Painted in Waterlogue

Take a breath, hold on and think it through, turn on a dime, change or be changed, now is the time, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t forget what got you to this point, the past is the past – move on, the conflicting words of advice are swirling around us and restaurateurs and chefs are caught in the middle like a ship without a rudder. It’s impossible to ignore the doom and gloom, the restaurant closures, the eroded sales figures, the dwindling pool of qualified workers, and the customers who are nervous as hell – yet look around you and try to find a restaurant that is ready for and excited about real change.

I find it very challenging to continue writing about this without sounding those alarm bells, yet there is a need to do so. Damn it hurts to see great restaurants, talented chefs, formally well-run operations, and loads of mom and pop operations that did a consistently good job for decades face what seems like insurmountable obstacles. When I see those closure signs, for sale, space for rent, tables and chairs collecting dust, kitchens without life, and cobwebs in windows that once framed in groups of happy, laughing, satisfied customers now dark and empty – it is difficult to avoid the emotion of the times.

I feel for those operators who moved to “to go” models, and those attempting to serve a socially distanced dining room filled to less than 50% with masked servers and guests looking with trepidation at each other during the course of a rushed meal. I know, as do they, that this is just a way to deny the inevitable: “This can’t continue, it is impossible to sustain, at some point they will need to give in to fate”, unless….real change takes place.

Buckminster Fuller – the designer of geodesic structures spoke of change:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

If we begin with an understanding that the restaurant business will not likely return to the way that it was – then, at least, we place ourselves in a position of avoiding the conflict that comes from denial. So, with this reality check we can either hold on to what was and cross our fingers in hope for a miracle, or we can say: “what next”. What can, or even should the restaurant business look like during and after the pandemic?

Yes, there must be a significant effort placed on immediate survival (we don’t know how long “immediate” will last), but even more importantly – we must think, study, inquire, assess, innovate, and strategize on what “restaurants” will become in 6 months, a year, or longer.

When you free yourself of trying to protect what is un-protectable then we are able to think without self-imposed constraints. This is a perfect time to outline a course of action by establishing what you know in your heart must change, defining the opportunities and unmet needs that are before us, and establishing a desire to not let roadblocks get in the way of change. Here are some thoughts:

[]         NEEDS TO CHANGE:
*          Dependence on reasonable rent and realistic landlords

-Maybe a restaurant owner’s desire to lock into a brick and mortar     establishment is no longer appropriate.

-Maybe a landlord’s separation from the business of running a restaurant is             no longer the type of relationship that restaurateurs should seek.

-Maybe landlords and restaurant owners need to have stronger partner        relationships.

-Maybe the idea of the pop-up restaurant with very short-term leases makes            more sense – the restaurateur finds the most appropriate location in the moment.

  • Dependence on many hands to get the job done

-Should restaurant chefs re-think the menu model that has survived for        generations?

-Do we need that much choice, should there be more reliance on simple         process with exceptional, seasonal ingredients and far less mise en place             requiring many hands?

-Should menus be fixed or should they evolve weekly or even daily?

-Should more emphasis be placed on pre-preparation and point of service be           reserved for those who are fast and efficient rather than the guardians of           taste?

-Is there a stronger market for very high quality convenience ingredients that          minimize labor while maintaining the quality standards of an operation?

  • Substandard profitability

-Restaurants cannot continue as viable businesses (put aside the important emotion of wanting to cook and make people happy) with profit margins in       the single digits. Something has to give.

-Shouldn’t menus reflect the use of less expensive, high quality ingredients   that are geared towards profit (chicken legs vs. Kobe beef)?

-Vendor relationships with restaurants must become more of a profit             partnership. If the restaurant succeeds –so too will the vendor. The vendor             must establish the means of helping the restaurant reach their financial        goals.

  • Substandard compensation packages for employees

-As difficult as it is to attract quality restaurant employees now – it will           become impossible in the future. We must look at employee compensation            as a priority.

-Should restaurants investigate hybrid compensation that include       performance bonuses or even profit sharing at some level?

-If we become more efficient is it possible to accomplish restaurant goals       with fewer, well-trained, talented employees who are paid well for these             skills and aptitudes?

  • A need to market when marketing is not your forte

-Restaurants can no longer operate in a marketing vacuum and buying ads   while they cross fingers and hope that work – s is no a strategy.

-Restaurants inherently know that social media is an important medium        right now, but very few understand how to use it.

-Should an internal social media manager become as essential as an assistant           manager or sous chef?

  • The unpredictability of business volume

-This, of course, ties in with marketing, but never knowing what to truly         expect from day-to-day leads to miscalculations on staffing, ordering, and             production. Predictability comes from a more aggressive reservation model.

-Building a program of dependable analytics is essential for restaurant          volume management. The math is important!

-Finding, and using a POS system that provides this data is one of the wisest             decisions that an owner and chef can make.

  • A supply chain that is in control

-Restaurants are often times at the mercy of the supply chain. When we       allow ourselves to fall into a dependence scenario with vendors then we       relinquish our control.

-Find vendors that are service oriented, demand that your vendor      relationships be service oriented, and valuing those relationships will go a          long way.

-Plan your menus with vendors so that quality, quantity, and service are a     given up front.

It’s a brave new world for restaurateurs – think about those challenges, but keep your eye on the opportunities. Forward thinking and a willingness to change are door openers – enthusiasm for change is a game changer.

“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

—Warren Buffett


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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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