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The most challenging part of difficult times is living in the moment.  Today is what gives us the most angst since we live in uncharted territory with all of the unpredictable factors that align with it.  Yesterday is easy to look back on – it gives us strength and a point of reference, it provides context and the ability to analyze our actions, and it provides hope since we managed to work our way through it.  Tomorrow is inspiring and energizing since it provides opportunity and possibility without the burden of reality, it lifts us up and points the way to thinking in a positive manner – a manner that demonstrates that anything is possible if we set a course and stick to our commitment.  Ah, but TODAY is the tough one.  “How will we get through this, what else can possibly happen, will we survive to see those brighter times?”  This is where the restaurant industry is today, this is where chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs sit in the moment, and this is what keeps us all up at night – challenges without definitive answers.

There is plenty of hope and promise to be found in history – so maybe this is a good starting point.   Quite possibly we can find potential answers in the things that we miss, the challenges that we have, and similar points in time when others had faced similar situations.  So, as we close out on 2020 – here are some reflections and outcomes in the past that we might learn from.

[]         A DRAMATIC EVENT, BEYOND OUR CONTROL HAS SHUT THE DOOR ON RESTAURANT BUSINESS

Over the past 100-years our country has struggled through a number of earth shattering events that have changed the course of our lives, and re-shaped the structure of our life environment.  America has moved through two world wars, Prohibition, the 1918 pandemic, polio and tuberculosis, the Korean War, Vietnam, the tragedy of 9-11, the Great Depression and the economic collapse in 2008 as well as a number of recessions along the way, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now another epic pandemic.  It is hard to imagine how we have been able to still prosper and keep a positive outlook – yet we have and do.  During each of these events small businesses like restaurants have been challenged to stay afloat, yet alone grow.  Restaurants have always been, to varying degrees, viewed by many as a luxury that can easily be put aside when times are tough.  In fact, when times are tough – restaurants are even more important.  When we collectively are able to move past each of these life-changing cycles – it is the restaurant that helps to bring light and excitement back into people’s lives.  Restaurants have always been one of the first businesses to recover – people need to gather, to lift those glasses, to break bread and to celebrate all that is good and all that is promised.

Loads of future thinkers are projecting the demise of the restaurant business after Covid -19 subsides, but just as many have done the same after each of the other earth-shattering events listed in this article.  Certainly, there will be victims of these challenging times and many, many restaurants that we love will never open their doors again – but the restaurant business will evolve, adapt, regain energy, and find a way to thrive again.  We hope that our government will learn to respect the important role that restaurants play in our way of life and lend a helping hand, but even if this fails to happen – the American spirit of entrepreneurship will find a way – of this I am certain.

[]         LIMITATIONS ARE PLACED ON RESTAURANT OPERATIONS THAT EAT AWAY AT THE POTENTIAL FOR PROFITABILITY

It is difficult to argue with safety precautions designed to keep people well and thwart the spread of the virus.  At the same time it is worth noting that restaurants cannot survive at 50% capacity or worse, lockdowns that prevent any inside dining, take out or delivery only, or an environment that limits the “experience of dining out”.  It is certainly not the first time that the restaurant business has been faced with these types of challenges – Prohibition as an example.  Serving alcohol has always been the primary profit driver in full-service restaurants and when Prohibition took that option off the table then restaurants were hard put to find a path to profitability.  Of course their answer of serving alcohol illegally is not the best approach, but the fact remains that restaurants found a way – they had to. 

Fighting the common sense approach to limiting customer and employee exposure may make sense emotionally, but it is not realistic.  The only viable solution is to find ways to adapt and change to discover an approach that is safe, exciting for customers, and one that provides owners with the ability to earn a living. 

We have, as an example, predicted the death of fine dining through 9-11, the 2008 economic collapse, and every recession from the early 1960’s on.  Just as restaurants of this caliber seem to be on the precipice – they find a way to reshape what fine dining means, reinvent themselves, and rise back to a level of prominence.   If history is our guide, this transition will happen again – recognition, re-evaluation, re-invention, and revitalization.

Limitations force us to look for alternatives and workarounds.  Knowing that from insurmountable obstacles come the next wave of brilliant ideas – restaurateurs and chefs can and should rely on their innate ability to problem solve and invest in resilience and creativity to find a new way.

Finally, when we relinquish our desire to truly serve, when we fail to exemplify the word “hospitality”, when we give up on that part of the experience because we feel that limitations do not allow for it to occur – then we are doomed.  It has always been about hospitality and will always be so.  It is this commitment to making people feel welcome, special, and thought well of is the key to a return to success.

“Hospitality is central to the restaurant business, yet it’s a hard idea to define precisely.  Mostly, it involves being nice to people and making them feel welcome.  You notice it when it’s there, and you particularly notice it when it isn’t.  A single significant lapse in this area can be your dominant impression of an entire meal.”

_John Lanchester

[]         THE MAGIC OF WORKING IN A PROFESSIONAL KITCHEN HAS LOST ITS SHINE

As we ideate our way to a new business model it is important to remember that hiring passionate, creative, dynamic, excited employees will always be the way to success.  Every new business model must provide a platform for these individuals to be expressive.  Without this dynamic, a restaurant will be relegated to a standardized product and level of service that provides a means to an end, but will rarely entice great employees to knock on your door. 

We (the industry of food) created employee attraction throughout the 80’s and 90’s by elevating the status of talented chefs to become the centerpiece of the food experience.  Just as in the past, it will be important for the food industry to present kitchen work as inspiring, important, beneficial, exciting, and rewarding both professionally and financially.  As long as cooks and chefs view the work of the kitchen as a job with a paycheck then the brilliance of culinary artistry will take a back seat to free agency.  When chefs simply seek out the highest bidder for their skills and talent then the sparkle of a career in food will falter and fewer and fewer individuals will commit to tie on an apron and dedicate the effort.

Those of us who have spent a significant part of our lives working in kitchens, interacting with a well connected team, embracing great raw materials as we transition them into beautiful plates of food, and helping to make people smile, relax, laugh, and raise a glass in friendship – are distraught.  Our purpose, and our passion have been devastated over the past 9-months and we know that it will still take time before things truly begin to improve.  It may seem a bit hopeless to some and difficult at best to others, but rest assured – the environment where restaurants exist will improve, in fact it will likely improve dramatically.  Life in the kitchen will change, but there is little doubt that the role of restaurants in the human experience will rise up again.  The talent, passion, and ambitions that you have as a cook, chef, or entrepreneur is simply dormant right now – a period of hibernation.  We will fill a void that has been gnawing at the fabric of the American experience for far too long – the need to gather, to break bread, to enjoy a great meal, and to laugh will never go away.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

HERE’S TO A VERY PROMISING 2021

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