We Can’t Spend Our Way to a Restaurant Recovery

After months of anticipation, the post-pandemic economic revival finally appears within reach. The desperate tango of trying to get into our favorite restaurants is back, but we’re all so excited to dine out again that even being denied a reservation feels oddly affirming. It’s easy to assume that restaurants are on the road to recovery when they’re too busy to accommodate us, but restaurant profits and losses are never so linear. Restaurant people understand these delicate economics all too well, which is why we don’t need outsiders diagnosing our health.

A massive year-long drought can’t be undone by turning on a few sprinklers. Even as demand swells, sales metrics can’t accurately measure the current state of the restaurant industry. The truth is that, during the pandemic, much of the damage to the restaurant economy has occurred beneath the surface.

As restaurant professionals we learn to conceal our infirmities so that guests don’t feel uncomfortable, often martyring ourselves at the cost of our own sanity. But this time we can’t afford to put guests’ welfare ahead of our own. Recovery should be something we approach holistically and on our own terms. We can’t just “play through it.” If we do, we almost certainly risk more permanent injury.

There are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic that the worst may be over. If the stock market is any gauge of confidence, Wall Street expects unprecedented pent-up demand for dining out throughout the rest of 2021. The parent companies of multinational chains like Olive Garden and Applebee’s are trading at or near all-time highs, riding the tailwinds of a potential V-shaped recovery. Investors assume—with the spigot of government stimulus continuing to flow—that the American economy is poised to relive another “Roaring Twenties.”

Is the restaurant industry heading toward another Roaring Twenties?

Unfortunately, the economic challenges of running a restaurant haven’t changed. Rents have dropped marginally in urban areas hit hardest by the pandemic, but real estate costs still remain prohibitive. Independent restaurants can’t adjust to fluctuating market conditions as nimbly as corporations can. Inflation is inching upward as the labor market tightens, and commodity prices are soaring in the face of increasing demand. Input costs are rising faster than restaurant owners can afford to raise prices.

Medical professionals already predict, with new variants circulating and lingering skepticism toward vaccines, that we should expect strains of the virus to flare up again in the Fall and Winter. If this happens, it’s hard to imagine the public going along with another round of government-imposed lockdowns.

It’s wrong-minded, but uniquely American, to think we can spend our way out of every mess. The pandemic has exposed the restaurant industry as a house of cards. By May of last year, almost six million restaurant workers had already lost their jobs, two-thirds of the entire workforce. Over 100,000 businesses closed their doors, many permanently.

A year later, the media continues to expose bad actors and cultural problems endemic to the restaurant workplace, reporting on the seemingly endless stream of notable chefs that double as chronic abusers. Rampant labor shortages are a byproduct of workers’ apprehensiveness about returning to an environment with so many inherent health risks but also an industry that has so many lingering systemic problems.

We should ask ourselves why restaurants have become such highly-pressured environments in the first place. The answer is simple: Money. When people spend more in a restaurant, they expect more than just good food. While feeding oneself is a matter of life and death, having someone provide you sustenance should be joyful and calming. Instead, high-end dining feeds people’s hunger for status. As menu prices rise, the guests’ status goes up and the servers’ status goes down. Exorbitant spending created this backward dynamic, it’s wrong to think that it can help reverse it.

The restaurant industry as a whole is not monolithic, which makes it difficult to set parameters about how to define recovery. One way we can rebuild the structure of our business is by building a stronger foundation for permanent employment. Historically, restaurant work has been transient nature, but momentum was building toward it becoming a more viable career path before the pandemic hit. The hasty decisions so many employers made to cut bait with their staff during lockdown sidetracked that progress and caused a massive, and perhaps irreplaceable, drain on the talent pool. While the rest of the world has adapted to working remotely, restaurant workers have no such digital life raft. You can’t cook and serve food over Zoom.

In the near term, restaurants need to make it clear—assertively when necessary—that we don’t exist purely to facilitate post-pandemic euphoria. It’s not something we’re programmed to do, but we have to be firmer about enforcing boundaries. As guests have continually raised their expectations of us, we need to start raising our expectations of them.

Asking guests to return their table in a timely manner, for example, once taboo, shouldn’t be considered an affront anymore. It should be acceptable to refuse parties another round of drinks after dessert because the table is rebooked. Drunkenness or boorish behavior should be dealt with authoritatively. No more visits from sweet-talking managers.

Changing our approach to the way we manage guests’ behavior requires reimagining how we administer hospitality. Our spaces are sanctuaries and should be treated with the same deference. When we assert ourselves with disruptive or disrespectful guests going forward, we shouldn’t feel the need to genuflect, we should demand courtesy.

Here’s how we should NOT define recovery: 

1) Convincing ourselves that rich people splurging in restaurants again equates to recovery.  2) Prioritizing food tourism instead of continuing to nurture the neighborhood patronage that sustained us through the most difficult months. 3) Celebrating big-name chefs expanding the footprints of their businesses and colonizing cities outside of their home turf. 4) Assuming that government stimulus will rescue the hordes of struggling restaurant businesses.

To truly gauge the integrity of the recovery, we should be paying as much attention to dormant restaurant spaces as we do restaurants that survived the pandemic. The magnitude of the economic loss, though it pales in comparison with the human toll, is staggering. Much in the same way society has avoided processing the grief of the millions of Covid-19 deaths, it’s still in denial about the long-term devastation the pandemic has wrought on so many sectors of our economy like the food and beverage industry. 

Now that life is returning to some semblance of normal, it’s not uncommon to hear people pass a crowded restaurant and proclaim their city “back.” “Nature is healing,” they’ll say. But the truth is that nature has always been a restaurant’s greatest adversary. The physical spaces that restaurants inhabit erode from constant exposure to the elements. Inclement weather can turn a prosperous night into a calamity. Acts of God like hurricanes or floods destroy businesses that took years to build, sometimes in the blink of an eye. Even just the Earth’s relentless gravitational pull causes every restaurant worker’s feet to hurt. Nature doesn’t sustain us; we survive in spite of nature. True to form, nature will also provide a constant, nagging headwind while restaurants pick up the pieces. Healing takes time, and nature can be stingy about providing that too.

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Daniel Humm Is Fully Committed To Vegetables

In a photo he posted this week, Daniel Humm, the celebrated chef of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, looks joyfully into the camera. He squats in the middle of a barren greenhouse garden, conspicuously devoid of any vegetables, draped in a velvety cream-colored coat and flashing jazz hands lightly dusted in soil. A quick search reveals the chef’s jacket is Prada and worth almost three thousand dollars. His matching Prada shoes look fresh out of the box, lily-white like a freshly-pressed linen tablecloth. If these shoes have ever encountered top soil before, they certainly show no signs of it.

Although Humm’s expression is meant to convey the euphoria of being liberated from the tyranny of meat-based cooking, it’s easy to interpret his expression as a taunt directed at certain viewers, like me, who will spend eternity stuck behind the EMP paywall. Looking at the photo, I try not to be too cynical. Despite removing meat and meat products from his recipes, the price of a meal at Eleven Madison Park will remain at $335 per person—continuing the restaurant’s reign at or near the top of the list of most expensive meals in New York City. This does little to quell my cynicism. Most people could subscribe to an entire season of farm-fresh vegetables from their local CSA for the price of one plant-based meal in Chef Humm’s secret garden.

To no surprise, the food media almost immediately began doing cartwheels, praising Humm’s courage and vision. The enthusiasm seemed peculiar given the lack of fanfare when other chefs made similar announcements, like Dominique Crenn whose Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn went meatless two years earlier in 2019. (It continued to serve fish.) Vegan food has always been stigmatized, but upscale Vegan has been a non-starter. Despite the surging popularity of plant-based cuisine, of the 135 three-starred Michelin restaurants in the world, none are vegan.

The dearth of high-end Vegan restaurants makes it impossible to ignore the significance of Humm’s announcement. Rachel Sugar penned a sympathetic essay for Grub Street in which she praised the intrinsic value of Humm rejecting meat in a more pragmatic sense. She acknowledges that—as a white, male, fine-dining chef—he’s an easy target. “Anything that undermines the dominance of meat is good for the advancement of plant-based eating,” writes Sugar. Humm’s choice to present a menu of vegetables without discounting the price also makes a big statement.

What matters is the positioning of the new menu as equal to the old, meat-filled version: There is nothing lesser about vegetables, which at Eleven Madison Park will be every bit as rarified, as exclusive, as grotesquely inaccessible, as meat.

Rachel Sugar, Grub Street, May 5, 2021

In her article, Sugar wants to convince us that the benefits of Humm’s decision to go meatless will likely be felt further downstream. To focus solely on optics misses the broader impact of what his announcement could mean for Veganism in general.

Eleven Madison Park
The dining room at Eleven Madison Park

Korsha Wilson, a food writer and host of the A Hungry Society podcast, was less impressed by what she saw as virtue signaling. In a series of tweets, she pointed out that although Humm’s cooking will change, his affluent audience will not. Using phrases like “community, higher purpose and redefining luxury” amounts to “a repackaging of fine dining to fit the more “conscious” tastes of wealthy consumers after a year of social upheaval.”

Humm’s heart appears to be in the right place. But it doesn’t help his case that barrier to entry for dining at EMP is still so high. Had he introduced the plant-based menu with tiered pricing for prix fixe or a la carte dishes to make dining at EMP more accessible, the backlash might’ve been less vicious. A portion of the proceeds from EMP’s sales will fund charity work through his partnership with Rethink Food an NYC-based organization dedicated to ending hunger. Every meal purchased at EMP will fund five meals to feed the needy. During the pandemic, Humm and his staff have also prepared over a million meals for food insecure New Yorkers from inside the Met Life Building where EMP’s kitchen has been closed for over a year.

At the end of the day, the problem is that Daniel Humm is selling an agrarian fantasy to guests who can afford to make a pilgrimage to his Vegan Field of Dreams. If he builds it, they will come. This is what’s fundamentally wrong with fine dining in the first place. It’s founded on the exploitation of limited resources and cheap labor to provide wealthy people with so much abundance that they can justify spending more money on a single meal than one should ever cost. The puppetry of fine dining is predicated on this culinary sleight-of-hand. Why do you think captains at EMP used to perform table-side card tricks?

Humm wrote on Instagram that his decision was motivated by the fact that “the current food system is unsustainable.” But what’s sustainable about his guests spending as much money on an evening’s meal at Eleven Madison Park as most people do on their monthly rent? Or enough to feed an entire family for a week? Humm is not running a non-profit organization, and it seems disingenuous to behave as though he is.

In the near term, Humm’s decision may be a shot of adrenaline for the plant-based movement, but commoditizing Vegan food as haute cuisine and recasting Veganism as luxurious seems to violate many of its foundational principles. If Humm is successful, more chefs may follow his lead, but this will likely only lend prestige, not legitimacy.

Daniel Humm
Chef Humm before his plant-based epiphany

Praising Humm for his contributions to plant-based cooking is like praising Elon Musk for his contributions to renewable energy. Musk presents himself as innovator offering technological solutions to climate change, yet Tesla has invested billions in Bitcoin, which may turn out to be more destructive to the environment than the internal combustion engine. There is a cost to propping up false prophets like Musk. We end up overlooking the real heroes.

Shining a spotlight on Humm’s plant-based cooking shouldn’t come at the expense of others doing important work, especially in underprivileged communities. New York City has hundreds of Vegan restaurants and food non-profits like Urban Vegan Kitchen and Chilis on Wheels where BIPOC chefs and activists have been helping to make Vegan food more accessible for years. P.S. Kitchen, an immigrant-owned Vegan restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district, operates as a non-profit business that uses its proceeds to create jobs for incarcerated people and support criminal justice reform.

Other New York City restaurant groups, like the one owned by veteran restaurateur Ravi DeRossi, are going all-in on promoting a plant-based lifestyle. DeRossi’s company, Overthrow Hospitality, has recently opened three new Vegan concepts in NYC, all of which are helmed by chefs of color. The company also sponsors Vegan community fridges and mutual aid programs, including giving away free Vegan meals to anyone in need at Avant Garden. Media coverage of DeRossi’s decision to go plant-based company-wide paled in comparison to Humm’s.

Recognition helps, but it can only take these businesses so far. Vegan chefs need resources and investment, something that has proven elusive for chefs of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ entrepreneurs. If Humm manages to be successful with his revamp of EMP, this may bode well for the commercial prospects of Vegan fine dining, but it may also convince investors that Vegan concepts can only work with another high-profile, white, male chef at the helm.

To effect meaningful change, Humm should use his platform to help introduce the world to the denizens of unheralded chefs and activists who are advancing the cause of plant-based cooking on a community level everyday. He can use his influence to help direct resources into communities that have no access to his restaurant. But cooking behind a walled garden, one that welcomes some and excludes others, limits the impact of his decision to go Vegan. Making the garden more accessible to everyone would not only contribute to improving public health but would also bring awareness to the need to repair our broken food system. Now that would be something to celebrate.

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