Roberta’s unpaid farming internships and the infamous Fuck You flyers have caused a lot of discussion about the (im)morality of such unpaid experience. Most of our readers agreed in a poll that Roberta’s behavior was shameful and exploitative. The debate has been continuing also elsewhere on the Internet. While NY Mag found apologies for Roberta’s behaviour, International Business Times said a resolute no. Here at Bushwick Daily, we are excited that a Bushwick restaurant owner, Jeff Pan from Skytown, decided to share his opinion on the matter and is speaking from an employer’s and former intern’s prospective. We consider Jeff’s letter to be an invaluable addition to the discussion, and are welcoming your constructive opinions as well. Jeff Pan writes:
I want to preface this by making it clear that I’m in no way defending Roberta’s as an employer or saying that their internship was not exploitative. But I do want to speak on behalf of the value of unpaid internships as someone who (a) benefitted tremendously from them when I was younger and now use those invaluable skills to run Skytown and (b) learned firsthand the dearth of valuable restaurant internships. I overhear dozens of conversations a day at my restaurant from young people who are deciding what direction to go with their career, so I wanted to chip in on my opinion of internships in general.
I think that many people are quick to dismiss unpaid internships by looking at it in comparison to a part-time job, but if you think of it in terms of a learning experience, it’s a valuable way to develop skills.
I just want to stress that (a) the unpaid internship in this case is in violation of labor law for several reasons and (b) for the sake of a balanced discussion, I think it would be productive to voice the lone counterpoint from a different perspective since the Bushwick Daily readership is 100 employees for every 1 employer.
I guarantee that if you conducted an informal poll among restaurant owners, 99 out of 100 would take the Roberta’s intern over a culinary school grad in a heartbeat.
[/pullquote]Whatever you may think of Roberta’s as an employer, as a restaurant (just from the food & drink perspective), they do amazing things. Take their kitchen internship, for example, which is essentially an unpaid line cook. A year-long program with any major culinary institute in Manhattan will run you $50,000, but I guarantee that if you conducted an informal poll among restaurant owners, 99 out of 100 would take the Roberta’s intern over a culinary school grad in a heartbeat.
Again – I just want to be clear that my restaurant doesn’t engage in this practice, and that I definitely don’t encourage the illegal exploitation of unpaid interns – but I do want to say that when done with the correct intentions, an internship in which the employer invests their time and effort into teaching you skills will help you develop tremendously as a young professional. I did three unpaid internships when I was a young 20-something living in Bushwick on top of a shitty temp job while I was making ends meet, and I credit my mentors during this time for teaching me incredible skills. There are unpaid internships in which you’re an office drone making copies and fetching coffee, and there are ones in which the company is investing their own resources to teach you skills.
I would like to note two important points about Roberta’s internships:
Gardening is expensive. The urban gardening that they’re doing is a fantastic sustainable project, and we’ve started building out our own local farm as well. When we ran the numbers on what it would cost to maintain and divided it by the estimated man-hours for the project, on a per-hour basis it came out to less than minimum wage. So from a pure fiscal perspective, any motivation for city-based agricultural projects are not going to be financially viable. I hired Jason Reis and Spike Appel to run our farm, and they are two phenomenal individuals who genuinely love farming – in fact, they run a local non-profit called Bushwick City Farms where they not only don’t do it for profit, they actually give away their entire harvest every season to the local community free of charge. We’ve undertaken our own urban farm with the full understanding that it won’t help our bottom line, and are compensating Jason and Spike. So while I sympathize with Roberta’s on the cost of running their garden, they could probably afford to pay their interns.
The experience is invaluable. While it’s easy to bash any company that exploits unpaid interns, I’d like to draw on my own experiences when I was a young 20-something. The internship would in fact be a great learning experience and most importantly, Roberta’s would be investing their time and money into working with interns. Think of it this way – if you wanted to go the route of taking a course with Boswyck Farms in Brooklyn, it would cost you $1750, while the Roberta’s experience would cost you zero. Prior to opening up Skytown, I had never worked in the bar/restaurant industry, so I was desperate to get some hands-on experience managing a restaurant. Nobody wanted to bother helping me out, so I ended up actually having to pay someone for the privilege of working as an unpaid intern so I could learn the ropes. In other words, me getting free direct training from a general manager who makes $30/hour has a far greater impact than me getting a part-time job at $15/hour to learn the same thing.
For every person who looks at this and is (rightfully so) inspired to post a “FUCK YOU” flyer, I’m sure there’s somebody out there who would gladly take them up on their offer (I intend to do it for my own learning benefit).
[/pullquote]For every person who looks at this and is (rightfully so) inspired to post a “FUCK YOU” flyer, I’m sure there’s somebody out there who would gladly take them up on their offer (I intend to do it for my own learning benefit). So the moral of the story is that yes, New York is a ruthlessly expensive city and not everybody has the luxury of taking unpaid internships. But for all the young transplants out there about to embark on the city, I encourage them to look past the crappy hourly wage and to get their hands on the best learning experiences they can get in order to develop skills and get their foot in the door – because the best investment that you can ever make is in yourself.