How many people have ever stopped to contemplate the importance of restaurants to society, to a community, the local and national economy, and to their own personal lives? Beyond the obvious provision of meals for a hungry public, restaurants are essential in defining a people’s culture and offering a perfect environment for celebration and intellectual interplay.
According to the National Restaurant Association the following data demonstrates the baseline important economic impact of the restaurant industry:
- In 2016 the industry generated $799 billion in sales within the U.S. alone
- There are more than 1 million freestanding restaurants in the U.S.
- 7 million Americans are employed by restaurants of all types
- Restaurant employees comprise 10% of the U.S. workforce
- 80% of restaurant owners started their careers as entry-level restaurant employees
- Nearly 50% of the American food dollar is spent in restaurants
- It would be safe to say that working in restaurants, of some type, is one of, if not the primary, business where most young people attain their first job.
- The National Restaurant Association – Facts at a Glance
This economic impact alone demonstrates the importance of the restaurant industry to the U.S., but economics only scratches the surface as we look at the role that this industry plays in our lives.
Although restaurants are now a normal part of the American landscape, this was not always the case. It would not be stretch to say that the industry that we know today can attribute its real start to the repeal of prohibition and President Eisenhower’s commitment to building the highway system in the U.S. after WWII. This is not to say that restaurants did not exist before then, but they did not play the significant role in our lives then as they do now. A brief timeline might look something like this:
- Early settlers life in the U.S. – a village tavern might have provided meals for travelers, trappers, and traders passing through. Meals were not considered comparable to a meal cooked in the home.
- Early 20th century to pre-prohibition era – the finer hotels in the U.S. were the center of any level of culinary excellence and these were most often found in the few larger cites cropping up across the country. If you were a chef, you worked in a hotel. Towns and villages still had their taverns that offered basic fare for travelers, but again, the food was not considered on par with a well-cooked home meal.
- During Prohibition – the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages was against the law. This did not stop many from producing, selling, and consuming alcohol it simply pushed everything underground. Illegal speakeasy’s opened from coast to coast offering alcohol to those who were considered “friends of the beverage”. To keep customers engaged and on-site, many of these Speakeasy’s began to offer light meals.
- When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 these Speakeasy’s became town and city restaurants offering full menus and the celebration that accompanied alcohol.
- During the Eisenhower administration a commitment was made to building the highway infrastructure within the U.S. to support the growth in popularity of the automobile. At highway crossroads one could almost always find a gas station and an American diner. This, by all accounts, was the beginning of the heyday for the restaurant industry, as dining out became a way of life and a necessary accompaniment to travel.
America’s love for restaurants would continue to grow over the next 60 years, as the experience gradually became part of our culture. Although the industry has had its ups and downs as economic conditions change, we have reached a point where the thought of American life without restaurants would infringe on our everyday way of life. Even when the economy is weak, people continue to patronize restaurants. They may change their spending habits, but they continue to lean on the experience.
So, let’s look briefly at the non-economic significance of the restaurant experience. To me, these factors remain the more significant in the long run, the reasons why young people are attracted to a career in the kitchen and front-of-the-house, and the most compelling reasons for the existence of this dynamic industry.
 THE FEELING OF NEIGHBORHOOD
The need for people to gather is what defines a community. Neighborhoods are more than geographic, they include this important need to come together, share experiences, talk, laugh, enjoy a good meal, and clink glasses. No other part of a community can provide this in the same manner as a restaurant.
 A REWARD SYSTEM
As much as we would like to say that our work and efforts are recognized by others, that those who employ us go out of their way to thank each person for his or her contribution, or that we feel appreciated in other ways, it just doesn’t happen enough. People have a need to feel valued and in the absence of this happening in a formal way, a restaurant experience is a perfect substitute.
 A RESPITE FROM THE CHALLENGES OF LIFE
Sometimes people just need to push the challenges of life out of their conscious mind. It is always important to be able to separate those things and events that challenge our ability to cope or simply relax and smile. Restaurants provide this opportunity, especially when guests are able to engage with friends and family.
 THE NEW FAMILY TABLE
The era of the single income family is over. The days when the most important part of the day was when the family unit gathered around the dinner table to share their lives and bond are few and far between. Our busy lives make this so much more difficult. The restaurant has become the new family table – a place where everyone can relax and enjoy each other’s company while breaking bread. Even those traditional large family events around the holidays are spent in restaurants. This is a new and rather important role for restaurants.
 A MECCA FOR CREATIVITY
Why so many people are attracted to a career in the restaurant business is not a mystery. Especially in the kitchen, the need for individuals to be expressive, to produce something of importance with their hands, to create a unique signature through food is quite compelling. In the front-of-the-house, this creativity manifests in building the experience for guests, designing an engaging environment, building the ambience in support of the food, and creating a reason for people to come is just as important as those reasons to work in the kitchen.
 THE AMERICAN DREAM
The America dream continues to include the desire to own a business- to be your own boss. Restaurants are one of the most accessible means of accomplishing this. It is always possible for a 16 year-old dishwasher to aspire to become the owner of a restaurant in the future. The opportunities abound for any person with the ambition to work hard and learn the ropes.
 A DEFINING PART OF A SOCIETY’S CULTURE
A culture is defined through the existence of art, literature, music, drama, religion, language, and cuisine. In all cases, these components are compelling and instrumental in bringing a society together. We can argue about art, literature, music, drama, religion, and the application of language, but most can agree upon the importance of a well-prepared, delicious, and beautiful meal.
It was Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton who stated in his poem – The Dinner Hour:
“We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.”
You can certainly argue the truth to his statement, but cannot deny the significance of cooks and restaurants.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
**PHOTO: Enjoying a beer with Kevin O’Donnell at The Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, VT.