Few business sectors have experienced such violent swings between feast and famine in the last year as restaurants. Early in the pandemic, there was a demand problem: Few to no customers were willing to take the risk of eating in a dining room. Today, people are going out to eat again, and amid overwhelming demand, there’s a supply issue: A serious labor shortage confronts restaurants across the country.
As a chef and former restaurant owner, I know that the root causes of this predicament date to well before the pandemic. To address it, restaurants must fundamentally change. Diners must, too.
Operating on the thinnest of margins, restaurants often engage in a race to the bottom to offer diners “value” and keep them coming back. They buy cheap ingredients, pay low wages and stretch people to their limits. In many restaurants, immigrants and people of color are marginalized, and reports of sexual harassment and assault are widespread. And restaurant culture more broadly shames employees for taking care of themselves, valorizes abuse as “tough love” and shows little regard for work-life balance.
This can be especially true in high-end, prestigious restaurants. They’re often worse places to work because they capitalize on the résumé-building value of their reputations, extracting even greater sacrifices from employees. Abuse (often glamorized on reality TV shows with celebrity chefs) is excused as necessary to create a superlative dining experience for the customer.
It’s no wonder that in the last year and a half, both front (hosting and waiting) and back-of-the-house (kitchen) restaurant workers have quit the industry in droves.
Restaurants’ staffing crises were not created by former employees opting to collect unemployment benefits rather than return to work, as some people have argued. Rather, many restaurant employees have discovered that having time to care for family members, engage in self-improvement projects or participate more in parenting and household chores improved their well being. They have reflected on the abuse, exploitation and lack of safety they endured in kitchens and dining rooms, and questioned whether or not to return.
There’s little to reassure workers that returning to restaurants now is a safe or wise choice. Although many corporations are delaying return to work requirements until later in the fall or even next year to protect the health of all their employees, restaurants that survived the pandemic — and many didn’t — are welcoming customers back out of necessity. Workplace safety remains a real concern. In this ongoing pandemic fueled now by the Delta variant, restaurants cannot easily adapt to social distancing or staggered work schedules. By design, kitchens are tight spaces, and restaurant work involves closely interacting with an ever-changing cast of strangers. Working from home is not an option. And as diners return to restaurants, some seem to have forgotten their manners. Reports of rude and abusive customers have proliferated.
Thankfully, extended unemployment benefits have afforded some restaurant workers breathing room to consider whether to return. Increased wages are a necessary first step to convince them, but for many workers, the decision is not only a financial one, said Steven Picker, executive director of the NYC Department of Small Business Services’ Food and Beverage Industry Partnership, an alliance between the city and industry professionals and businesses. We must take this moment, he said, as “an opportunity to commit to improvements in talent management and workplace culture — critical components in the restaurant industry’s ability to be healthy and resilient.”
Owners can begin those improvements by increasing the size of staff and committing to mentoring and supporting employees, practices common in other industries.
Calling out sick, for example, does not have to signify weakness or lack of commitment. As much as I was intent on creating a positive work environment in my restaurants, we often ran with just adequate staffing. As a result, we had little flexibility in responding to staffing emergencies. We leaned on people to come into work, whether they were fully recovered or not. This led to instances when influenza outbreaks moved through the entire staff, wreaking scheduling havoc and even possibly transmitting the illness to guests. At the time, risking transmission was an acceptable cost of doing business. Fortunately, the pandemic has taught us that restaurants can better serve their community by building the staffing capacity to allow ill employees to stay home.
The changes restaurant owners must make will succeed only if diners support them. If restaurants are to raise their wages, grow their staffing rosters and improve their cultures, diners will have to pay more to dine out, and should embrace those increases as expressions of their own values.
I have faith that diners can accept these changes gracefully, even if it means going out to eat less often. As a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, I was one of many chefs who accustomed diners to paying what we understood to be the real cost of good food. At my restaurants, we heralded farming practices that built up the soil. Our diners willingly paid higher prices for food produced this way. Our reputation was built on transparency and the tacit agreement between chef and diner that, for the benefit of the planet, everyone was participating in paying the true cost of food.
Adjusting to the price of better work cultures will be difficult for many. But dining out less isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Treating a restaurant meal as a special occasion rather than a frequent convenience may represent a quality of life improvement for all. And operating restaurants five days a week, instead of seven, could make work life more manageable for staff members.
Unlike the taste of a fabulous heirloom tomato, a kinder and more fair work culture may not be immediately discernible on the palate. But many consumers already fold labor considerations into their ingredient choices. They buy coffee and chocolate from Fair Trade sources that pay living wage premiums to workers, for example.
Can we build a work culture that doesn’t thrive on exploitative policies? The answer will depend on whether owners can improve workplace culture and food sourcing, whether diners will pay higher prices for those improvements, and whether we can view restaurant dining not as a replacement for home-cooking, but a special addition to it.
In addition to operating the New York City restaurants Savoy, Back Forty and Back Forty West from 1990 until 2016, Peter Hoffman is the author of “What’s Good? A Memoir In Fourteen Ingredients.”
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