Restaurant Blues

It’s been while since I’ve written anything about food. Mostly because COVID has gotten me into this dull routine of cooking the same old stuff. One of these days I’ll have an exciting new recipe to share like I did back in early May, but for now I want to talk about dining out. That was one of the things I was most looking forward to when COVID restrictions began to relax…going out to a local restaurant and getting a tasty meal like the one shown in the picture above, taken in November, 2018. That was a meal I raved about..the one and only time I have appreciated venison.

I’ve been able to get out more freely since being fully vaccinated in April, and I have to say what a disappointment dining out has been. Seems like the chefs at all the restaurants Janet and I have visited are stuck in the same COVID induced rut I have been in my kitchen. I knew dining out would be different with COVID, at least for a while…I expected that. What I didn’t expect was to be served take-out food on a plate when dining in, which is what I have gotten to date.

When I think about the state of restaurants and reflect on my recent disappointments, I see an industry in decline. Making a go of it in the restaurant business has never been easy. The industry was in decline before COVID and the pandemic has exacerbated those problems while adding a few of its own. I remember reading a comment attributed to Emeril Lagasse a few years ago. He lamented that the combination of more demanding patrons…he didn’t call me out by name but I’m sure he was walking about me…and the higher cost of the ingredients it takes to satisfy them was making it challenging for his restaurants to make a profit.

Emeril said that if he wasn’t already well established in the restaurant business, he wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t make it work financially. I believe that…just look at the price of skirt steak. I priced it out at Wegmans last week…$31.99 per pound for antibiotic free outside skirt steak. We’re talking about the cow’s diaphragm muscle for crying out loud…a cut that used to be considered offal because it is so tough. It went from being a throw away cut nobody would pay for to one of the most expensive cuts of beef per pound on the market today. All because the cable TV food channels made it approachable for home cooks like me.

I’m not in the restaurant business, so I can only go by what I see as an outsider, a sometime patron, and a former systems engineer. The engineer in me recognizes that since COVID, the restaurant industry’s operating environment has changed. It was changing before the pandemic but COVID has made it a really ugly change, and I fear it is permanent. Early in the pandemic the more creative restaurants faced the change by altering their dishes to be more suitable for take-out while trying to keep to the spirit of the cuisine they had been plating nightly.

I think it’s great that restaurants adapted to COVID by coming up with dishes suitable for a take-out box. It brought in at least some money and together with federal COVID assistance it got many of them through the worst of things. But when I dine out now, I expect better than take-out on a plate, and I’m not getting it. The restaurants I’ve gone to since April seem to be marching in place, hoping everything will somehow magically snap back to normal. It won’t. They aren’t embracing the change in their operating environment, they are surrendering to it.

I don’t have any answers, though I do think some of the things I have read coming from industry leaders are flat out wrong and representative of why they find themselves in this dilemma. One in particular has to do with their explanation for service staff shortages. Restauranteurs and politicians alike are blaming what they perceive to be an overly generous federal COVID unemployment assistance program for their difficulty getting service staff back to work. Unemployment benefits are not the problem. Restaurants in states that have already terminated federal pandemic unemployment assistance are still struggling to find people willing to work for low wages and tips. They were expecting former employees to return once unemployment dried up, but that isn’t happening.

The problem for restaurants is that the employees who were fired or laid off at the start of COVID didn’t just sit at home collecting unemployment and waiting for their old jobs to open back up. They realized by working for minimum wage plus tips they were settling for far less than they were worth. COVID came along and took those jobs away from them, but it also gave them the courage to stop settling. They took stock of their lives, their skills, and what they had to offer the labor market. So sure, some are still on unemployment. But some went back to school, and many more realized they already had skills developed outside of the restaurant business. They’ve leveraged those skills to trade up to jobs that offer more personal and professional growth, and better compensation. The restaurant industry has lost an entire generation of cheap labor and they won’t get them back.

There are some glimmers of hope. Thomas Keller is a world class chef, but he is also known throughout the industry as a leader who embraces change. Keller adopted the European model of wage-based compensation for his restaurants as far back as 2005. He raised the compensation for all of his employees to a true living wage. He had to raise the prices on his menu items to do it, but by pairing the price increases with a no tipping policy for the service staff he made it a zero sum game for his patrons. Top servers at Keller’s flagship NYC restaurant Per Se make over six figures in wages and overtime, no tips. OK so sure, that might work in a high end NYC restaurant where diners have been willing to pay crazy high prices all along. That represents fewer than one percent of the restaurants in this country…what about the rest of them? The compensation mode scales to more reasonably priced restaurants. It is a model that has worked at all levels in Europe for decades, from taphouses to fine dining establishments, and Keller has proven it can work in this country.

Getting adequate service staff back into restaurants will help make the experience of dining out something to look forward to again. It will help make it a value add that people will respond to, but it won’t improve the quality of the food that comes out of the kitchen. Right now that is my biggest complaint about dining out. I don’t care whether you are a Michelin star restaurant or a family diner serving comfort food, if the food you serve me isn’t more creative or tasty than what I can make at home, or if you are serving me what you used to put in a take-out box now on a plate, you’re losing my business.

I expect many restaurant owners are so entrenched in the past they won’t be willing to adjust their wage models in a way that will attract quality employees. Nor will they adjust their menus to take advantage of whatever quality ingredients are available on any given day that could be crafted into a dish they can make a profit from. They will keep marking time, blaming all the things they can’t control while failing to address the things they can, hoping for someone to magically put things back to the way they were. And they will fold.

As eager as I am to have an alternative to cooking every day, I am less eager to pay for food that is inferior to what I can cook in my own kitchen. And I’m not that great of a home cook which is saying something altogether not good about the state of the restaurant industry right now. One thing is certain…nobody is going to magically put things in the restaurant business back to the way they were pre-COVID. Those days are past. I’m eager to see what’s next, just not too keen on dining out until the industry gets there.

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