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Capital Offense? 

An upscale restaurant opens on Thanksgiving ... and critics tell it to get stuffed

When Downtown's Capital Grille steakhouse announced plans to remain open on Thanksgiving, its owners probably didn't expect to become the turkey. After all, eateries like McCormick & Schmick's — which shares building space with Capital Grille — have been open on Thanksgiving for years. So have big-name retailers like Wal-Mart.

Yet last week, Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution denouncing the Grille's owners, Florida-based Darden Restaurants, for joining a "trend to push for corporate profit at the expense of our shared cultural values and the wellbeing of our citizens."

"People regard this as a violation of family values," says Jordan Romanus, a labor activist with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, part of a national campaign to improve working conditions for food-service employees.

Darden's response may sound a bit plaintive, especially for a Fortune 500 company with $8 billion in revenue:

"Capital Grille is just one of dozens of other restaurants and retailers that will be open for Thanksgiving this year in the Pittsburgh area," the company says in a statement. "[W]e don't understand why we're being singled out."

"Whatever Darden does has the potential to affect everyone," counters City Councilor Natalia Rudiak, who drafted the resolution.

That's because Darden is the country's largest restaurant operator, thanks largely to its ownership of the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains. (Both those eateries will remain closed on Thanksgiving.) And Darden is also a heavy hitter in national politics, one activists blame for thwarting increases in the minimum wage for restaurant workers.

Among restaurant operators, Darden ranks behind only McDonald's in the amount of money contributed to politicians in the 2012 election cycle. (Most of its money goes to Republicans, whose own commitment to family values will, I'm guessing, not entail returning checks from an employer who calls workers in on Thanksgiving.) According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Darden has also spent more than $1 million lobbying federal officials so far in 2013 alone.

In its statement, Darden says it's keeping Capital Grille open due to "overwhelming guest demand." And the company might be finding it hard to leave revenue on the table: In September, Darden reported a 37-percent plunge in quarterly earnings. Its "Specialty Restaurant Group," which includes Capital Grille, was the only bright spot.

A Darden spokesman said the company is offering 12-to-14-pound turkeys for employees who work Thanksgiving; the company says it's sought to "enable[e] as many of our employees as possible to enjoy Thanksgiving at home, if that's what they prefer." But one Capital employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had a different take: "They asked if we would prefer to work Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving. It wasn't much of an option."

"This isn't just about Thanksgiving," the employee added. "It's about our wages, that we haven't gotten a raise in 22 years" — the last time the $2.83-per-hour minimum wage for restaurant servers was raised. And while "I can go work somewhere else, all these jobs are the same."

Which is exactly the problem, says Romanus. "We're setting a precedent that says, 'If you treat workers badly, you'll be held accountable.'"

We'll see whether it works. Rudiak says her resolution has drawn fire from talk-radio hosts, "who seem disturbed that workers are standing up for themselves." Other media will simply ignore the story completely. Between breathless dispatches from mall parking lots, you might witness a bit of handwringing about how Thanksgiving-day shopping means customers have less time at home. But as for the workers? Few reporters will spare a breath ... while few shoppers will spare a thought.

Even my anonymous Capital Grille informant pleads guilty: "I went in to Rite-Aid on a holiday — I think it was even Thanksgiving — last year. I said, 'I'm sorry you have to work on a holiday,' and the clerk said, 'I'm working because you're here.' I felt like such a hypocrite. I said, 'I'm never doing this again.'"

Which is to say that Darden's defense — no one complains when everyone else does it! — may be as damning as it is convincing. Increasingly, holidays have become the special time of year when we celebrate ourselves by oppressing each other.

So God bless us all, every one. Now get your ass back to work.

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