The Restaurant Business: My own personal state of the union

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I’ve tried to take a few moments to start writing down some of the history of our time at the restaurants.  It finally feels like a good process – not all good, not all bad.

I am trying to allow some space for the good memories, and the memories that mean something to have some room to exist.  But, in trying to write them down I am faced with  one question?  We ran two restaurants.  We did it well.  But, in 10 more years, what will that even mean?

In looking at the restaurant industry, it is hard not to see a raft of businesses standing at the proverbial precipice.  As an industry, we are grappling with a labor shortage, a talent flight, wage and insurance equity, and finding a path in what is a rapidly changing market.  Closer in, in our own kitchens and dining rooms, if mine was any indication, we are also daily dealing with mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, racism, sexism, immigration, and a changing dynamic of individuals willing to work amidst all of this.

Each month brings with it restaurant closings from talented and good chefs – people who seemingly were trying to find solutions to theses problems in their kitchens and beyond.

And then there was our own sale.

I had worked in the restaurant business for almost 10 years before Jim and I took the leap with ATH.   My introduction to life in the kitchen was behind a behemoth of a dishwasher circa 1892.   Not historically accurate I know, but it was a lumbering beast that was being held together with an assortment of screws, tape, twine, and all manner of other items that had been welded on, glued to, or wedged in – as long as it hit 182′ while the health inspector was standing by, it was good for a little while longer.

That is the industry right now – that lumbering beast held together by all sorts of ancient quick fixes hoping to make it through one more day.

And it is within that industry that people like myself are inserted, people like myself who just want to try and make a living, who are trying to carve out some sort of a life.

And to make it even more of a conversation – this is food we are talking about.  The one industry that seemingly allows people to come together at a table to share a meal and have an opportunity to escape the clamor of what is happening out in the world.  At its’ core, an industry that we all feel we understand, and that we all turn to for an uncomplicated relationship – please, just let me enjoy this meal, tonight.

I opened ATH for one reason, and one reason only.  I wanted to make one spot in my community, my world, that wasn’t about anything but that escape to the table.  Come eat dinner, I’ll cook.  And, if you like it, I’ll be back here tomorrow.

But then, as the days go forward, your small spot in the world opens up a bit, and all those issues, both big and small, manage to find their way into your daily dialogue.  And, you start asking yourself, how, how do I run my restaurant and serve my kitchen, my customers, my industry, and myself?  Issues that, although in the real world might be part of a national dialogue,  when daily faced in our kitchens – less cooks, less cooks willing to work for wages, less women in the kitchen, immigrants in the kitchen and raids,  and more – mean the inability for your business to function and continue on.

Some chefs and owners make the choice to become voices for change.  Whether altruistically or because it presents a platform which means better business is something only they know.  But, they become the voice of “how” change is coming and how “they” are going to make it happen.  But, me personally, I didn’t get into this business to get into the business of show business – I didn’t want to be a poster child for change.  And, if you are focused, on my scale, on the big changes of the world are you still focusing on the small ones in your own kitchen anymore?  Can you still keep everyone out at table happy while trying to convince them that their meal has to be about so much more?  And, most importantly, if you are a voice for change and you get caught later not living up to all of it – with legions of unpaid interns helping type your position papers – the response is all the more severe from all sides of the table.

But, in not taking that approach, I didn’t have an alternative.  I couldn’t find the level that made it all balance out – tackling the issues in my industry, tackling the conflicts in my kitchen, keeping my restaurant functioning, and my dining room as a spot where there is a comfortable alliance between what needs to happen and an escape from it all.  And it therefore became a part of my decision to get out of the industry for a while.

I understand that most customers don’t even know that this is a dialogue.  The industry websites, events, and conversations between chefs are clear – we, inside, know that there are major problems that need to be fixed.  But, it has been, and for many still is, our job to make sure that your meal doesn’t reflect all of these problems – that has always been at the core of hospitality.  What pushes the industry to a point where something has to happen though, is that many of us, myself included, feel like cracks are beginning to appear – and before long – all of this will be a part of the customers dialogue as well.

In going through the past 10 years, I able to find and give myself a bit of a break.  For, in review, I can see that there were a few moments when it felt like all the sides of the table were working.  It wasn’t always, but there were stretches that worked.  I guess that is my new challenge, to look back at the past 10 years and see if there are any solutions in the pile.  Perhaps if each one of us finds a few solutions that worked for our situations, there might, with some grace, be some solutions for the industry at large.

I’ll keep you posted.  xo Andrea

 

 

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