Why Not Try and Fix the Broken Restaurant Industry Before Reopening it?

The following opinion editorial was submitted by Andrew Simpson, an 8-year veteran of BC’s hospitality industry.

One of my favourite lines from the original Jurassic Park film came from Jeff Goldblum, who said, “{People}…were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t start to think if they should.” I feel like this is where we are with reopening the restaurant industry for table service right now. I won’t spare you the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” bullshit, but I am as mad as I am disappointed.

Hospitality squandered a golden opportunity to take this global health crisis and the ensuing economic paralysis to do something extraordinary: a hard reboot of our toxic industry. We could have taken a breather and really considered whether we wanted to go back to an industry that crumbles at the first sign of trouble and is among the first to claw back human resources because people miss their burgers and fries. This was an opportunity to fix issues with wages, food costs and sourcing; to better assist workers with career and skills development; and to further break down the negative feedback loop that leads to high rates of substance abuse and poor mental health. But we didn’t.

Now, in the middle of Wave #1 (of who knows how many), many restaurants are dead set on opening their doors. The goal seems to be business pretty well as usual, only with especially deep cleaning practices (“we mean it this time, honestly!”), the voluntary use of PPE, and socially distant patron capacity requirements that for many establishments may prove to be hardly worth the effort.

But hey, we all like to eat, right?

Tell me why, then, do we disrespect food so much and care so little for people working in the industry? Why do we consider an industry that provides food and nourishment to be a low-skilled, low-paying field? Why do we demand the very best ingredients at the lowest prices and streamlined in the most convenient way possible? Why do restaurateurs aid this terrible notion and continue to work with race-to-the-bottom priced suppliers and undervalue their product and labour with impossibly low menu prices?

Most people who work in hospitality already know who is to blame for this, but the more people who say it out loud the better. The state of the trade is the customer’s fault. Sorry not sorry.

In this “the customer is always right” world, the service industry panders too heavily to whiny patrons that don’t know an endive from their elbow. When and why did so many restaurants stop serving what they wanted to, the way they wanted to, and most importantly, at prices that made sense to them? Restaurants now seek efficiencies to a fault. But there you go, you got what you wanted and at the right price. Never mind the fact that the restaurant can’t pay a living wage and make a profit. Thanks for nothing. Sorry for everything.

I am casting broad strokes here. Yes, there are (were) truly sustainable restaurants out there, but to address these issues we cannot be distracted by the few who were already doing the right thing. The focus must be on the sweeping majority that have brushed major industry-wide issues under the rug for too long.

Perhaps there is still time to turn the ship around or at least deviate course towards a destination that gives the power back to business owners to do what they do best in a functional, sustainable, safe and profitable way. Yes! Profitable! There is nothing dirty about that, even if a self-empowering ignorant moron price-shames the restaurant on social media or Yelp. “Why would I pay ____ for this in a restaurant, when I could make it at home for ____?” The attitude that receiving goods and services should be damn close to a break-even exchange is an insult to businesses that provide sustenance, comfort and joy.

I don’t have the answers. I’m just a worker looking for a better future in a deeply flawed present that clearly hasn’t learned from its past. What I know for certain is that the solutions might need to come from the ground up instead of the top down. The fix has to come from diners, and they should let that marinate. Did you really like the way it was before? I know it might be hard to remember, but beyond the great food and good times, the industry was broken. Reopening now with a different shade of shit approach to a “new normal” is just perpetuating the same problems. It can’t last, and to ask these vulnerable, low-paid workers to risk their lives now with no promise of a better future is not just dangerous, it’s also typical.

So this is on you, Williams, party of four. Please figure it out, because apparently we never will.

There are 25 comments

  1. You make a good point, Mr. Simpson.

    “The fix has to come from diners, and they should let that marinate.”

    This “Williams, party of four” will avoid Vancouver restaurants in support.

  2. Oh for Christ’s sake, Thomas. You will do no such thing. As a customer, I applaud the guy for speaking out. He’s not wrong, you know, you self-important douce. Enjoy Browns.

  3. Lisa, apologies; my words have offended you.

    As a customer, I too applaud Mr. Simpson for speaking out.

    Where have I suggested that he is wrong?

    What’s Browns?

  4. It’s a very real and true story. It’s so unfortunate for the industry veterans, millenials or not, that have a real passion for the hospitality industry. I love supporting great chef’s and the food they prepare , I love creating unique hand cocktails and speaking to the spirits and methods of what went into a guests cocktail. Sadly a large part of the industry has perpetuated much of where we are. We certainly deserve greater respect and value for those who are truly are professionals.
    Old man, stay home.

  5. I for one make a great living in the service industry. If it is as bad as the writer claims, pretty sure we all have the freedom to leave it and choose another career path. Obviously the writer has done nothing to make the industry the utopia they dream of.

  6. Funny thing about all of it is that this guy works at breweries, not restaurants. He gets an article for his opinion on something he’s not really immersed in.
    People who work in this industry and I for one have been in it since 1990 and these kids like to sit behind their keyboards and complain (well written but not objective enough to know). Work at the better places who take care of you, don’t work somewhere where the customer doesn’t give two shits about service. Stop complaining and be better Andrew.

  7. I truly like this article. The fact that things are said that people in the industry know but decide to concede to the customer is incredible. The customer is not always right, the customer did not go to culinary school (unless he actually did) in order to get the same “meal” at home for “less money”. If that is the case, then please, STAY HOME.
    Cook, busers, maintenance staff, servers are underpaid, that is why customers should tip. Let no one fool you when they say, they get paid above minimum wage, do any of the people commenting have ever worked in a hot kitchen with almost no breaks for over 10 hours to know what that really means and then get home and not be able to pay your bills? It is easy to always criticize but please do everyone a favor and be emphatic and put yourself in other peoples shoes.

  8. North American restaurants suffer the most from the rushed seating phenomenon, dining out has become a substitute for home cooking and not an experience. We rarely go to restaurants now, but when we do we go for it, a 3 to 4 course experience, drinks that pair with the meal, a night that costs the two of us $200+ and involves a safe ride to and from. If you just want the food, get takeout.

  9. Andrew, when you go shopping, do you deliberately seek to pay higher prices? I don’t mean “decide something of higher quality is worth a premium”, I mean “I am going to pay more for this than I have to just because I want to support the vendor”. I bet you don’t, at least most of the time.

    So why do you expect restaurant customers should do so?

  10. That’s an interesting choice of comparison Mike because it really proves Andrew’s point. The profit margins in retail are higher and the overhead is lower and there isn’t a well documented toxic culture which leads to drug addiction and suicide. Pretty sure retail/grocery workers get something called “breaks” and don’t get paid half of minimum wage because they’re on a “day rate”.

  11. Sean, I tend to think retail workers are often *also* under-paid and under-appreciated.

    My main problem with this piece was that Andrew didn’t really propose anything. He just shifted the blame to the consumers and told us that the consumers need to fix the problems in the industry. It seemed more like a rant than anything else.

    My proposal (from an outsider — I work in an office) would be to get rid of tipping and that whole culture. Treat everyone as professional employees, with salaries and benefits and regular hours and overtime pay. Stop treating them as “gig workers” who basically rely on direct payment from the customers for the majority of their income. Sure, that means raising menu prices, but eliminating tips would balance that out for the customers.

  12. Your proposal has merrit Mike, but it would still rely largely on the patrons willingness to accept. Consider (from a former insider) that restaurants profit margins are based on, in most cases, MAXIMUM 30% food cost. That means that if you pay $15 fr a meal, $4.50 of that covers the food and the rest goes to overhead, including wages for service, kitchen, and bat staff plus a calculated profit margin. If your proposal is adopted (which I support by the way) that meal’s price is going to go up significantly. If the diner’s aren’t willing to buy into the new way of things, the industry will collapse.

  13. Having worked in the Hotel / Restaurant / Resort life for over 20 years (and getting out via Rehab) I am sympathetic to workers that accept mediocre rights and benefits for tips. For things to change workers need to accept their responsibility in benefiting from an underground economy that doesn’t pay their fair share of taxes on those tips. Its like trying to get better working conditions for drug dealers. Now I pay around $15,000 a year in taxes and feel good that I am supporting our country and doing my part. I feel like now I can support Canadian institutions that help us along like EI and now the CERB instead of living on them like I used to and working under the table for cash. Restaurants need to unionize and legitimize themselves or people will continue to be exploited and accept mediocrity for themselves. Just look at Earls opening up immediately on the first day they can so they can get Wino Wednesdays happening again. Anything for cash flow. They don’t give a flying f**k about their employees. They’ll put them out there like the poor people in the beef packing plants in Alberta where half the production line has covid already. Unionize and put your money where your mouth is.

  14. I worked in Australia where the restaurant staff both front and back of house are paid good wages with OT and they get regular breaks and benefits as well. Sadly the workers in many cases are less productive and actually lazy. Remember for many hospitality workers they are doing entry level work and have not developed great work ethics yet and some never do. It’s an attitude and educational issue.

  15. Wow…why would one blame the customer? … A restaurateur is supposed to know who one’s customer is. That is Marketing 101, who-what-where-when-why. Vancouver and BC are tough markets, the lowest disposable income in Canada. they are always on the cheap. Toronto’s mid price restaurants are what hi end restaurants charge on average in Vancouver. How about blame the private teaching industry who milked the industry for all its worth, calling someone a “chef” after six months in school, just to make 14 dollars an hour. A 20-year-old with 3 years experience running a kitchen, and nobody thinks this is strange. Blame the Food channel who were not greatly beneficial to our industries professionalism. Any body can be a chef- the best thing is the “shopping List”- for a potential candidate for cook-chef, its a mile long of expectations but then they say we only want someone with 5 years experience. how does one get all that in five years? that is a average time line to get ones trade papers. the industries bad attitude towards older cooks, all those millennial’s and beards not wanting to hire somebody over 40 to cook or work the line. I must be chef at 25. no way can I have a older person in my kitchen. or why would someone over 40 want to work in an industry who pays minimum wage no matter how much experience one has. walk to a job site right now and one can earn 20 with no experience. I look at the mid price restaurants and they have like 14 staff out front; how does any restaurateur make money even in the best of times. all that staff and service is still crappy, having a server that does not even know the bottle they have in their hand is a screw top, looking for their corkscrew, maybe once before have they opened a bottle of wine before. this is our skill level, a server that can not even sell 500 dollars with out so much help. a server should not even be on the floor if they do not know the menu or open a bottle of wine. one should not blame the customer blame the industry, they made their bed, now they must lie in it. when the dust settles, we shall see who is left.

  16. “Don’t bite the hand you’re feeding.”

    All businesses have customer issues, they’re just different. But what successful industries DON’T do is serve a cold plate of “it’s all your fault.”

    And that kooky idea to unionize? To institutionally instill mediocrity, entitlement and occasional militancy is the last thing the industry needs.

    Confession; when I dine, I dine in bricks, mortar & glass. I do not food truck. Ever.

  17. Anyone that wants to understand the level of confusion, bias, typecasting and ignorance surrounding our industry just needs to read this comments section.

  18. Agreed, Brenton!

    But judging from the comments here, none of these people have any idea what it takes to work in a restaurant now or before Covid. And those of you who are super cute saying how much money you make in the industry and its great and awesome, sweetie, I know you and I love the energy you bring to the floor and how drunk you probably were when you typed that comment.

    ‘Why would someone blame the customer?’ Fuck you is why. Marketing 101, Steve??Did you notice how the entire world has changed?? Is that in your Marketing 101 course, Steven? People with the audacity to lecture the writer don’t understand the economics of restaurants and how these madhouses stay afloat and offer the good times the public so clearly wants back to normal asap.

    Don’t ya’ll comprehend that the world is different now? This comments section doesn’t seem to get that. Just because Happy Hour at Earls has resumed doesn’t mean the world is back to normal.

    As we brace ourselves for a historically and scientifically guaranteed second wave of Covid, members of the public feel ENTITLED to these spaces that we now have to handle like we’re hospital workers.

    The culture, the insanity, the rampant destructive alcoholism and drug abuse, never letting anyone call in sick EVER. Most industry workers have no idea how to refuse unsafe work and don’t even know that WorkSafe BC doesn’t consider working with the public so intimately during Covid as unsafe work. So we’re not even sure if we’re allowed to refuse.

    Restaurant workers are some of the most willfully ignorant people when it comes to understanding and standing up for their rights. The alcoholism goes really good with that. Perfect segment of the public to usher back to work at their risk. Good news is that if you get sick you can actually stay home now. Wow, what a novelty. What a win for us.

    Now in addition to sanitizing, distancing, dividing labour to a maddeningly inefficient degree to prevent the spread of a disease we still don’t understand, we are being told to gently hold the hands of our customers (metaphorically, don’t fret Steven 101 and Karen) as though we are the ones endangering THEM and we have to win THEIR trust back.

    Are you shitting me? Do you know how INFREQUENTLY we have to fill the soap containers because the precious public doesn’t know how to wash their hands? Have you seen the kind of shite customers wipe off their faces and into our expensively laundered linens? Do you think I trust that they have boned up on their cleanliness during their two months of lock down? No, I know the public super well and as a restaurant worker I am the one with zero faith in THEM.

    This article and Scout magazine doesn’t operate in a vacuum. This is timely and an internationally relevant issue and debate. How you consume restaurants in this new era is going to say a lot about how woke you aren’t.

    Further reading, Karens: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/the-case-for-letting-the-restaurant-industry-die

  19. I used to be a cook before and I clearly understand how broken the industry is, you have to be in the right place in the right time in the right skin colour, but I didn’t wait for it to get fixed, life is short so I moved on. If cooking is your passion then keep cooking, you don’t have to be in a restaurant to cook, don’t cry on how small your pay-check is or how unfair life is, nobody told you to stay miserable, nobody told you to be in a chef’s coat, move on.

  20. I feel for those whose industries are at risk or suffering due to Covid. Hope all sorts itself out.

    I’ve found the industry is better for the customer, when people are paid the wage without expectation of tip, as someone from Europe who has travelled to North America. I’d like to think it would be better for staff and remove wage anxiety.

    I don’t like being tapped up incessantly because of the belief it will lead to a big tip, restaurants seemingly employing less staff so their staff get better share of the tip. I’ve been shouted a few times when I’ve not tipped on my card because I tip with cash/change after.