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The greatest threat is not the labor shortage or supply chain issues, it’s not the pandemic or the price of real estate – yes, all those concerns are troubling and must be dealt with, but they are not what will bring the restaurant industry to its knees.  Well then – what will?  Try apathy on for size.

What concerns me the most, and what should concern others is a changing attitude towards what we do, a malaise that starts to smell of giving up, of not trying that hard anymore.  Maybe it’s me but I have seen a growing number of restaurants (certainly not the majority at this point) who are simply not trying that hard anymore.  They appear to have thrown up their hands in defeat and are now on automatic pilot just hoping to “get by”.

Over charged and underwhelmed seems to be a growing trend in some restaurants that are fooled into believing that things are going to get better or worse no matter what they do.  Pride in doing things right is a tremendous motivator for employees, owners, and customers and a lack thereof catches up pretty quick.  Restaurants are busy now, much of it is pent up demand from two years of partial lockdown due to the pandemic.  This is a false sense of relief unless restaurant’s view this as a new chance to shine, a chance to be exceptional at what they do whether it is serving pizza or seven-course meals.  If a restaurant gives up that desire to excel and gives in to mediocrity, then failure is just around the corner.

Thinking that the way to recover from the financial pains of a once in a century pandemic is to cut back on quality product and service and push the ceiling on pricing is short-sighted and ill-conceived as a strategy.  People do care about value and once the splash of being able to get out of the house wears off, value assessment will be paramount once again. 

Apathy is a disease that spreads as quickly as a virus.  It infects others who are easily convinced that it is the way it needs to be.  The industry can and has recovered from the impact of infection, financial downturns and collapse, overwhelming labor issues, and a litany of other challenges, but it is very hard to recover from apathy.  Is it a case of not knowing how to be great or is it a real lack of desire?

“Is it ignorance or apathy?  Hey, I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

-Jimmy Buffet (musician)

When I read an article the other day about BMW charging a subscription fee for heated seats in their cars, I thought: “Where are we going with this?”  Ah, a subscription is a way to boost revenue without providing any real service and then feeding off the vulnerability of customers.  Of course, people want heated seats: “Oh well, I guess we have to pay, and pay, and pay for something that was previously part of the deal.”  Now I see a number of restaurants charging for bread – something that was always part of the value package.  Is this just another result of apathy?  Is it a way of saying: “We have given up on excellence so let’s charge more and offer less”.

I have seen respectable restaurants take tiny moves in the wrong direction: moving to artificial creamer for their coffee because it doesn’t require shelf-life management, failing to inspect flatware, glassware, and plates for cleanliness before they wind up in front of a guest (I guess it takes too much time to check), Ignoring the need for training of service staff who are left to their own devices to figure the job out, or something as simple as giving up on uniforms to save on cost.  I continue to see good restaurants lose a step with their food preparation, flavors, and plate presentations and shrinking menus that no longer inspire.  It is all very troubling even though these restaurants may be busy at the moment.  At some point it will all fall apart.

What once was an exciting part of a trip (finding new restaurants to enjoy), is far too often a gamble that results in empty wallets and disappointed palates.  It is apathy that kills a restaurant, not environmental factors that make operation challenging.  We need to stand up and fight apathy, stand up against mediocrity and push hard for excellence as the standard of operation.  Excellence and value go hand in hand and value is what will set the stage for a restaurant’s success.

“Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things:  first, an ideal that takes the imagination by storm, and second – an intelligible plan for carrying that ideal forward into practice.”

-Arnold J. Toynbee (author and historian)

This is not the time to succumb to mediocrity, not the time to push quality aside, and not the time to think we can reach success simply by raising prices.  We need to grab onto that ideal and run with it.  We need to build enthusiasm among our staff members and create an environment of excellence starting with the small things.  Everything counts in a value formula.

I am reminded of those scenes on the sidelines of a sporting event when one team seems deflated, when they succumb to their feelings of hopelessness and as a result fail to perform as they could and should.  You can see and feel defeat in the air – it is just a matter of time before it all falls apart.  Unless…a coach or player steps up and says “NO”!  “We are not going to give up our pursuit for excellence, we are not going to fall prey to mediocrity, we are not going to let apathy work its way through the team and infect all who allow it to take charge.  We are better than that!”  How many times have we witnessed those miraculous comebacks when apathy is pushed aside, and possibility comes into play? 

Now is the time for restaurants to look at those who continue to embrace excellence, who never sacrifice quality, and who understand the importance of the value formula.  Now is the time to renounce apathy and commit to excellence.  Let’s do this before it’s too late.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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