Is it just another one of those cycles with a few new challenges or is it something else? It seems to me, once you start to connect the dots, you will note that the times they are a changing, and the alarm bell is about to ring. I certainly don’t want to be reactionary, in fact, what I hope to be is something more in line with being an advocate for change before change happens without us.
I don’t have the answers – they need to come from a consortium of restaurant professionals representing operations, organizations, education, ownership, and customers. I can, however, sound the preliminary alarm by demonstrating and connecting those dots, so that the picture becomes clear and telling. Here are some of the indicators:
- The rise in support for PLANT FORWARD styles of cooking that demonstrates a healthier approach towards diet is apparent. Plant forward includes vegetarian, vegan, and a commitment to increasing fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, and decreasing the amount of animal protein. To fail to recognize this and adapt menus to accommodate EXCITING versions of the above is a serious mistake.
- Increased popularity of non-alcoholic cocktails is either an opportunity for restaurants or a real roadblock to continued success.
- WINE SALES are decreasing worldwide. While a short-term blow to the wine industry and restaurants that are wine centric there are opportunities to build in craft beers and hard cider as well as increase a less contrived approach towards consumer wine education. Pretention is fading in popularity. Don’t forget that the restaurant industry has supported itself on the back of alcoholic beverage sales – this has been our model for decades. Do we need to re-evaluate?
- We have predicted the demise of fine dining at least a dozen times in the past 25 years – is it really happening now? Americans are spending nearly 50% of their annual food budgets in restaurants and indications that this can continue to grow – is fine dining the right answer? If 3% or less of the restaurant industry is fine dining and this is the segment that receives the most attention – what about the other 97%?
- Is BIGGER ALWAYS BETTER? Who benefits from over-sized and super sized portions? Obesity is an epidemic in the U.S., so, larger than necessary portions is harmful to consumer’s health. Large portions stretch a restaurant’s ability to convert sales into profit, and large portions do very little to demonstrate any level of finesse that a chef might try to muster up. Is it time to stop using massive portion sizes to falsely demonstrate value? Is it time to move past the 18 oz. strip steak, the triple-decker burger with bacon and cheese, and the tomahawk pork chop that makes the diner feel like he or she owes the world an apology after forcing that last bite?
- When did it somehow become dangerous or negligent to drink real milk, consume that delicious cheese, or spread a little butter on your toast? Well, whether it is for health concerns or a new philosophical resistance to consuming anything that originates from an animal – this is the new reality. What are you doing to modify menus, reduce portions of dairy, and/or educate consumers about moderation?
- The conscience of modern chefs has been leaning toward farm to table for more than two decades. Artisan farmers have gravitated to small rural communities and transitioned to decentralized, sometimes specialized, organic farming to help to feed this growing interest and define their concern over the quality of ingredients and their impact on sustainability. This is great, however, those small farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to generate enough sales to offset the significant costs associated with farming. Can they survive? How do we stay true to the concept of farm to table and help these artisans make a living?
- Young cooks are less inclined to sacrifice balance in their lives for the demands of the kitchen. Fluid schedules, holidays, 12-hour shifts, and all of the physical and mental demands of the job are no longer part of a life that they choose. These employees may resist initially, but then simply choose to find another line of work. This, above all else, paints a grim picture for restaurants of today and tomorrow, unless we find a solution and accept the need to change.
- Once an exciting career that young people and those reinventing themselves were clamoring towards – becoming a cook and eventually a chef has lost it’s sizzle. The reality of the work and the commitment has finally over-shadowed the glamor that is falsely depicted on television. Enrollment in culinary schools has plummeted, and every restaurant from coast-to-coast is struggling to find new employees and keep the ones they have. Growth means very little if you can’t find the right people to execute the vision of a restaurant.
- The government crackdown on immigration may seem right to some, but to those of us in the restaurant business it means that many of our most dependable, hard-working employees are gone. A reasonable resolution to the country’s immigration policies is critical and essential for the food business from farm to table.
- With an increase in the number of food recalls, and serious questions about the source and the process of bringing food to market, there is a growing mistrust in the integrity of the food supply. This can only lead to a subsequent mistrust of restaurants and what they offer.
- When a presidential candidate states that “Anyone can be a farmer, it takes a lot more grey matter to be in the tech business”, we know that the food supply chain is losing its importance in the eyes of the U.S. government. This will likely backfire at some point soon.
- After all of these years of growth, the restaurant industry has yet to find resolution to the cause of many of its woes – restaurants return very little profit which cripples their ability to improve wages and work conditions, and do what is right vs. doing what they can afford to do.
- The gentrification of neighborhoods, which seems to always begin with an influx of new, popular restaurants, eventually attracts new landlords who are greedy for profit. Increases in rent have driven restaurants out of business even when they are otherwise successful.
The list could go on and on – the bottom line is that as hard as the restaurant business has always been, it now seems to be leaning towards impossible. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but invention begins when people recognize the need and the opportunity for change. Isn’t it time for those of us in the restaurant business to recognize all of the signs and find a way to collaborate on real solutions?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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