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How did we (the restaurant industry) get to where we are today? With over 1 million freestanding restaurants in the U.S. and comfortable as the number two employer in the country (only surpassed by the government) the restaurant industry has truly come of age. But, how did we get to this point – what positioned this fundamental industry as one that helps to define the American economy? This was not always the case, in fact eating in restaurants was, not too long ago, considered far inferior to preparing a meal at home – only vagabonds or the very rich who stayed in those new hotels on the east coast would dare to pay for a meal that someone else prepared.

Today – dining out is a national pastime, chefs and restaurateurs are revered, cooking schools abound with over 1,000 colleges teaching the culinary arts, cookbooks – especially those authored by restaurant chefs are incredibly popular, the economic health of a community is directly related to its restaurant scene, the average American family spends nearly 50% of their annual food budget in restaurants, and every year more and more television shows and movies depict the life of those who work in the restaurant world as exciting and dynamic. This is quite a change in about 100 years.

So, I thought it might be interesting to point to those events and actions that have set the stage for this prominent restaurant industry – the one that those of us who chose to pursue a career in find ourselves in an enviable position of knowing that we will never be out of work.



In 1933 the U.S. repealed one of the most absurd laws in our history. For far too long it was illegal to manufacture, distribute, sell, and consume alcohol in the U.S. This doesn’t mean that those activities didn’t take place; it simply meant that an entire black market industry sprung up to meet the needs of the marketplace. My grandfather owned a speakeasy back in those days – a place where those who met the criteria for entrance, could consume alcohol that came from unknown sources. In an effort to be competitive, these speakeasies’ (my grandfather’s included) began to offer food to accompany drink. When prohibition was repealed – these illegal speakeasies became restaurants – ones with a following.


As the land of opportunity – the United States attracted immigrants from Italy, Germany, France, Ireland, Greece, Austria, and a variety of other countries. They came for the opportunity of making their mark, opening a business, and helping to define what America would become – a melting pot nation. Many of these immigrants found hope in opening small restaurants and taverns that featured the food of their homeland. In a short period of time we saw an influx of Italian Trattorias, French Bistros, Greek Diners, German Haufbrau houses, Mexican Cantinas, and Irish pubs. These early restaurants defined what American food would become – a mixture of every nationality to pass through Ellis Island.


After World War II – President Eisenhower and Congress made a commitment to build an unparalleled network of highways that would connect every part of our growing country. It seemed that in short order (no pun intended) where ever two roads intersected you could find a gas station and a diner. Many attribute the automobile to this growth in America, but it was really the network of roads that truly defined out growth.


With a new interest in travel and a highway system to support it, an industry grew to establish amazing distribution networks for supplies. This system required farmers to change the way that they grew crops, pushed the need for centralized farming where entire sections of the country were dedicated to one or two crops, and build the vehicles to support this need. Soon the trucking industry would be the key to what, where, and how these restaurants would buy and receive the ingredients that they needed. Just think of one simple example – you can find the most isolated gas station imaginable – maybe 50 – 100 miles from the closest sign of civilization and wonder how they can possibly manage to stock their shelves. Somewhere in the corner of that station will be a Coca Cola machine stocked with bottles or cans of the products that Coke makes. That product was delivered to even this remote location on a truck owned by a Coca Cola distributor. Without this distribution network the restaurant business would never survive.


Somewhere around the early 1960’s the “Leave it to Beaver” family model in America gave way to the advent of two income earners in a household. With more disposable income and less time to cook families began to view going out to dinner as less of a luxury and more of a necessity. In a short 40 years that change evolved into a budget model that pushes 50% of the family income in the cash registers of restaurants.


With a network of roads, the ease of buying an automobile, two income earners, and a growing network of restaurants and hotels – the American Vacation was born. Through tremendous growth after World War II – the family vacation brought tourism to every state in the union. The need for a variety of restaurants to support these traveling adventurers was amazing.

[]         TELEVISION:

Take a typical hour or two of television and track the number of food, and/or restaurant commercials that flood this medium. Madison Avenue has an uncanny ability to design advertisements that create interest and immediate need. Television was the catalyst for much of the restaurant industry’s growth from 1960 to present times.


IN 1976 – Chef Louis Szathmary from the Chicago Restaurant scene partnered with the then young American Culinary Federation to petition the U.S. Department of Labor to change how the position of “cook” was defined. Prior to their intervention – cooks were considered “domestic” workers. Their petition pushed a change from domestic to professional. This may seem like a minor point, but this helped to drive a change in attitude about cooking for a living and eventually how others viewed cooks and chefs.


The concept of franchising was in it’s infantile stage when Ray Kroc developed a model for McDonald’s that would allow anybody with a small investment to become a restaurateur. The growth of his company was built on this ability. The key advantage was that owning a McDonald’s came with their systems, the brand, their reputation, and their ability to market where marketing would normally be cost prohibitive for the private restaurateur. Unlike owning other private restaurants – a McDonald’s franchise was a sure bet.


With exponential growth came the need for competent people to operate and prepare restaurant quality food. Beginning with just a few schools and with the help of our dependence on television as the primary communicator, those few schools grew to more than 1,000. These schools were focused on preparing individuals for a career in food with the cooking and management skills to thrive in an ever-expanding restaurant market.


Chefs who graduated from prestigious cooking schools, apprenticed in European restaurants, or stagiere at noteworthy operations in the U.S. quickly became stars. The restaurant experience was heightened by the connection that guests could have with the chef. The restaurateur of old stepped aside and offered the limelight to chefs who quickly took the opportunity to express themselves in unique ways – building a loyal following. If you weren’t a chef you were at least a person who wished that he or she were a chef.


Following their new passion for restaurant food – families in America began to view the design of their homes differently. Suddenly a large professional style kitchen was a “must have” with all of the best appliances, signature pots and pans, and of course the very best German or Japanese steel knives. Most people didn’t know how to use all of this, but it was a way to extend their love of restaurants and admiration for those who knew how to cook.

[]         OPEN KITCHENS:

With chefs viewed as celebrities it became important for restaurants to make the chef and his or her team visible to the guest. Open kitchen were born with ample intense flames, shinny stainless steel, open-hearth wood-fired ovens, crisp uniforms, and lots of action. Ah…going out to a restaurant was now entertainment. There was less need for live music and more need for live cooking action. The closer that a guest can get to the cook and the chef – the better.


Of course – long before the open kitchen there was the remarkable introduction of the drive through window. Rumor has it that the idea came from a McDonald’s executive at a bank drive-thru who thought “Why not pass a hamburger through that window?” Estimates are that more than 60% of McDonald’s revenue comes from the drive-thru. Suddenly the auto became a dining room and your restaurant experience could take place at 60 miles per hour on a major highway.


Never underestimate the importance of the two most popular entrees in America. Not only did people respond to these items because of their taste, but also the experience of eating with your hands – primitive, but enjoyable. Look at your hometown and count the number of pizza and burger joints.


In the mid-eighties – all of those culinary school graduates suddenly had a growing desire to own their own, make their unique mark on the restaurant world, and escape the pains of working for someone else. A new breed of restaurateur was born with the desire, skill, and marketability to break from the crowd and be individual. In recent years the lure of large corporate chains has been nudged by these one of a kind, chef owned restaurants that seem to be far more attractive to a discriminating guest.


OK, I had to mention the Food Network (at least the early food network) that brought food to the forefront in 24/7 programming. Although the network has drifted from it’s original, and generally interesting model to one that resembles a circus act, they did create a real buzz that has transitioned over to almost every other network and every movies studio in America.


Finally, while the 60’s and 70’s saw Americans move in droves to suburbia, since the early 80’s the trend has been to return to city life. Run down neighborhoods were gentrified and given new life to attract those moving back to the excitement of urban centers. More often than not – the first businesses to take a chance and set-up shop in these less than desirable neighborhoods were restaurants. The majority of urban renewal centers on a chef and restaurateur’s commitment to creating restaurant life where others might shy away. Once the restaurant is there then other businesses will follow.

And so – there you have it in a nutshell – we are now a major industry, a driver of the U.S. economy, and although oftentimes tenuous as successful businesses – a place where eager entrepreneurs can dip their toes in the water and then take a dive in the deep end.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

*Are you interested in getting a visual idea of what it is like to open and operate a restaurant in the U.S.? Here are two exceptional movies to put on your list:






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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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