It was 1969 when the acclaimed “super group” – Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker caused a stir with their self-titled album. Although the group was short lived, they did leave us with an applicable lyric:
DO WHAT YOU LIKE:
“Do right, use your head, everybody must be fed
Get together, break your bread, yes, together, that’s what I said
Do what you like”
Well, to a significant degree chefs have been working on blind faith for decades. The hope was that by doing more, working harder and longer, making more complicated menus, and pushing the envelope of creativity the restaurant industry would rise up to new levels of success. Menus became encyclopedic, the skills to execute these menus were over the top, the equipment that allowed for this level of creativity was space age and expensive, the intensity and stress in the kitchen was as heavy as lead, and the number of staff members required to execute this complexity was painful.
Chefs and those aspiring to become chefs gave up any semblance of balance in their lives to be part of this madness, dozens of vendors were required to meet the ingredient needs of complex menus, dining room table tops were plagued by extraordinarily expensive inventories of Riedl glassware, bone china and sterling silver flatware; and wine cellars became museums for wine selections from around the world that rang up hundreds of thousands of dollars in rare vintages to support the menus that chef’s felt compelled to design.
At the end of service when the lights were finally turned off over the $50K combi ranges, bank of sous vide set-ups, All-Clad pots and pans, Vitamix blenders, Paco-Jets, and anti-griddles – chefs were left exhausted, bruised, angry, desperate to keep the line cooks that they had just belittled for placing fresh herbs with stainless tweezers at 3 o’clock instead of 5 o’clock on the plate, and discovering that although the dining room was full of 4-hour dining patrons, and wine was served at every table – the restaurant was still not profitable.
Down the street – a cadre of small independent restaurants with smaller staff requirements and tasty rustic menus would have been profitable except rents on their space had gone through the roof ever since this high end, 8-course menu, mecca restaurant opened its doors. These small restaurant operators opened and closed their doors at an alarming rate simply because they couldn’t afford the space.
Any reasonable person would look at these situations, scratch his or her head and wonder what in the world was everyone thinking. This was the restaurant world, or at least part of it, prior to the pandemic. This is a restaurant world that is not sustainable. This is the restaurant world that must change – and it will.
Chefs and restaurateurs need the freedom to “do what they like” and find success in terms of restaurant profitability, life balance, happy guests, and fulfilled employees. This is what needs to happen and this is what will happen – chef’s and restaurateurs have permission to change.
In a recent article about Danny Meyer – NYC restaurateur extraordinaire, he talks about his epiphany over the past year – an opportunity he had to truly assess everything about his restaurants and the accepted approach towards operation.
“Never again in our careers will we be able to take the boat out of water and put it in dry dock for a year to inspect every inch of its underbelly and make it seaworthy again,”
“We want to make sure when we put the boat back in the water, it’s a sounder boat and does business in a better way.”
-Danny Meyer – Union Square Hospitality
Danny Meyer is giving all of us permission to change the accepted approach towards the restaurant business and the way that we measure success.
Fairness, equality, respectable pay, balanced lives, manageable menus, fair third-party fee structures, and operations that stand a better chance of earning a profit must be key to a formula for success moving forward. This is an opportunity and an absolute requirement moving forward – we must embrace this and more.
Menus that reflect excellent ingredients and seasonality, menus that offer less choice, but the highest standards of quality, presentations that are naturally beautiful but that do not require an army to assemble, flavors that excite and satisfy, service that is real and filled with honest to goodness hospitality, dining rooms that are comfortable, cheerful and fun, and prices that allow for profitability while making sense to a larger swath of guests – this is what we have permission to focus on.
Let’s keep our standards high with fewer, well-paid employees who have the ability to engage in exciting careers and balance a life beyond the kitchen or dining room. We can do this and there has never been a better time to think about how we move in this direction.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG
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