It’s time to accept where we are, listen and understand where we might be going, put aside our frustrations and begin to establish a working strategy that is based on what is inevitable. Yes, I’m talking about what it will be like in our restaurants from this point on and into the foreseeable future.
I know, I know – we all want things to return to normal, and we want the industry we knew to come back just as it was. In the profound words of David Byrne: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” But the fact of the matter is: it will not likely ever be the same as it ever was. So, take a deep breath, kick a few empty five-gallon buckets around the kitchen (make sure they are empty), release a string of expletives if it makes you feel better, and take a few ibuprofens to address that constant headache. Sometimes, things start to feel better when you know that the decisions are much clearer now than they were a few months ago – even if the clarity is not what we hoped for.
So, here is what we know and what we must learn to work with:
 COVID PROTOCOLS WILL LIKELY BE WITH US FOR SOME TIME:
You’re tired of it, your employees are tired of it, and your customers are tired of, but it is the second-best tool in your toy chest (next to the vaccine) to help keep this pandemic under control and keep everyone safe. Many indicators point to Covid as a constantly mutating virus that comes back in a different form every year. This means that booster shots, like the flu vaccine, will be an annual reality and masks and other internal protocols will probably be either recommended or required at some level for months or even years to come (sorry to burst your bubble).
 SOME OF YOUR BEST EMPLOYEES WON’T BE COMING BACK:
They stepped away while you were shut down, they had time to evaluate and take a hard look at the pros and cons and concluded that working in restaurants just wasn’t worth it. The pay was not the best, the benefits not so great, the hours and uncertainty of schedules frustrating, the physical work demanding, the environment stressful, and working evenings and holidays quite anti-social. So, they decided to look for a change of career. We didn’t address all those issues when we should have and now the pandemic made it all too obvious that it was time for them to cut the apron strings.
 FINDING NEW STAFF WILL BE A CHALLENGE FOR QUITE A WHILE:
The same media that made our industry exciting and attractive (unrealistically attractive) for decades has now invested in pointing out on social media, in newspapers and magazines, in expose books, and on television that working in restaurants has a dark side. Combine this with the cost of a culinary or hospitality education and the 30-year payback to become debt free and many young students are turning their backs on a restaurant career.
 LABOR WILL BE MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE
Those employees that you are able to attract, especially the good ones, will be able to demand significantly higher wages and much broader benefit packages. Yep, we might actually have to pay people a fair wage for the work that they do. Ouch!
 WE DO NEED TO ADDRESS WORK/LIFE BALANCE FOR EVERYONE:
It is absolutely true that when you find something that you enjoy doing, time investment is far less a concern, but try telling that to a good employee who has a family that also demands his or her attention. When the stress of the job, especially the demands for excellence, poise, teamwork, service mentality, and competence, become over-bearing then everyone loses. We (all of us) need to see these roadblocks, listen to our employees, and find ways to create a more accommodating environment – one that treats people with respect and works to create a user-friendly space where employees can perform well and feel good about themselves.
 CUSTOMERS ARE ANGRY WITH THE WORLD AND THEY SEEM TO ENJOY TAKING IT OUT ON YOUR STAFF – DON’T TOLERATE IT!
Of course, we all get it. Life has been very challenging of late, and everyone is tired, on edge, frustrated beyond belief, and just DONE. We are all ready to own our lives again and enjoy the simple things – like going out for a meal. When the frustrations that a person feels translates to treating our employees poorly, placing blame on their shoulders for the protocols that they are required to enforce, and ignorance of the unique staffing challenges that continues to shoot holes in our delivery systems – then chefs and restaurateurs need to step in to protect the well-being of their employees. The customer isn’t always right when they look down on our staff and try to make their lives unbearable. Don’t allow it – there is no space for that crap in our places of work.
 THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS BROKEN AND WILL BE FOR A WHILE:
This is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Staffing is difficult, customers are sometimes miserable, everyone is tired, and many are afraid, but now we can’t even depend on receiving the supplies that we need to conduct business. Reminds me of that telling moment in the movie Network, when people hung their heads out of their apartment windows and yelled: “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Well, the supply chain is bigger than all of us, very complex, and apparently – very fragile. We can’t find staff, but neither can farmers, processors, supply ports, trucking companies, and even air carriers who bring that beautiful fresh fish to your door or wild mushrooms from Washington State. So, it’s time to build contingency plans with this in mind – the problem will not be fixed overnight.
 SMALLER MENUS ARE A MUST, AT LEAST FOR NOW:
Chefs do like to strut their stuff. We do like to show what we can do through our menus, train our staff how each should be prepared, how they should taste, and how they must be presented on the plate. Unfortunately, staffing and supply issues make large menus impossible to maintain. Get accustomed with smaller menus and fluid ones that change in an instant based on what is available.
 RIGHT NOW, VALUE IS FOCUSED ON SAFETY, TRUST, AND EFFICIENCY – EVENTUALLY IT WILL TURN BACK TO QUALITY AND PRICE:
We need to be ready to wow our guests again with exceptional, interesting, flavor packed, beautiful food and warm, friendly, comfortable service. This never goes out of style so don’t be coaxed into thinking that a safe and efficient restaurant can survive without the magic of the kitchen and its cooks.
 LESS COMPETITION DUE TO RESTAURANT CLOSURES IS NOT A GOOD THING FOR YOU:
Less competition means less interest in those related careers. Less competition means less incentive to always stay on the cutting edge with product and service, less competition means that fewer people in your community will view a lunch or dinner out as the “thing to do”. We should applaud competition, welcome it, and learn from it.
 DON’T PUSH ASIDE FOOD TO GO, FOOD DELIVERY, GHOST KITCHENS, OR CURBSIDE PICK-UP JUST YET:
Yep, it saved many restaurants and our customers embraced it – now we can’t forget it. We need to become incredible at food to go – figure out ways to maintain quality, package it beautifully so that it looks fantastic, and create a “to go experience” that is comparable to in-person dining. A tall task, but necessary. To go is here to stay.
 SURVIVAL IS THE FIRST THING ON A CHEF’S JOB DESCRIPTION RIGHT NOW:
All hands-on deck! We can’t afford to close, and we can’t afford to open – UNLESS – everyone in your operations is part of the solution. Survival means the right menu, perfectly prepared and presented food, real service that includes the cooks desire to always say YES, clean, and upbeat dining rooms, with staff who offer service with a smile, and cost control on everyone’s mind. It means, more than ever before that every guest is important AND it means that if, in your position, you are not serving the guest directly, then you must serve someone who is.
 FORGET THE EXECUTIVE CHEF TITLE – WORKING CHEF IS MUCH MORE REALISTIC RIGHT NOW:
It may be some time before the chef with a clipboard is back. If you haven’t done so for some time – be prepared to occasionally work a station, engage in prep, push a few racks through the dish machine, and yes – help to bus tables and mop an occasional floor. This is a good thing – roll up your sleeves, the chef won’t always have the cleanest uniform in the kitchen.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Prepare for the New Reality
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