Foodie Fever Dreams Can’t Keep Restaurants Afloat

DEEP RUN, N.C. — When René Redzepi announced he would close Noma, his Michelin three-star restaurant/work camp in Copenhagen, food magazines and newspapers treated the inability to run a profitable business as Mr. Redzepi’s problem. That is, a problem that emerges only when you call your kitchen a lab and your cooks will work without pay, just to have your name on their résumé. But extremist fine dining’s challenges are just the amuse-bouche in a multicourse menu of the rotting state of the restaurant business.

A large part of the hospitality industry is ravaged, thanks to the pandemic and its fallout. Even spots that pivoted through the initial crisis were soon suffocated by labor shortages or a mucked-up supply chain. But restaurants were struggling with losses in staffing, momentum and revenue long before 2020. The pandemic merely made obvious the archaic and limited nature of our gerbil wheel of a business model.

I recently closed my flagship restaurant in Kinston, N.C. For more than 15 years, Chef & the Farmer was a star in the farm-to-table sky. Our food exalted my region’s little-known cuisine, and the level of service we provided was an anomaly for miles. Chef & the Farmer wasn’t Noma. Our average check hovered around $60 per person. (At Mr. Redzepi’s? It’s $500 a pop.) We did not bury, dehydrate or reconcentrate things in our kitchen, but everyone — even the interns — got paid.

Even so, Chef & the Farmer closed, in large part because the inefficiencies, stress and fatigue brought by an unsustainable business model became impossible to ignore. Our industry needs to evolve or else more full-service, cuisine-driven restaurants like mine will languish their way to extinction.

Chef & the Farmer belonged to a corner of the industry where carrot dishes cost $16 and menus were printed nightly because said carrots were reimagined by a tweezer-bedecked wizard on a whim. We didn’t just serve cocktails, coffee and wine — we had a “beverage program,” and a director to oversee it. From the outside, our candlelit symphony of sophisticated servers, sommeliers and hosts looked just as we intended, bearing knowing smiles as they made round trips to the kitchen to fetch magic from the wizard herself.

But while guests sipped and savored their painstakingly created foodie fever dreams, the people behind the scenes got slammed — or, to apply some of the other words we used to describe our experience as we put together yours, we got crushed, pummeled and murdered.

Paper-thin margins make a career in this industry either a distinct choice or a dead end. Restaurateurs depend on alcohol sales to pay a large portion of our staff, and we rely largely on our guests’ tips to pay everyone else. Even when sales couldn’t be better, many independently owned restaurants have to overwork salaried employees and underpay hourly ones. It’s all but impossible to offer meaningful benefits like health insurance or paid leave. That’s perhaps why you so rarely hear a parent say: “You should get into the restaurant business. It looks like a nice life.”

Why are our margins so small? For starters, several people spent hours transforming in-a-husk corn into that artfully plated smoked corn agnolotti.Many restaurants have prep cooks, butchers, sous chefs, bakers, managers and custodians who spend hours on the clock before the restaurant opens and begins taking in revenue.

Restaurants also require expensive specialized equipment. Our staff needs to cook on a range, fry in a fryer and do dishes in the dish pit. None of that is possible without a robust hood system. Pricey equipment, even pricier infrastructure, all the small things (plates, linens, flatware, pots and pans) and the not-so-small things (tables, chairs, light fixtures and signs) turn dinner into an experience worth remembering. A restaurant is a hefty investment that looks terrible on paper — but when we have a spitfire talent at the helm, we convince ourselves that it just might work.

I’m not the first to recognize the fallacies of our business model. Fast food, counter service and drive-throughs proliferate for a reason. Think about your region’s most noteworthy chef, the one with a James Beard Award and a custom apron. I bet at a certain point, after being anointed a creative genius by diners and journalists, your favorite magician decided to pull a burger joint, a taco shop or a fried chicken shack out of his or her toque.

I did it myself, twice. After five years, Chef & the Farmer had grown quite popular. We were about as busy as we could be, but staying open was a balancing act between making money and losing it. We had staff to promote to management but nowhere for them to go, so with a dose of hubris we opened a burger spot called the Boiler Room right across the street. Five more years later, we opened a pizza place more than an hour away.

For us, any culturally appropriate concept would have done as long as it involved less service, labor, square footage — really less of everything than its demanding, insatiable money pit of a big sister. All we needed was volume. The goal was to make enough profit from burgers and pizza to ensure the future of the mother ship, Chef & the Farmer. That’s a lot of investment to try to make money off the original.

Those efforts were measurable success stories. But opening new locations is soon met with diminishing returns. Resources get stretched. Morale wavers. The magic that kept the bad investment afloat the first time inevitably gets diluted. A growing restaurant group is made of stepsisters, black sheep and favorite children. Nobody goes to work for Vivian Howard so they can flip burgers at the Boiler Room.

There are alternatives. We could raise prices, but any price adjustment that would wholly fill the cracks in our foundation would be so high that it would drive customers away. Brunch, lunch or breakfast could also increase revenue. However, brunch and the like require staff who work for tips, which are never as rewarding when you’re serving eggs Benedict. And when people have the opportunity to eat in your restaurant for a lower price, they often do. That tends to be enough to satisfy someone’s taste for a while.

I love where the last 30 reckless years pushed the experience of dining out. But, in that time, our industry has failed to similarly push our business model to sustainability. To thrive, we have to start thinking like chefs in our offices as much as in our kitchens: Make the most out of the least and don’t waste anything.

I plan to reopen Chef & the Farmer in the next year. It will suit both the guests and the people who feed them. We won’t rely on the diners to pay servers; the chefs will serve, cafeteria style, at our retrofitted kitchen bar. The energy we put into elevated service and its trappings will flow directly into the only “program” we have chosen to keep — our food. Most important, we will open to diners just four days a week, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., because that’s the kind of schedule that nurtures staff retention.

But our kitchen will make money seven days a week, because we’ll be cooking for people whose butts are not in our dining room. Chefs who have graduated from nights on the line to quiet days in the kitchen will cook meals to stock the restaurant’s small collection of free-standing, strategically located smart fridges. Covid gave us many horrible things, but it also birthed a new and relatively inexpensive way to enjoy food tapped by a chef’s magic wand at home. Next-level take-and-bakes, chef-prepared assemble-and-eats and pasta deliveries, when coupled with an already operating kitchen, will help make us whole.

It may sound far-fetched and parts of it may not work, but our industry needs to do more with less. Why build a ghost kitchen when you already have one with which to make magic?

Vivian Howard (@chefandthef), a chef and restaurateur, is the author of two cookbooks and the host of the PBS series “A Chef’s Life” and “Somewhere South.”

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