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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Restaurant Life

Can We Stop Treating Restaurants As Status Symbols?

Fine dining restaurants have always been fashion accessories, but gaining access to the most exclusive ones has become a badge of honor. Helen Rosner wrote about our unhealthy obsession with scoring rezzies in The New Yorker Magazine this week, chronicling her successful efforts to infiltrate the gated community of Carbone, the venerable upscale Italian-American restaurant in Greenwich Village. Carbone is notoriously one of the most difficult tables in New York City. (Full disclosure: I worked as a captain there several years ago.) While Rosner relishes in her thirty-dollar rigatoni and Caesar salad prepared tableside, she seems surprised by her own giddiness over having procured a coveted table at the same restaurant that Drake and Bella Hadid count among their personal favorites.

New York City underwent a seismic shift during the late 90’s when tony uptown celebrity haunts like Coco Pazzo and Sign of The Dove were supplanted by the velvet-rope cool of clubby restaurants downtown like Leonardo DiCaprio’s old hangout Moomba, Asia de Cuba, and Balthazar. The surging enthusiasm for chefs and new food experiences, so commonplace today, was just beginning to froth, and the popularity of restaurants, once defined by longevity, had become fleeting and manic. Over the ensuing decades, the restaurant industry became a plutocracy, where reserving a table morphed into a Darwinian exercise that left some guests feeling imperial and others feeling inadequate.

Diners began to measure their own self-worth by their ability to gain entry into the hottest restaurants. Cracking the code often necessitated mounting a full-frontal assault, pulling out any and all stops to get a foot in the door. Exclusive restaurants had always been dimly-lit boudoirs for consummating business deals, but by the early 2000’s the romance was gone and the bedrooms had become bordellos.

Insecurity about being excluded from trendy places, rarely justified, is consistently the source of guests’ most toxic behavior. As the food writer Alicia Kennedy points out in her most recent newsletter, restaurant workers are forced to carry the emotional burden for those insecurities. Maybe this is why so few restaurant workers are returning to their jobs.

In her diagnosis of Carbone, Rosner concludes that, “Status, for those who partake, is an essential good.” She remains circumspect about how star-fucking and celebrity worship fester in restaurants like Carbone. But her piece still seems to suggest that this hierarchal nature is indelible to New York City dining, and, as concepts like Carbone colonize other cities like Miami, jockeying for a seat at the table will endure as a litmus test of a diner’s self-worth. “Landing an impossible reservation,” she sheepishly admits, “can prompt a weird, almost embarrassing feeling of triumph.” It is embarrassing.

Restaurants as status symbols. The original Four Seasons Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.
The Four Seasons Restaurant, site of the original “Power Lunch”

I’ve seen customers have nuclear meltdowns over their inability to procure a table on their own terms, grown adults acting like squealing toddlers when they’re denied access. Management rarely sanctions ornery guests whose overtures cross the line. Hospitality professionals don’t have the luxury of meting out discipline. The commandments of customer service dictate that we must satisfy the needs of undeserving people, even those deluded into thinking that access to a restaurant will make up for their own feeling of inadequacy. It’s one of the many perils of our existence.

Measuring restaurants by the status they confer seems out of sync with the shifting political tides in America toward progressivism. In the awkward interregnum between the Trump to the Biden Presidency, American society has received the equivalent of an ideological high colonic, after four years of constipation caused by a political regime defined by pornographic Reaganism, corporate avarice and unmitigated personal excess. Restaurants have always made great dance partners for gluttonous people.

Since unconditional faith in free markets often widens wealth gaps and racial inequality, the winner-take-all environment, especially in high-end restaurants, hinders any real progress in addressing these issues. As #MeToo and Black Lives Matter gradually chip away at the armor, women and chefs of color continue to struggle penetrating the institutionalized disregard the restaurant industry has consistently shown them.

That’s why it’s so imperative that the food media avoid language that attaches status to certain restaurants and not others. It’s one thing to say a restaurant is good; it’s another to suggest that a restaurant is too good for you. Diners often pursue restaurants more aggressively that they perceive as forbidden fruit.

Hype has a cost. On the surface, treating restaurants this way dehumanizes them. They become precious baubles that exist to be owned and collected, inanimate objects whose primary purpose is to make people look fashionable like a pair of Prada shoes or a Gucci purse. If restaurants exist to make their patrons more fashionable, then the people who work in them are nothing more than glorified stylists. Their performance is only measurable by their faculty for making the people they serve look good.

Let’s begin by admitting that status in today’s fine-dining restaurants is dominated by whiteness. Just look at the way that the food media gushed over Daniel Humm’s decision to make Eleven Madison Park’s menu vegan when so many other acclaimed chefs like Dominique Crenn have lived in this space before him.

According to Rosner, everyone inside Carbone looks rich and “professionally beautiful.” I can’t speak to the racial makeup of the dining room that night, but I can say from my years in fine dining establishments that the majority of people who dine in them are also overwhelmingly white. Continuing to promulgate the status narrative (one that Rosner seems to feel a jaded nostalgia for) only bolsters the aspirational nature of whiteness as a criteria for exclusivity.

The food media may champion female chefs and chefs of color, but it rarely frames the story in terms of exclusivity and access.

Women and chefs of color may prepare all kinds of delicious food, but it’s unlikely that food media will ever portray experiencing it as exclusive or aspirational. That’s part of what has made it difficult for non-white, non-male chefs to compete for resources. There may be critics who promote the work of LGBTQ, BIPOC and female chefs, but even the staunchest allies rarely attach status to their admiration. When we read about them, these chefs always serve a different flavor of forbidden fruit, one that will never be potent enough to raise one’s self-worth. But we should never expect that from any restaurant experience in the first place.

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