Maybe it’s just because I am in the twilight of a career that I am very thankful for, but aware of my own connection to the problems that restaurants face. Maybe it is because now, as a consultant, I see the problems from a different perspective, or maybe it is simply because I am tired of hearing chefs and restaurateurs complain without ever looking in a mirror. But, the monumental challenges that chefs and restaurants face today point directly back to our unwillingness to address situations head on before they turned into chaos.
It is easy to point the finger elsewhere, but the more I study the issues at hand, the more I am convinced that it is a problem that we (chefs and restaurant owners) created or at the very least allowed to get out of control. We are addicted to our own addictions and just as is the case with physical, chemical, and other emotional dependence – the first step in recovery is to admit responsibility. So here are just a few effects and associated causes.
A BAKER’S DOZEN:
- Low Profitability
We have been grumbling for decades about the low return on investment for restaurants, yet there are some operators that do well. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but most point back to our approach. Our menus tend to focus on items that we are comfortable will sell and easy to carry, yet we are hesitant to look at how difficult they may be to reveal reasonable profit. We succumb to the feeling that bigger is better and that to fail to provide excessive portions will result in being shunned by customers. We pay top dollar for out of season ingredients that fail the quality test simply because of our belief that customers insist on anything, anytime, anywhere. And, we fail to effectively train our staff regarding cost controls, waste controls, adherence to recipes, and portioning (at least in full-service restaurant operations).
- Impossible to Find Employees
Is there a restaurant out there that is not in dyer need of staff? I don’t think that I have found any in recent years. It is an on-going problem without an end. So whom can we blame for this? Really, why would we expect young people to be excited about working in restaurants when unemployment is under 4%, there are more jobs around than people to work, restaurant schedules are undependable and ever-changing, pay is low, benefits non-existent, there are still restaurants that fall under the heading of a hostile work environment, the stress of service timing can be almost unbearable, and training is usually an after-thought. Even for those who are passionate and committed, there is little opportunity for upward mobility, better pay, and a reasonable lifestyle. Isn’t it time to look in a mirror?
- Graduates Don’t Meet our Standards
A fairly recent complaint that I have witnessed is the prevalent feeling that culinary schools are not doing a good job of preparing students for the real work in kitchens and restaurants. “Students are slow, have minimal skills, are undependable, have undeveloped palates, and can hardly even identify the ingredients in a kitchen.” Well, how about this reality – we (the industry) relinquished our responsibility for training cooks sometime back in the early 1980’s by passing on that role to schools. Chefs and restaurateurs (with some exceptions) failed to get involved in helping schools design and deliver the type of education that is necessary, and many even viewed their role in providing internships as a chore rather than an opportunity. We expected graduates to hit the ground running knowing full well that most would not have enough time in a pressure situation to be able to act and react with a high level of confidence. So, don’t we share the responsibility and the blame for under-prepared cooks?
- A Prevalence of Mediocrity
Chefs shake their heads with dismay at the number of restaurants and restaurant cooks who view mediocrity as their calling card. Improperly prepared and handled food, uninspired menus, lack of originality and sub-standard or improper flavors, and cooks who look and act as bad as the food they put on a plate. We are dismayed and critical amongst ourselves but fall short of actually calling out these purveyors of mediocrity and trying to help them see the light and improve. In some cases, we have even given in and succumb to their low standards as the new baseline. We failed to take our role of driver of standards as seriously as we should. Too many restaurants, for a variety of reasons, hired people lacking in passion and drive, weak on skills, and as a result felt the pinch of any ability to build towards excellence, and we allowed, in many cases, pricing and profitability beliefs to drive what we made instead of a higher standard of excellence.
- Too much Competition
“I think I’ll open a restaurant – how hard can it be?” We, yes we, have allowed the media to portray the restaurant business as somehow glamorous and profitable. It is a wonderful business, but hey – it’s just damn hard work, and not very profitable to boot. Many restaurants fail because owners simply do not understand this. The American dream is entrepreneurship and it’s just too easy to open a restaurant. The pie keeps getting cut into smaller pieces.
- Trip Advisor and Yelp
Every chef and restaurateur hates Trip Advisor and Yelp, and we all complain about the customer that uses them as a vehicle for communicating their dissatisfaction without giving us a chance to fix their problem. Although these vehicles are sometimes abused – they exist because we did not provide a reasonable avenue for customer complaints and failed at rectifying issues when they were brought to our attention.
- Poor Quality Ingredients from Vendors
The nemesis of many chefs is vendors and salespeople who don’t seem to live up to expectations and who send us ingredients that fall short. Yet, we have not (exceptions are certainly out there) taken a look at the reason for vendor disappointment. We have allowed customers to feel that they can and should expect any ingredient at any time during the year – so farmers, distributors, and wholesale vendors have responded. We buy “fresh” strawberries in February from New Mexico – they are picked early for shipping and arrive at your doorstep with traces of red on the outside and white, tasteless fruit on the inside. At the same time we spend three times what we would for really fresh strawberries in season from your local farmer. Purchasing became too easy with the advent of centralized farming and sophisticated distribution systems. When you don’t have to work for quality ingredients then the end product will suffer.
- Nasty/Inaccurate Image of Working in Restaurants
Every chef I know hates the food network, cable shows that depict screaming chefs who belittle employees, reality TV that points to horrible food safety issues in kitchens of restaurants that are failing miserably, and renegade cooks who treat food as a toy rather than an honored ingredient that can bring loads of joy. Yet, why have we not stood up to this portrayal and said – enough? In some cases we (cooks in particular) have bought into the pirate image of the line cook as a misfit without any direction, and a self-destructive approach towards his or her own life. And, we have allowed some maniac chefs to continue to exist and run kitchens while crushing the enthusiasm and confidence of young cooks starting out. Who is at fault for the image portrayed in the media?
- Lousy Pay and Benefits
I remember back in the 60’s in Buffalo, New York when friends of mine worked at Bethlehem Steel. As members of the union they would occasionally fight for better wages and benefits because of the brutal work that they had to do. They would usually win their fight for better wages, but the job didn’t change – so the pay quickly lost its impact on their quality of life. To some degree this is true in restaurants. There are some jobs that certainly should come with better rates of pay, and for those looking to pursue a career in the kitchen – benefits are an absolute. At the same time, if we don’t fix other parts of the job then that pay will lose much of its sparkle in a short period of time.
Additionally, we (chefs and restaurants) plan concepts and menus that require an excessive number of hands to prepare while at the same time realizing that selling prices are at their ceiling. Something has to give and it usually starts with keeping rates of pay as low as possible. Where should we point the finger?
- Poor Quality of Life
I’m certainly not complaining from my experience – this is what we accepted as the way things are. Our acceptance doesn’t mean that it was right. Nor should we be upset because the next generation says no.
- Restaurant Class Structure
We know it exists – there are all kinds of segmented silos that we allowed to develop: those with a culinary education vs. those without; those who work in proper restaurants vs. those who work in operations that treat food like a commodity; farm to table vs. operations that buy everything from a one stop vendor, those who find success in wearing competition medals vs. those who roll up their sleeves and focus on cooking, and so on. We are all in the food business and can sit down at a common table and discuss our philosophy without demeaning the other.
- Health Concerns of Our Patrons
Obesity is the number one health problem for Americans that can be controlled. Obesity is a cause of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, skeletal problems, and shorter lifespans. Restaurants can easily (as they have) turn their backs on this and say that their role is to provide the customer what they want to buy, and that control is in the hands of the consumer, but don’t we carry some responsibility for what we cook, how we cook, and the size of the portions that we deem as “normal”?
Of course there are issues that we face and there are a multitude of factors that play into those issues, but at least to a degree – we share responsibility. If we can admit our role, then we can certainly unite in helping to find solutions and advocate for positive change. Just a thought.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training