periodic asinine “employee assessments,” as if
employment at this Gluten-Free-Jack-in-the-Box has any kind of future.
Significant wage raises to a level that an adult can live on in 21st century San
Francisco are never on the agenda. The only question is how much more can
you give and how much more enthusiastically and frantically you can give it.
If you put on the requisite fawning cringing act, you may be rewarded with a
whopping .25 cents per hour raise. If you are less than effervescent in your
enthusiasm, you are free to lose your meager income, and be replaced by a
steady stream of the fearful unemployed lured by those permanent “Help
Wanted” signs. In a place like the United States there is always plenty of fresh
desperation for six-figure-Stephanie to feed on...

A stock response at this point is to say, “Dude, that’s life in the service sector!
The work is supposed to be shitty and pay bad! Don’t like it? Go get another
job!” The US has entered a period of long-term economic decline, and many
so-called “good jobs” have permanently ceased to exist. Most of us can’t
become cyber-weenies -- and many of us wouldn’t avail ourselves of that
option even if it became available to us.

A problem doesn’t cease to be a problem simply because large numbers of
other people are being victimized by it. The appalling situation that prevails
in today’s service sector messes up the lives of a vast number of people and
this situation must be confronted and abolished.

From the old IWW of one hundred years ago to the Civil Rights struggles of the
1950’s and 1960’s, appalling social conditions have been rendered
inoperative and overturned when those affected by them have taken
sustained collective action to abolish those conditions. The right kind of onthe-
job direct action at a relatively small, awful, and incompetently managed
exploiter like the Real Food Company could have a positive ripple effect
among employees of bigger sweatshops like Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

A terminally deformed scene like the one at Real Food Company produces
endless toxic workplace melodramas. Again the main malefactor here is the
store’s owner, Stephanie Hong. Stephanie presents an image of herself as a
“nice” person by leaving the hands-on staff harassment to escapees from the
Addams Family like General Manager Jean Greenfield, and Jean’s
homunculus, Jason, at the Fillmore store. “Shift leads” (a shift assistant
manager and straw boss) are employed for their eagerness to crack the whip
on the field hands and their skills at apple-polishing -- and we’re not talking
about the produce now. These servile servants are themselves frequently and
cavalierly consigned to the ranks of the unemployed when their usefulness to
the program has expired. At the Real Food Company, high turnover is

On “LinkedIn,” Real Food’s “Chief Operations Officer” -- a two-syllable word for
this is “owner” -- Stephanie Hong acknowledges membership in the “San
Francisco Employers Advisory Council.” The SFEAC is an exploiter’s cabal
where people like six-figure-Steph get advice in how to get away with as much
as possible at the relentless expense of the proles. A recent former president
and secretary of SFEAC, Bob L. Zaletel, is an attorney with Litler, Mendelson,
one of the largest and most notorious anti-labor law firms in the US. By every
salient indicator, the Real Food Company is a completely anti-working class

Unions are no longer defensive mechanisms protecting wage earners from
employers, but auxiliary organs of capitalist exploitation. Getting a labor
brokerage to fight our battles for us will never be as quick and effective as
wildcat action against management and their wannabe union collaborators.

This means --
 A series of rolling sickouts, where a majority of employees call in
sick on the same day. We should not do this once, but again, and again,
and again,

and combine this with --
 a high-profile public information campaign drawing attention
among the public at large to how bad it is to work for Stephanie
Hong, Inc.

For the duration of the effort, it can also be useful to draw attention to how
much cheaper it is to shop at other service sectors sweatshops. Customers
can save 20% and more by patronizing the Trader Joe’s at California and

The only thing exploiters understand is force. Sustained, on-the-job direct
action hammering this store’s profit margin can bring about massive acrossthe-
board pay hikes, and abolish management’s ability to abuse the staff at

The Real Food Company is vulnerable. The Real Food Company is an
incompetently run operation engaged in extreme acts of exploitation. Bareknuckle
collective direct action is the only thing that can bring a halt to these
shenanigans. The right kind of belligerent solidarity can impose massive pay
and benefit increases, and serve as a style model for other hard-pressed wage
earners at Whole Foods and Traders Joes. Our bosses are our enemies. The
U.S. economy is our enemy. We have nothing to lose but our pains.


Write us at:
tiborszamuely [at]
Listed below are the latest comments about this post.
These comments are submitted anonymously by website visitors.
Insulting Intended SupportersGreg Tuesday Jul 9th, 2013 12:09 PM
backed 100%withheld Monday Jul 1st, 2013 6:09 AM
AgreedFormer Real Food Company WorkerSaturday Jun 29th, 2013 6:24 PM