The service industry can be grueling. The Paper Napkin wants to channel that frustration into something positive.

"When it all came together and people started reaching out, I realized that this was connecting an incredible community."

The Paper Napkin
Mea Johnson, lead organizer at the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of Boston, on the cover of The Paper Napkin's second issue. –The Paper Napkin

“the customer comes in
and talks about the snow in april

i say my joke
that i’ve already said to two customers

if april showers bring may flowers
what do snow showers bring?


(from “Snow in April,” by Jamie Davenport)


The first issue of The Paper Napkin, a local, independent publication that launched in November, is full of poems like this one — and comics, sketches, personal essays, and interviews, all authored by Massachusetts service industry professionals in an effort to work out their steadfast frustrations and experiences with restaurant life. Within these pages, that could mean an essay about the crisp white shirts worn by those working a catering event at the Emerald Necklace, or a photo of an almost-empty bowl juxtaposed by the tongue-in-cheek sentence on the opposite page: “The food was terrible.”

On Thursday, the second issue of The Paper Napkin will be released with more recipes, writing, and artwork by and for service industry workers.


Founder Emma Ruff conceived of the publication in early 2018 after experiencing her own set of frustrations (poor working conditions, inadequate communication, sudden termination, she said) while working in the industry. She said that she decided to go the “kill ’em with kindness” route, and began meeting with local indie publishers — Jameson Johnson of Boston Art Review, Emma Leavitt of Boston’s Brain Arts Organization and Dorchester Art Project — to figure out how to put together a magazine.

“I thought, I think I can create something really beautiful. I just need help,” Ruff said.

To put the word out about The Paper Napkin and attract contributors from all sectors of restaurant and bar life, Ruff said she relied heavily on social media and placing good old fashioned posters around the city. The submissions came rolling in.

“I had decided to pursue this in hopes that a few people would respond or find it relatable, witty,” Ruff told in an email. “When it all came together and people started reaching out, I realized that this was connecting an incredible community. …We make it through and thrive because of each other and I hope that [The Paper Napkin] can serve as a reminder that while tough, there is good, and at least we’re doing it together.”


The Paper Napkin’s primary mission is twofold: to provide service industry workers with a creative outlet, and to shed light on resources that help them know their rights in the workplace. To the latter point, the publication provides contact information for relevant organizations like the Massachusetts Fair Labor hotline and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Its second issue goes a step further, dedicating its cover story to Mea Johnson, lead organizer at the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of Boston, an organization that Ruff calls an “invaluable resource for Massachusetts industry workers.” ROC is a member-led restaurant workers center that offers classes and training, promotes “high road” practices, and lifts industry standards.

Both ROC and The Paper Napkin are proponents of One Fair Wage, a campaign to raise the separate minimum wage for those who work for tips to match the regular minimum wage. Ruff believes that there is a “toxic imbalance” among restaurant staff that are receiving tips based on discrimination, sexism, and homophobia, and that implementing One Fair Wage would help eliminate these inequalities in tipping.

While The Paper Napkin is targeted toward restaurant workers, Ruff said that anyone can benefit from developing empathy for those in the industry and an understanding that restaurant work is not always done just to get by, but that, for many people, it stems from a joy of working with food and in dining.

The Paper Napkin now has a staff that includes nine volunteers in addition to Ruff, and can be purchased on the magazine’s website for $15.40 (a digital copy is available for free). A launch party for issue two will be held at Gallery 263 in Cambridge on Thursday from 6 p.m.–9 p.m.