It seems that every time I check my email or flip through postings in social media – there is another restaurant, food business, or culinary school preparing to close their doors. It is heartbreaking to read of life visions dashed and even long-standing, viable businesses choosing to throw in the towel. I am writing this to tell you that, in most cases, this does not have to be the storyline.
There is no shortage of organizations established to support their segment of a far-reaching industry. We have organizations for bakers, pastry chefs, savory chefs, executive chefs, corporate chefs, club chefs, restaurateurs, cooks dedicated to sustainability, whole food chefs, college food service directors, culinary educators, hoteliers, club managers, dietitians and nutritionists, vegetable farmers, dairy farmers, cheese makers, servers, bartenders, mixologists, grape growers, wine makers, and sommeliers. Each has a focus on issues and opportunities for their particular group, but rarely do they talk effectively with one another.
I tend to try and separate cause and effect – knowing that nothing will truly change unless we identify cause and focus on that. Restaurants, culinary schools, producers, and those in the beverage business are suffering because of the pandemic, but there were (and still are) plenty of other crisis situations facing these segments long before Covid-19. Restaurant profits are too low, finding competent staff is far too difficult, prices of ingredients keep rising, rents are out of sight, culinary school enrollment continues to decline, competition is too expansive, cost of an education doesn’t match rates of pay, industry pay scales and benefit offerings are too low, and marketing is way too confusing in the era of technology and social media. How many of these challenges might be addressed if all of these silo groups actually viewed themselves as part of the same business and worked together?
Here are some things that I know to be true:
 Restaurants Will Rise Up Again
When WWI and WWII ended – restaurants and bars were some of the first businesses to recover. When the Great Depression came to an end – restaurants and bars positioned themselves to thrive. As we rebuilt American pride after 9/11 – restaurants stood in position to greet a reinvigorated American spirit. Following the economic devastation of 2008 – restaurants hunkered down for months and then came back refreshed and charged up. And when we are able to bring the pandemic under control – the same recovery for restaurants will be the case. Restaurants and bars will be different; their product, service, and method of operation will likely change – but they will rise up again.
 Culinary Schools Will Be In Demand Again
Those schools that self-evaluate and communicate effectively with the industry they serve will always be needed. The question is – are they willing to change? The purpose of colleges is to teach, prepare, train and connect students with the rest of their lives. The purpose is not to generate degrees. When they start to look at the relevance of products that they offer and diversify from the standard degree; and once they connect better with the industry that hires their graduates, they will stand tall and thrive. Schools cannot continue to exist in their own bubble – creating content that fails to align with the industry they serve. They cannot continue to create programs that place graduates in debt for 20-years following graduation and, they cannot remain effective unless they deliver an education model that takes advantage of industry partnerships.
 Bars Will Once Again Become a Preferred Meeting Place
People love to gather, to connect with friends and make new ones. Restaurants and bars have always served that purpose and they will again once people are comfortable with being out in public. In fact, I would dare to guess that bars, in particular, would find themselves busier than ever before.
 Smaller Farms Will Become Essential Once Again
One thing that has become very apparent during this pandemic is that our supply chain is far more fragile than we thought. Compound this with the impact of climate change on centralized production and we have a real concern that reaches far beyond the altruistic and environmental reasons for connecting with local farms. Although a very difficult business – the opportunities for smaller regional and local farms will only grow. But, farmers and chefs must work together to create this model. Neither can exist in a vacuum. The farmer needs to grow what the chef is looking for and the chef must create more fluid menus that take advantage of growing cycles and the quality derived from peak crop maturity.
 Great Bread Will Be Even More Important to Restaurants in the Future
One thing that we have learned over the past two decades is that great bread is essential to a great restaurant experience. We have also discovered that artisan style bread is preferred over the tasteless, poorly structured products that were prevalent in the American diet for decades. For those who are willing to learn and invest the intense amount of effort – artisan bread will be in much higher demand – thus a business opportunity.
 Private Entrepreneurship Will Prevail in the American Restaurant Industry
Those who have been most impacted by the pandemic are the small, privately owned restaurants in America. Tens of thousands will close their doors, yet the American dream of entrepreneurship will rise up from the ashes and restaurants that have always been, and will once again become – a first choice for those who want to leap into ownership. If banks can become more “user friendly” for restaurants and landlords more reasonable with rent, then your neighborhood restaurant will return – maybe with new owners, certainly with new concepts, and a fresh way of serving the needs of a community.
 More and More People Will Seek to Eat Healthy as They Understand the Impact on Health and Wellbeing
It is inevitable that our obsession with healthcare will lead a larger percentage of the population to work on preventative issues such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart issues – all are linked to the type of food, the method of cooking, and the amount that we eat. Restaurants will need to respond, and they will.
 Profitability and Challenges with the Labor Market Will Eventually Find Common Ground
Restaurants are and always have been highly labor intensive while remaining very stingy with profit. The answer has always been to skimp on rates of pay and benefits creating an ever-challenging swinging door of employees moving from operation to operation for a few pennies more in pay. The likely answer is to change the way we look at production and service leading to more efficient operations requiring fewer employees that can be paid a fair wage with reasonable benefits. Something has to give.
Now, if we can unify our efforts around these realities, if we can connect all of those silo driven organizations to work together for common solutions, then the business of food will thrive and become far more resilient before the next crisis strikes.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
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