Rebuilding the Restaurant Industry Starts With Destroying the Chains

I was in grade school when I first experienced the majesty of a piping hot basket of unlimited breadsticks from the Olive Garden. The bread had a pale off-white pallor, squishy and supple like the skin of a cadaver. It wasn’t a breadstick at all, not in the conventional sense, more of a cigar shaped tube of undercooked dough glistening with a sheen of garlic-scented oil that seemed to be pumped over it like movie popcorn butter (turns out it’s margarine).

Olive Garden was also one of my first encounters with Fettuccine Alfredo, an exalted delicacy for an American boy raised in the midwestern suburbs. After that, whenever I saw Alfredo sauce on the menu I never considered ordering anything else. It could arrive gluey and overwrought, but it didn’t matter I still lost myself in its lactating bosom.

As most food-illiterate American children growing up in the 80s, I wasn’t ready for the arrival of more sophisticated pasta recipes. Pizza, as far as I knew, was made in Huts. That was before my family discovered that at Little Caesars you could order one pizza and—through an some mystifying sleight of hand—they would deliver you two. I savored the waxy, burnt cheese that formed along the perimeter of its angled crust and the vaguely chemical tang that tasted like a mix of spent butane and dirty cast iron.

Unlimited Breadsticks
Unlimited Breadsticks at The Olive Garden

Now when I pass through suburban areas—having lived in New York City for over two decades—I feel a deep sadness about the state of American restaurants. Traversing county roads and freeways past the dull sameness of uninspired franchises, neighboring townships are indistinguishable from each other. There’s a deliberate pattern to their geographical placement that seems designed to make each brand universally familiar no matter what city you’re in. The Cracker Barrel peeks out from alongside the expressway ramp like a hearty welcome home; the Ruby Tuesdays flanks the mall entrance like an overweight security guard; the engine-red neon of the Texas Roadhouse awning beckons you like a rodeo clown from across the parking lot of the strip mall.

In the same way that retail empires like Target and Walmart have hastened a mass extinction event among small retail businesses across the country, independent restaurants have largely been displaced by corporate brands. Where we’ve identified underprivileged neighborhoods that suffer from “food deserts”—lacking proper access to grocery stores and fresh food sources—we’ve all but ignored the peripheral threat posed by “restaurant deserts” that exist in many of the same disadvantaged communities. We associate this problem primarily with fast food, but the same danger applies to these aspirational “fast casual” brands that advertise an elevated dining experience but rarely deliver on the promise.

The population where these chains thrive often relies on these ubiquitous brands without questioning the devastating effect they have on public health and the economy. Middle class and affluent communities are vulnerable, too. Family-owned Chinese restaurants that were once pillars of their communities have given way to places like Panda Express (2,200 locations) that have obscured the roots of Chinese cooking beyond recognition. Panera Bread (2,000 locations) has become the de facto America’s delicatessen, an ambition-less sandwich factory with no backstory. These restaurants recklessly jumble international cuisines, creating recipes like Applebee’s (1,800 locations) famous “Chicken Wonton Tacos” in ways that disrespect multiple cultural traditions on the same plate. We’re in the middle of a decades-long war on American taste buds.

Applebee’s “Famous” Chicken Wonton Tacos

Now is an opportune time to reverse the effects of the corporatization of the restaurant industry. The Coronavirus pandemic has disproportionality affected small restaurant businesses that were already struggling to compete against big chains. Americans need to demand both federal and local policies that incentivize small business and support independent restaurant owners. It’s primarily a real estate problem, where commercial landlords would rather lease to big corporations than to take risks with upstarts.

Municipalities should enact legislation to encourage landlords to partner with local entrepreneurs and to keep corporate restaurants out of their communities—much the same way that many have already outlawed big box stores. Corporations like these tend to drain resources from local communities by reinvesting profits elsewhere or returning them to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks. The menial jobs they provide aren’t worth the collateral damage.

The Trump Adminstration’s outreach, not unexpectedly, has prioritized corporate interests. His task forces on reviving restaurants have been comprised primarily of C-level white males that are more concerned about when their stock options vest than strategies for recovery. These multinational companies are not immune to the devastating effects of the Coronavirus outbreak, but they also stand to benefit from decreased competition if they can weather the storm. A recent report from the Independent Restaurant Coalition suggests that 85% of independent restaurants may close as a result of COVID-19. It’s an even more daunting statistic when you consider that over 50% of the total restaurants in the United States are independently-owned.

Rebuilding The Restaurant Industry
The fast casual sector has grown in recent years.

The future of dining in this country is doomed to become even more monolithic if we don’t demand change. The longer we allow these chains to thrive, the more essential they become to the definition of what it means to be American. For a country with a reputation for being so ruggedly individualistic, the American public is surprisingly accepting of the conformity required to patronize chain stores so religiously.

Author Amber Sparks recently asked her followers on Twitter, “What was your fancy, super special occasion restaurant as a kid?” It was eye-opening to see how many respondents—especially millennials and Zoomers—cited restaurant chains like Red Lobster and The Cheesecake Factory as personal examples of aspirational dining. The intent here isn’t to malign people for having bad taste. It’s to highlight how inseparable these chain restaurants have become from the American appetite and to quantify the consequences. While there may be certain nostalgia around childhood meals at these chains, they mostly serve lousy food. More importantly, embracing them has made the restaurant landscape more challenging for family-run businesses.

Growing up, my Olive Garden experience was an outlier. My parents had met in the city and retreated to the suburbs for greener pastures to raise a family. We lived in the outskirts of Chicago, but my father always insisted we drive forty-five minutes across the Indiana border to an Italian restaurant called Giovanni’s. The fake stucco walls and the arched entryways were painted gentle pastels to evoke a Venetian trattoria. My father always wanted to know the owners of these places. He grew up in Argentina where gnocchi was adopted into their culinary lexicon thanks to the many Argentines of Italian decent, and he would drive any distance to find one that met his standards. On fortuitous occasions, at least for my dad, the chef would cook tripe for him, which wasn’t on the menu and certainly would never be something they could whip up à la minute at an Olive Garden. Memories like these are so much more vivid when there are real people behind them rather than faceless corporations.

These narratives, mostly immigrant ones, defined the American restaurant industry for more than a century until fast food invaded in the Post War Era. As the country grapples with its racial demons and struggles to find common ground, we need these independent voices on our plates more than ever. Food can be a gateway to a deeper understanding of each other, and restaurants can facilitate that communion.

Mass-marketed chain food has no integrity. It’s designed to be hedonistic and unfussy. The more we consume these empty calories, the less say we have in shaping the character of our neighborhoods. You can already see the decay. As devastating as this year has been for the restaurant industry, it presents an opportunity to tear up the fields and replant the seeds. In the same way that monoculture and industrial farming is poisoning us and destroying the environment, we need to rebuild a restaurant industry using sustainable methods. We can’t do that without first having healthier rootstock.

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Stop Lionizing White Restaurateurs Like Danny Meyer

Danny Meyer will always have a place in the canon of hospitality visionaries, an ambassador of the transformative power of serving people food. Given his stature, it came as a shock when over 200 current and former employees co-signed a letter expressing their disdain with his company’s muted response to the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Eater, the letter also condemned the Union Square Hospitality Group for its failure to address systemic racism within the company and demanded a reexamination of its flawed diversity programs.

With dramatic changes on the horizon surrounding how restaurants administer hospitality in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s the perfect time to address racial issues that plague the industry and to ask ourselves why we look to white restaurant owners like Meyer for answers. It’s clear from recent events that what happens behind the scenes in Danny’s restaurants isn’t always worthy of his bulletproof reputation.

His templates for team building have been widely imitated. Accomodating service has always been centered in his purview to ensure staff and guests are treated like stakeholders in his business. Danny developed a style he called “enlightened hospitality,” a rejoinder to the cool-handed approach of most New York City restaurants in the mid-80s. Following the success of several white tablecloth restaurants like Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, he was able to parlay the folksy comforts of his brand into a fast-casual empire with Shake Shack, turning a humble kiosk in Madison Square Park into a multinational corporation. Enlightened hospitality now came with a side of fries.

Danny and his team ringing the bell at the NYSE.

USHG has expanded over the past thirty plus years, and the diaspora of its former employees has populated almost every major city in the country. Danny’s methods have a proven track record of success, so it’s understandable that his disciples faithfully adapt and implement the USHG playbook to suit their new habitats.

While this may have been a positive development as the hospitality industry matured, it’s also led to a whitewashing of how the industry defines what constitutes good service and a myopic approach to satisfying guests. As the restaurant world grapples with its checkered past with respect to racial diversity and gender equity, it may be overdue to ask ourselves if we’ve outgrown Danny’s philosophies.

In the first chapter of his book Setting The Table, he describes childhood trips to various cities in Europe and credits the hospitality he encountered there as a major influence on his business strategy. It’s hard to ignore that Danny cites primarily white, European cultures as the foundational influences on his brand. Almost all of his restaurants are formulated around cuisine, design elements and service anchored in European traditions. Perhaps like many white Americans with ambiguous ethnicities, Danny set out to Europe as a young man to find culture he could identify with. Certainly, his aesthetic as a restaurant owner would’ve evolved differently had he travelled to places like Vietnam or Senegal.

Tabla, which closed in 2010, was the only USHG restaurant that wasn’t rooted in Western traditions. Under the capable stewardship of the late Chef Floyd Cardoz, the restaurant prided itself on eschewing tradition by taking a more free-spirited approach to Indian cuisine. Of course the restaurant landscape was much different then, but Danny still proudly admits that prior to opening Tabla he set out to improve upon the idea of a “traditional” Indian restaurant. Stripping it of the hallmarks that he associated with Indian restaurant experiences became integral to developing a concept that he thought would be more welcoming. Through the prism of 2020 where the notion of accessibility equates to marginalizing non-white cuisine, we can now translate Danny’s intentions: He didn’t want to scare away white guests with something “too Indian.”

In the Danny Meyer orbit, the restaurant’s role in delivering enlightened hospitality centers around helping guests leave the tensions of the world behind. But against the background of social upheaval in office suites, outside capitol buildings and on the streets throughout the country, we should expect more from restaurants than just to provide an escape.

As we work to rebuild our industry’s crumbled foundation, we need guests to start thinking of themselves as partners in the reclamation process instead of beneficiaries. A brand of service that prioritizes comfort isn’t worth championing at a time when being comfortable makes you part of the problem. Nobody goes to a Danny Meyer restaurant to be challenged. In fact, Danny seems to go out of his way to make your dining experiences frictionless.

Restaurateurs like Meyer have perpetuated an ideology of service as a selfless act that brings as much joy to the provider as it does the recipient. Meyer apostles like Will Guidara have concocted entire symposiums around this brand of Aw, Shucks hospitality—forums where only true believers in the evangelical power of service may bear witness. The echo chamber that exists in these spheres drowns out the alternate perspectives that should be leading the revival.

Chip Wade was hired as President of USHG in 2019

A little dose of skepticism about our self-sacrifice might be a healthy antidote to the unicorn beliefs about service that’ve been peddled to this generation of foodies and to the growing stable of dedicated restaurant professionals. We don’t need hospitality conferences, we need better conditions and better pay for the people who work in the industry. We shouldn’t have to consume ourselves with making everyone’s restaurant experiences soigné when they’re not wearing masks and we don’t have health insurance.

Meyer apologized for his sluggish response to the BLM protests and said he felt “frozen” seeing the community going through so much trauma. With all due respect to his achievements, maybe he felt paralyzed because he knows he isn’t the right person to lead the industry forward right now. Even Danny himself might agree that Black Lives Matter demands that the industry recruit new thought leaders who better reflect the promise of a more diverse workforce and give voice to underrepresented people in our communities. He assures us that he’ll scour the earth to find those people, even though his track record over thirty years suggests otherwise.

Meanwhile Black chefs around the country struggle to get the attention they deserve. Chef Omar Tate in Philadelphia, through his thought-provoking pop-up restaurant, Honeysuckle, is using his platform to challenge guests, serving delicious food that often provokes discomfort by reflecting complicated cultural narratives. Atlanta Chef Deborah VanTrece implemented a “pay what you can” takeout system during the pandemic at her restaurant, Twisted Soul, for customers facing economic hardships wrought by the pandemic. In New Orleans, Nigerian-born Chef Tunde Wey has created dining experiences that continue to explore the politics of food—labeled by some as culinary performance art—meant to expose societal ills inexorably linked to race like gentrification.

The following passage in Brett Martin’s profile of Wey in GQ Magazine is particularly revealing of his thinking about the function of hospitality:

“Of course there should be places where dining is simple pleasure, where food is respite and solace. The problem is that we have too many spaces where food is just that. We need spaces where we can eat and not think about shit, but if all your spaces are spaces where you eat and don’t think about shit, then you’re never thinking about shit!”

GQ Magazine, March 9, 2019

Part of what makes the work of these chefs so important right now—besides calling more attention to minority voices—is the way they’re forcing the establishment to reimagine a new paradigm of what restaurant service should deliver.

There’s always been a false narrative that USHG is a restaurant utopia. In 2015, Meyer made news as one of the first restaurateurs to introduce a “hospitality included” service model that eliminated tipping. The food media swooned. Finally someone had the courage to challenge the status quo and fix the system. In reality, the transition was fraught. While it may have resolved some pay disparities, it also resulted in tenured staff leaving “in droves” after many saw meaningful decreases in their incomes. As it turned out, reforming the tipping system would require more than Danny planting his magic beans.

Meanwhile, many independent restaurateurs—like Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy in NYC and Eric Rivera of Addo in Seattle—have been implementing “no tipping” policies with better results and less recognition. Rivera, an outspoken critic of the passive responses of many industry leaders to the COVID-19 crisis, lamented on Twitter that “There are only a few voices that are allowed to be heard in this industry.” Rivera recognizes that we need to stop looking to these white father figures in the restaurant world like Danny Meyer to solve our diversity problems.

We can rest assured that after this scathing rebuke from his staff, Danny will redouble his efforts to hire more people of color. That isn’t a bad thing. Danny writes in Setting The Table, “To this day, my surest form of motivation comes from someone telling me I’m not measuring up.” Unfortunately, this challenge is not a measurable achievement like increasing revenues or controlling costs. Solving it will require more than bold statements on social media or photo-ops with the latest minority hires. A fresh coat of paint isn’t enough; this time someone needs to take a hammer to the layers of old rotten plaster.

A former senior level manager within USHG told me, “What we’ve seen is a failure of leadership to create and maintain a strategically progressive and proactive organization and leadership team.” To hasten meaningful progress, we need a new generation of leaders. If we leave it to the same white restaurateurs like Danny to address the problem without demanding institutional change, the quantity of jobs for people of color may rise, but those individuals will still be subsumed by appropriation and tokenization. The only way to bring about real change is to empower those with lived experience to show us the light. It’s time for someone else to set the table. If Danny really wants to help, he should do the dishes.

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