WHY CHEFS CAN’T IGNORE POLITICS

chefs

Is ignorance really bliss? Like many of you, I am tired of the political rhetoric, the discourse that is oftentimes based on hearsay, rather than fact, and the sometimes-vicious personal attacks that have dominated the stage for years. It would be very easy to say: “I’m tuning out!” Really, what does all of this have to do with you and the job you do? Cooking and dining are, or should be apolitical – right? Well, I think that we cannot, or at least should not, take this approach. The evidence is there – politics impacts everything and, in this case, the art of cooking and the business of restaurants. To this end, as much as I would hope that it wasn’t true, chefs must not only pay attention to, but also, play an active role in the political landscape of their communities and even on a national level. I bet they didn’t talk about that in culinary school.

As we experience, first hand, the issues before us and the likely direction that our government will take over the next few years it will become increasingly important to pay attention, learn, and stay active proponents of those issues that we feel deeply about.

Without taking a political “side”, here is a sampling of the issues that will directly impact chefs and restaurants in the years to come:

[]         IMMIGRATION

Approximately 20% of the workforce in the U.S. restaurant business is made up of those from foreign countries. With the potential for stricter controls on who can enter our country, how long they can stay, and more limiting restrictions on how they might enter the workforce, restaurants and chefs may have to re-think how they fill those slots in their schedule. Many restaurants depend heavily on this workforce and would find it very difficult to replace them with American workers. Even saving grace programs for seasonal operations like J-1 and H2B visas could undergo dramatic change in the near future.

[]         LOOSENING OF EPA STANDARDS

Environmental Protection is a concern for many and as a result there have been numerous regulations adopted in the U.S. that require additional reporting, inspection, and cost to implement. A significant number of chefs view this as a positive, but there is no question that owner’s and operators would agree that the additional cost of compliance eats away at profit. If the teeth of EPA controls is taken away, then restaurants will need to either adapt or self-impose their own controls – viewing responsibility over cost.

[]         DIRECTIONS IN AGRICULTURE

With the Department of Agriculture in the hands of large corporate farming it would be realistic to assume that some of the restrictions currently placed on this industry will be scrutinized. Controls and restrictions cost money and we all realize that money does talk. Some of the more contentious issues that chefs have posed to farmers is the use of GMO seeds, excessive use of pesticides, chemical fertilizer runoff into the water table, over-production on land giving soil little time to recover nutrients, and regulations on the treatment, feeding, and processing of animals. Depending on your food philosophy, these controls may change – how will you respond?

[]         ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

One of the largest expenses in restaurant operations and one area where we (the industry) tend to be quite wasteful is with the consumption of energy and the type of energy that we choose to align with. Burning fossil fuels adds CO2 to the atmosphere – contributing to the phenomena of global climate change. These same fossil fuels are finite (non-renewable), while investment upfront in alternative energy sources is expensive at this time. How we look at conservation, recycling, reuse, and composting have defined chefs over the past decade, but with government de-emphasis on these issues will chefs and restaurants succumb to the way things use to be? Hoe important of an issue is this to you, your restaurant, your employees, and your ownership? Is it worth taking a political stand?

[]         NATIONALISM/ISOLATIONISM

Our new president recently stated that his mantra would be “Buy American/Hire American”. This is a noble call to arms, but what might the impact of this new policy of isolation have on our industry? Many of us have worked hard to focus more on buying local, reducing our carbon footprint, and offering opportunities for young Americans to find a “fit” in the restaurant business, but walk through your kitchen and spend some time in your storeroom and coolers. How may products come to us from foreign producers and distributors? How many employees in your restaurant are from a foreign country (hopefully legally)? If we are to take this political mantra at face value, then this might all change. If excessive tariffs are placed on those goods that come to us from foreign lands, what will this do to our menus and our way of cooking? If hiring foreign workers suddenly becomes politically incorrect – what will that do to our operations and our level of service?

[]         LABOR AND PAY ISSUES

On one side of the coin, every restaurateur is concerned about having to raise the minimum wage. With so many employees impacted and the domino need to raise more seasoned employees rates at the same time – how can a restaurant survive? On the other hand, a livable wage is a real concern when it comes to attracting and retaining enough staff to get the job done. The current administration seems less inclined to support a boost to minimum wage which may put a smile on some restaurateurs face, but how will this impact on the serious crisis of a diminished labor pool unable to meet the needs of a growing industry? Is this an issue that will be decided by the states? At what level should a chef take a stand and how will this stand impact on the restaurant?

[]         THE INFRASTRUCTURE RE-BUILD

No question, the American infrastructure is in terrible shape. Roads, bridges, power plants, airports, train stations, and reservoirs are all in need of serious attention. The current thrust seems to point to a desire to create job opportunities, borrow the money to make it happen, and address infrastructure with the same gusto as Franklin Roosevelt in the 40’s. Set aside the strain on the national debt, this is an initiative long overdue. How might this impact on the restaurant business? Be prepared for a different customer profile in your restaurants as the middle class takes on the role of re-building America. Menus will change to meet this socio-economic shift.

[]         HEALTHCARE

I know how contentious the issue of healthcare is to restaurateurs, but at the same time, most would agree that people without adequate healthcare are playing Russian roulette with their health and wellbeing. The country may abandon the Affordable Healthcare Act, but guaranteed something will need to take its place. As a chef and restaurateur do you want to sit back and wait to see what happens, or take an active role in your local and regional political scene to make sure your concerns and ideas are given their due?

[]         UNION STRENGTH

There has been a love/hate relationship with unions in this country since the early days of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. Employees are often lackluster about unions until they are treated unfairly at work, or if their pay and benefits do not stay in line with economic changes. Employers generally find that dealing with unions can build walls when there should be bridges. The fact remains that if every employer and industry treated employees fairly and equitably, then there would be little need for unions. Since fair and equitable is not always part of an industry’s vocabulary – we have unions. Republicans are typically less supportive of unions while Democrats have historically been on the side of the worker. Again, chefs can sit back and wait to see what happens or engage in the political debate about the role of unions in the 21st century.

[]         THE IMBALANCE OF WEALTH

To the restaurateur and chef, one of the primary objectives is to fill seats with guests willing and able to spend money. If you work in a fine dining restaurant then that upper 1% that some politicians refer to is your mainstay. Bring them on – but the majorities of restaurants in the U.S. survive and thrive on business from a good portion of the other 99%. As life becomes more difficult for the 99%, restaurants (the industry as a whole) suffer. Any initiative at the government level that impacts negatively on the disposable income of the 99% will crush the restaurant business. Do you want to become actively involved in this political discourse? Should you?

Whatever your political slant on any of these issues, it is crucial that you pay attention and use your voice and your vote. This is your opportunity, your right, and your obligation. Acceptance is weak, denial is foolish, and inaction is a disservice to you, your restaurant, and its employees.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

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