If the restaurant business isn't dead, then it certainly is on life support, in the ICU, with a less than favorable prognosis. That's right, you heard it voiced first here (out loud and clear), what you've been avoiding thinking about but known all along. Your future of dining out will consist of samples on the food aisles of Costco. And it's our own damn fault.
Food and Wine Magazine predicts that restaurants will be cutting hours of operation and days of service because, basically, we've driven our service workers crazy and burned them out by not giving them any reason to believe that they're not being driven like sled dogs and taken advantage of on every level. In short, service workers have left the business. We allowed this to happen.
There are a significant percentage of pre-COVID/pre-hurricane restaurants that have bitten the big one and shut down; some of them were our favorites, some of them we hadn't yet been to. All of them were someone's livelihood and dream and are now someone's heartbreak.
It's long been known that the service industry is run on a placid servant/entitled customer basis. The whole tipping structure shows that if a server is not servant enough, they will get punished by not getting rewarded with gratuity and, conversely, if they are proficient (and "servant enough") at their service, they will reap monetary largess.
Also—considering the kitchen—the back of the house is run for the most part under a unique plantation—like atmosphere and attitude. Workers are expected to accept being driven hard for low wages in a stressful, sometimes combative, environment without the benefit of basic health and welfare compensations. Oh there are some forward thinking managers and chefs that are caring and compassionate. However, there are far too many that are not, have not been, and are not planning to. The classic kitchen philosophy is basically: In order to exceed, you must excel. If you're going to get ahead, you first have to pay dues, do more, accept less, work at pleasing the person in charge, commiserate with your equals, and demean those under you. Don't make waves and you will get ahead—rinse and repeat. Are you familiar with the Bob Dylan song "Maggie's Farm?" That's the reality for most back of the house workers where the health plan has always been "don't get sick."
So what did we do to cause and exacerbate this state of gloom and doom? Well, we created a culture of entitlement and greed. We made it normal for service workers to feel like second class citizens and for us to consider folks working in service not to have a "real job" in an employment atmosphere that stresses the importance of profit at the expense of people.
As we've done with much of blue-collar work, we've pictured cooks and waiters having dead end jobs while chefs, owners, even managers are considered career individuals. But dishwashers, porters, bussers, and maids—well, they must not be able to find other "meaningful work." And that's the attitude that we've shown them when we seek their service. And then guess what? The pandemic came, the businesses shut down, the workers lost their jobs, went on meager unemployment, and then Uncle Sam stepped in and gave everybody an extra six hundred bucks a week. In many cases, that boon was more than what they were making by working.
Surprise, surprise, many service workers realizing that they really did not like their job situations said, "Screw it!" and found other "meaningful" things to do with their time even when pay doubled or, Miss Thing found that she no longer needed to work two jobs and could spend more time with her family. Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
Owners and managers, feeling betrayed, are faced with supply shortages, mandates, shut downs, hurricanes, a raging pandemic, and now a cook that was always on call has decided that he likes working the Farmers Market selling the honey he gets from the bee hives that he bought (with that gravy train money) rather than cooking another thankless brunch shift. Besides, he's got a new baby to play with. He's come to grips with his mortality.
Okay, none of that is true; I made it all up. Everything is fine. It's all a dream. It's all a dream, and you are Cinderella. The pandemic will not, in the near future, reach a million lives lost. We have wonderful infrastructure, gas prices have not risen, groceries will get less expensive, and lawmakers will stop being partisan. I'm your fairy godmother, and that mole on the back of your neck is nothing to worry about. There's no such thing as global warming.
If you're waiting for optimism here, all you'll get is an apology. I am really sorry that the last two years have not only not been a piece of gateau. The fact is, for many of us, the last two years have been scary, bordering on our feeling like the person in Edvard Munch's famous painting. The challenging thing is that it's not looking like we're on the Yellow Brick Road to recovery. Just take the state of our service industry's condition—it is the canary in the coal mine.
So we have to step up to the plate. It starts first by acknowledging that service work is meaningful, essential, and honorable; treating servers like senators, cooks like congressmen (and vice versa). It starts by being grateful, thankful, and kind to all that is around you.
Remember these things: restaurants are temples and need attendance, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, and if you lose your party shoe at midnight, you're not a princess—you're probably inebriated.