Save yesterday’s restaurant industry or “let it die”? –Mother Jones


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Weeks before most of us felt the depth of the pandemic crisis, servers, chefs and bartenders across the country were staring at her. Their industry relies on people coming together, in and around public spaces. It figures that the majority of the 33 million Americans who filed for unemployment during the viral pandemic worked in restaurants.

Celebrity chefs were the first to sound the alarm about the crisis and quickly sprang into action. David Chang, chef and owner of Momofuku Empire, warned to reporters in March that the pandemic could permanently destroy the restaurant industry. Cook and Excellent chef judge Tom Colicchio has assembled the Independent Restaurant Coalition, as professional a lobbying operation as any on Capitol Hill, to defend the interests of owner-operator chefs. After Congress passed its first emergency relief package in late March — and small business loans immediately dried up — IRC members demanded a $100 billion restaurant stabilization fund, specifically suited to their industry. Without serious government intervention, Colicchio imagines that half of the restaurants will close permanently.

Hear Tom Colicchio and Tunde Wey in the latest episode of To bite:

Restaurants need a particular kind of bailout, IRC members say, because their industry felt the effects of the crisis first and will continue to feel them long after many other trades return to normal. And restaurants will be required to restore stability. “Once we get through this, where will we go to feel normal again?” Colicchio told my colleague, Tom Philpott. “You want to go to your neighborhood restaurant, you want to sit at the bar where you would go on a Thursday night and have a cocktail. You want to go and eat the dish of your dreams. To give up on saving the nation’s restaurants, it seems, is to give up on a crucial cornerstone of America.

But even as high-profile restaurateurs argue for a special bailout, other industry veterans wonder: Is the pre-pandemic restaurant industry really anything? in which we want to return?

Before the crisis, many restaurants were teetering with unaffordable rents, absurd ingredients, underpaid labor and extremely thin margins. So when he spotted calls for the government to bail out the restaurant industry, the New Orleans-based Nigerian-born chef and activist suggested, in an Instagram series poststhat the government should ratherlet him die.”

“We want to keep our restaurants open so we can employ people. But then you look and think about it, what kind of job do you advocate? Wey asks. “The kind we had before? Well, that’s terrible.

Cracks in the foundations of industry began to appear in the aftermath of the last recession, says Kevin Alexander, a food journalist and author of the recent book, Burn the Ice: America’s Culinary Revolution and Its End. When the economy crashed in 2008, chefs struggled to get the financial backing needed to open brick-and-mortar restaurants. Instead, they opened gourmet food trucks, counter-service stores with mismatched plates and furniture, and pop-ups in every vacant space they could find — new models that all put their best foot forward. emphasis on quality of meals above overhead. Le Pigeon, for example, opened in Portland, Oregon, in 2006 by chef Gabriel Rucker, favored a homemade menu with dishes like grilled squab and couscous sprinkled with pigeon hearts.

As this style of restaurant takes off, trends are making their way to neighborhood addresses with more modest ambitions. More than 100,000 new restaurants opened in the 2010s, many in cities where affluent Americans have begun to return after half a century in the suburbs, such as Austin and Nashville. But as they have, a decade of uninterrupted economic growth has led to rising rents, rising labor costs and increased competition. “The only people who made money were people who had their own restaurant groups, who had become very good at recognizing opportunities, moving quickly to take advantage of them, and crowding out all competitors,” says Alexander.

Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of New York fine dining flagship Prune, noted that rising costs have negatively impacted the bottom line of the most successful restaurants, like hers. “I’ve joked for years that I’m in the nonprofit sector, but it’s been truer for several years now,” she said. wrote in the New York Times last month, referring to how his income stagnated while his expenses soared.

These boom years also saw a concomitant rise in income inequality, a hardship that restaurant workers unduly endured: jobs washing dishes, preparing food and hosting. regularly rank among the lowest paid positions in America. This disparity was even more acute for restaurant workers of color: A 2019 analysis by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) found that less than 18% of restaurant workers of color in California, who make up 70% of the industry, earned $31 or more per hour. , while 35% of white employees did.

Wey witnessed these inequalities in New Orleans, where he has lived for several years. When he arrived, he was operating a stand at the Saint-Roch market, a food hall restored in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (At this booth, Wey caught the eye to charge his white customers more than his black customer paid.)

St. Roch’s had been restored with FEMA and state grants that seemed to spark a triumphant rebound in New Orleans’ restaurant industry. But Wey argues that success primarily benefits white restaurateurs, not workers or the 60% of New Orleans residents who are black. Wey points to research this shows that 40% of businesses in the city are black-owned, but account for only 2% of all revenue. “Working class people, immigrants have to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week just to be able to pay rent, buy food and not have health care,” Wey says. “Where is the nobility in that? »

The coronavirus has brought a broken system to light. And the cries for help have revealed some uncomfortable truths. The emergency relief package passed by Congress in March set aside forgivable loans for small businesses to keep workers on the payroll. Colicchio and other IRC members argue that restaurants can’t really use these loans: Under the rules of the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan – which covers two months’ pay, rent and utilities – is only forgivable if an employer can hire three quarters of his staff during this period.

But restaurant workers in many states rely on tips for a large part of their pay. Without tips, these workers earn as little as $2.13 an hour in wages – the legal rate in 16 states and territories, including Texas, North Carolina and Indiana. So why would furloughed restaurant staff return to a job paying less than minimum wage without tipping to top it off? “It’s a romantic idea for us – to work with our hands and feed people and do all these things,” Wey says, “but what holds this together is a fundamentally unequal system.”

Instead of bailing out mirroring the restaurant industry, Wey instead calls on restaurant owners and workers to unite in calling for a “fundamental retooling of the economy”. On his agenda: a list of progressive reforms popular among Bernie Sanders supporters, including a federal job guarantee, Medicare for All and a public works program as part of a Green New Deal. “The other thing is that we are addressing historical and contemporary injustice that persists,” Wey says, calling for the need for reparations for descendants of African-American slaves.

Alexander says he doesn’t realistically see a reward structure in our current economy that would incentivize all of these sweeping changes. But he believes this financial crisis, like the previous one, will provide a tremendous opportunity to reinvent the restaurant industry. He predicts that the next “culinary revolution” will be in the hands of customers who could now refocus their money and attention on their neighborhood spots on the far-flung destinations they once sought out based on Yelp reviews. He could even imagine new neighborhood restaurants being co-op owned, an evolution of the GoFundMe campaigns that have sprung up to save restaurants, in recognition of their importance to a community.

“In the same way that you recognize health workers and what they are doing, we recognize the people who work in the food industry and feed you during this time,” says Alexander. “I hope you enjoy the way it works a lot more.”

Tom Philpott contributed reporting.


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