Categories
Opinion

Being a Paying Customer Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

As with most consumerist pursuits in America, we think of dining out transactionally. A restaurant visit is a decision to pay for culinary pleasure, where our senses are centered in the delivery of nourishment beyond what we need and hedonism that we cannot reproduce in our own homes. Some are grateful for that exchange, others carry with them an attitude that talented chefs are lucky to have a hungry audience willing to pay to taste their cooking. To those unfortunate souls, the higher the cost of a meal, the more pleasure they expect in return.

Entitled diners have a tendency to oversimplify this calculus in a way that obscures their understanding about the proper cost of a meal. Those people might accuse a $50 steak of being too expensive by comparing it to a $20 steak they can buy from their local butcher or a $30 dollar steak served in a more casual eatery. The restaurant industry is competitive, which makes it easy for guests to abdicate their role in sharing the financial burden restaurants face like escalating rents and rising labor costs.

Aggrieved parties that write negative restaurant reviews online almost uniformly complain about prices. These guests don’t tend to evaluate a restaurant experience in terms of whether or not it was enjoyable but whether or not they perceived the transaction as profitable. Online critics and restaurant owners rarely see eye to eye on the appropriate cost of a great meal.

The forced deprivation caused by quarantine measures should make us all realize what an immense privilege it is to dine out. We’ve spent the greater part of the last few decades fetishizing chefs’ culinary imaginations and living out our voyeuristic fine dining fantasies through the lenses of our smartphone cameras. The more we conceive of our dining selves as vessels for arousal, the less we bring to the table in terms of making those sparks fly. Sex is never good if you just lay there. It’s the same at the dinner table. The restaurant industry needs your love right now, not your lust.

A restaurant’s primary function has always been to provide the public sanctuary. Its protracted absence has made public life less vibrant. Even as the pandemic ravages our industry, though, restaurants have continued to find innovative ways to welcome guests, facilitating intimacy at a time when proximity to others is forbidden.

Without restaurants, we’ve learned how integral the act of dining out is to the way we socialize. Meeting friends for drinks cannot be simulated with the same warmth remotely. Restaurants still provide the backdrop for indelible memories—romance, friendship, business deals, and celebrations. Without the adrenaline rush of a crowded dining room and the heartbeats of others, food cannot have the same impact. Restaurants are conduits for human connection.

Most of us haven’t comfortably occupied a seat in a restaurant in months. If we have, it probably didn’t put us at ease the way we remembered. The virus has placed a choke hold on the hospitality industry and suffocated so many hard-earned careers. Building a profitable restaurant takes years, but it takes only a matter of months to bankrupt one.

The industry won’t have an easy time digging itself out of this hole, but there are things we can do as guests to support the recovery effort, beginning with rearranging our mentality about the role we play in their success. If we want our favorite restaurants to survive, we need to be more than paying customers.

Having a deeper appreciation for the role that restaurants play in our communities means thinking not just about where we dine but about how we dine.

Guests who approach restaurant visits with the mentality that its primary function is to provide pleasure make it increasingly difficult for restaurants to please them. The constant burden to prove themselves is exhausting for restaurant professionals and fosters hostility in our workplaces, hastening burnout and substance abuse. Hospitality will have to change in the aftermath of the pandemic, but guests should too. You can help alleviate some of that strain by approaching future dining experiences more empathetically.

Start by thinking differently about what it means to have a reservation. With seating capacity limited in many municipalities, the effect of reneging on a reservation is even more devastating. Respecting your allotted time and being punctual is even more critical to a restaurant’s financial health than ever before. Ask the host upon arrival if he or she will need the table back. Even if there is no time limit, express your willingness to return the table if need be. The pandemic is making perilously thin margins even thinner. Yesterday’s dollars are needed to pay today’s bills. Without yesterday, there is no tomorrow.

Be vigilant about new safety protocols. Understand that doing so ensures the wellbeing of the people sacrificing their own health to serve you. Even though wearing a mask can be awkward while you’re trying to enjoy a meal, try to keep it on when servers visit your table. These sterile impediments hinder the staff’s efforts to deliver fluent service more than they do your comfort. Paying for a meal shouldn’t exempt you from abiding by the rules.

Table assignments also fall into this category. To maximize efficiency and profitability, restaurants have a floor plan that acts as a schematic for maximizing revenue. The pandemic has forced many restaurants to drastically gerrymander the way they partition space. Putting together this Tetris pattern has become even more complicated with the spatial restrictions and restrained seating capacities caused by COVID-19. Even if you don’t love the table to which you’ve been assigned, try to make the best of it without protest.

Restaurant-Customer

Return the table in a reasonable amount of time. Guests who overstay their welcome make an already challenging situation even worse. A restaurant is a finite space. It needs available seats to sell more food, and it needs to sell more food to stay open. Since March, most restaurants are operating at fifty percent capacity or less. When people monopolize their seats, it hurts twice as much.

Its helpful to think of a restaurant reservation like booking an AirBnb. Even though you’re paying a premium to stay there, you’re still a guest in someone else’s home. Good guests will recognize the privilege of occupying a space that isn’t theirs and treat it with the same respect they would their own homes. You have a check-in time and a check-out time that must be adhered to. Making unreasonable demands of your host just because you paid for it would be untoward, and doing so might risk jeopardizing your standing on the platform.

In the end, it’s incumbent upon each individual guest to monitor his or her own conduct and that of their company. This could apply to someone in your party who refuses to follow whatever safety protocols are in place. It’s unfair to put the onus on management to diffuse the situation when you and your other dining companions could easily police the situation yourselves.

There are other ways to support restaurants beyond your comportment as a guest. Since March, many people have bought gift cards from their favorite restaurants or donated to staff GoFund Me accounts. Take it a step further. Stop into your favorite local restaurant. Talk to the owners. See how they’re doing. Ask what they need. Perhaps your church group has a holiday event catered every year. Offer to front the payment. If there are any business services you can offer through your profession, make them pro-bono. Volunteer a day of labor or offer to help clean the area outside of the restaurant. Do anything that might help offset input costs or increase revenues.

Most restaurants function like non-profit businesses, so donating your time and money to support one isn’t really that much different from charitable giving. It’s for a good cause. Your neighborhood restaurants provide a vital service to the community and should be considered as integral to its health as schools, parks, religious centers and libraries. Only a very small fraction of restaurants actually make money. Sixty percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year, and eighty percent go out of business within five years.

The disruption caused by the pandemic presents the perfect opportunity to begin changing our behaviors to be more accommodating toward restaurants. As so many of our beloved establishments close, we’ve learned how fragile these businesses are and how much less dynamic our communities are without them. When iconic restaurants close, they take an irreplaceable part of a city’s cultural history with them. As the surviving restaurants in our neighborhoods begin to reopen, we should approach them with a renewed sense of responsibility about our role in their success beyond purchasing food. Simply put: Ask not what your restaurant can do for you, but what you can do for your restaurant.

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Categories
Opinion

Cancel the James Beard Awards, Permanently

As with most everything else that has transpired in 2020, the annual James Beard Awards has been shrouded in uncertainty. After initially delaying the announcement of this year’s Best Chef and Outstanding Restaurant nominees due to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, the organization eventually settled on holding a virtual ceremony in late September to reveal the winners.

This week, the Foundation reversed course yet again by canceling this year’s program altogether without revealing the winners. In a statement, Clare Reichenbach, the CEO of the Beard Foundation, wrote, “The uncertainty of this time for our industry is already a hard reality and considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do.”

According to a scathing article in the New York Times that followed, Pete Wells reported that the Foundation’s choice to conceal the winners was marred by internal controversy. His article suggests that there were serious concerns among JBF’s senior leadership that this year’s list of honorees wasn’t diverse enough.

The organization was also privately struggling to parse allegations of unethical conduct made against numerous chefs on this year’s ballot. Even though some of the accused parties had already withdrawn their names from consideration, the Foundation was reluctant to honor chefs whose improprieties might overshadow the event. 

James Beard Awards
Kwame Onwuachi accepting the Rising Star Chef Award

This controversy is only one in a litany of others faced by the Beard Foundation in recent years. The nominating process itself was exposed for its inherent favoritism toward white, male chefs, resulting in an overhaul of the jury process over the last several nominating cycles.

There is no doubt that JBF executives are acutely aware of their own failure to fairly represent the changing face of the restaurant industry on the Awards stage. What’s unclear is whether or not the current leadership is capable of making the necessary changes to reimagine the JBF Awards in a way that lives up to the promise of diversity and inclusiveness. 

Whether the Beard Foundation wittingly or unwittingly buried this year’s list of winners to avoid embarrassment belies a more important question that no one—food media acolytes and JBF executives alike—seems to have the courage to ask: Do the James Beard Awards serve any meaningful purpose anymore?

The existential crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened an unexpected reckoning where restaurant owners, even the most successful, are chewing off their own limbs to survive. This is no time for pageantry. 

Although many refer to the Beard Awards as the Oscars of the restaurant industry, the ceremony itself doesn’t have nearly the same storied history. In fact, the Foundation’s role as an ombudsman for restaurant excellence only began in 1990. Looking back at its legacy, it’s always been in the interest of self-preservation that the JBF Awards blissfully sprinkles confetti over the scabs and bruises of a deeply dysfunctional industry. It has no raison d’ être without the illusion that restaurant work is glamorous.

In some ways, the almost mythological coronation that accompanied being awarded a Beard exacerbated the industry’s backwardness. Chefs have always been a competitive bunch. Giving out medals every year only made the industry more susceptible to its own barbarism.

Regarding race and gender bias, the Beard Awards has always been a symptom of the restaurant industry’s dysfunction more than the cause of it. But its existence has helped to perpetuate a narrative that white, male chefs—even ones that cook food from cultures other than their own—deserve the highest accolades. The Foundation’s latest misstep suggests that its recent efforts to be more inclusive have fallen significantly short. According to the New York Times article, not a single Black Chef was voted best in all twenty-three categories, both regionally and nationally. 

The press release cancelling this year and next year’s Awards included commentary on JBF’s plan for the future and its commitment to eliminating systemic bias. According to this statement: “The objectives are to… increase the diversity of the pool of candidates, maintain relevance, and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s values of equity, equality, sustainability, and excellence for the restaurant industry.” The Foundation plans to enlist the services of an outside “social justice agency” to provide counsel for these initiatives. 

While these measures are admirable, the restaurant industry shouldn’t be looking to JBF to solve its equity problems and ethics issues. The Foundation’s yearly awards subconsciously promote a culture that views restaurants as something to be compared and judged. This fosters a divisive spirit where chefs and restaurants are commoditized in a way that prizes their contribution to gastro-tourism over their role in serving their communities. 

The New York Times story is particularly vexing as it pertains to issues surrounding how a chef’s conduct might impact his or her eligibility for a Beard Award. The article cites several recent examples of chefs, including Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in Los Angeles (of moldy jam fame), who have extricated themselves from the list of nominees amidst allegations of abusive behavior towards employees.

Though its intentions may be pure, the Foundation shouldn’t so easily absolve itself of its hand in creating the cutthroat competition that contributes to many of the dysfunctional behaviors that occur inside Beard-decorated restaurants or among the hopefuls. That said, the industry also shouldn’t expect JBF, or any other external organization, to act as arbiters of morality for its own dysfunctional workplace. The sad truth is that a lot of chefs are dicks, and many of them will continue to be dicks whether they have a medal around their neck or not. 

A more complicated piece to the puzzle for the Beard Awards going forward is that the traditional definition of a restaurant will likely change out of necessity. Safety precautions implemented due to the pandemic have forced many restaurants to adapt their business models to be more flexible—including developing grocery options, selling meal kits and offering in-house delivery. There will be less emphasis on table service until following CDC guidelines is no longer a precursor to serving guests.

The JBF Awards have historically bestowed the most recognition on upscale restaurants that offer full-service, sit-down experiences, especially those that feature elaborate tasting menus with multiple courses. That business model may no longer be tenable in a post-pandemic world. 

The Beard Foundation deserves credit for its many charitable initiatives, including its unflappable support of the restaurant industry in recent months. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, it has led a noble effort to raise funds to support independent restaurants across the country through its Open For Good program.

The annual Awards are a profit center for the Beard Foundation.

There is no question that the Beard Foundation’s existence raises awareness and appreciation of diverse food cultures and, at its best, helps to promote industry figures with expertise to enliven the culinary pursuits of its constituents. But the Beard Foundation’s financial health and foundational mission shouldn’t be pinned so tightly to an annual popularity contest that decides who stays and who gets voted off the island every year. 

The pandemic crisis and Black Lives Matter movement have caused the industry to dismantle the pale, patriarchal system that has systematically excluded women and people of color from proper recognition in the kitchen. Whether by design or not, culinary awards have always mirrored that dysfunction and helped perpetuate it. The dogmatic pursuit of Michelin stars, glowing reviews, and acknowledgment from the Beard Foundation has taken an irreversible psychic toll on restaurant professionals. Not by choice, but because the success of their restaurants often depends on it.

The James Beard Foundation may have squandered a golden opportunity to reinvent itself. Why not make a bold statement by choosing to honor chefs and restaurateurs not by judging their work against others’ but by celebrating individual achievement unbound by culinary discipline, geographic location, or level of formality? If the James Beard Foundation truly cares about the future of restaurants, it will take this moment to repent and refocus its mission around its namesake’s legacy—celebrating the simple act of cooking well without pretense.