Another column on the restaurant industry
I attended a happy hour hosted by one of my favorite restaurants, Butcher’s shop. It was a “thank you” for Chef’s Brigade and it was awfully nice.
I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of restaurateurs who have participated in the Mass Food Initiative as well as some of their employees. I had the opportunity to spend time with some of the people who made the program run smoothly: Darnell Head and Jessica Lerouge from Revolution Foods; Leah Sarris, April Boudreaux and Trey Pressner of NOCHI; and our organization, co-founder Troy Gilbert and member of the board of directors and essential human Melanie Talia of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation.
We couldn’t have done what we did without any of these people, but at the end of the day we couldn’t have done anything without the people who work in the back of the house. It’s not the people who get the attention, but they are the ones who do the heavy lifting.
I remember when I started writing about restaurants almost two decades ago. I was struck by the chefs I interviewed. I looked at them like rock stars and for a while they were – maybe they still are – but the scales fell from my eyes at this point and I can’t think of a chef that I know who would oppose my reconfigured sense of place.
Because chefs are ultimately people who run a kitchen. Some of them are cooking and some are just stepping up, but all of them have to worry about the economics of the restaurant industry and dollars and cents aren’t that good right now.
Restaurant owners are taking a huge risk by opening a restaurant and they have to hire people to make their vision a reality. I have yet to meet a restaurateur who does not want to pay their employees more than they can. But they can only pay what their income allows and sometimes it is not a living wage.
The problem is, in this country, we don’t pay enough for our food.
I don’t mean to say that we pay too little in restaurants – or not just that we pay too little in restaurants, because for most restaurants we don’t pay enough.
The truth is we pay too little for all of our food. We don’t pay enough for produce, meat, poultry, seafood, or whatever. We’ve been spoiled to the point that we take abundance for granted, but the truth is, our cheap food comes at a cost. The big food companies are shutting small farms out of the market, and the system is in place to let them do just that. When the system is rigged, it’s not a “free market”, is it?
Our country was once a place where the majority of citizens lived on a farm. We will never go back for many reasons, but even 20 years ago there were thousands more family farms than today. We have decided as a society that we value cheap food more than family farms, and it is very difficult to argue that this is not a valid decision on a purely economic basis.
But it trickles. The increased efficiency of agriculture due to mechanization and the vast scale of operations means that fewer and fewer real humans are involved in the production of the food we eat. It also affects the restaurant industry.
Upscale restaurants that serve you chicken breasts from local farms charge you a fair price for it and hopefully pay their employees accordingly. These upscale restaurants are the exception. Most restaurants don’t have the resources or the access to farmers to source ingredients in this way and most restaurants can’t charge the kind of money they would need to do it in the first place.
All this does not even address the issue of “fast food” restaurants or “fast casual” restaurants. These chains can buy their ingredients at an even lower cost and therefore can charge less. If your goal is to buy calories at the lowest cost, you would eat at a fast food restaurant every day. They can provide you with calories at a lower cost than you could on your own, taking into account the cost of storing your ingredients and the time and effort you put into cooking.
But if you’re like me, then you probably don’t want to, and you should stop eating so many figs. I suspect you love restaurants and you love the idea that when you dine out, you are supporting the people who cook and serve your food.
I don’t know what we can do to solve this problem other than trying to buy things from local farmers and advocate for a higher minimum wage. I’m not the most liberal guy in the neighborhood, but I’ve come to believe that if you have a law that says ‘this is the minimum you can earn’, that should be enough for you to actually make a living from it. . We can make exceptions when warranted, but what if I have to pay a dollar or two more when I dine to make sure the people who cook and serve my food can pay their rent? I agree and you can call me Leo Trotsky.
There are arguments against this position, and I can’t refute them all now or maybe never, but at least when it comes to catering workers, I can’t look a cook or a waiter in the eye. and tell them that they should be working for something less than they can live on.
I’ll pay a dollar or two more per meal at a fast food restaurant, or a few more dollars at a small independent establishment to ensure that the people who work there are fairly paid. I hope you agree, and I hope there is some kind of movement in that direction nationwide. Because the alternative is pretty grim, and I don’t like the grim unless it’s a fairy tale.
I know this is a very complicated problem and I don’t claim to have covered everything, but before you email me with an explanation of how the market will solve everything, ask yourself if you could pay $ 10. or even $ 20 more per month for your food?