From the Kitchen – Is Survival on the Menu?

What’s new? A question often asked rhetorically can be a loaded one.

I cringe at the response: “(Big sigh.) Well, I’ll tell you …” I’m sure we all know some literal folks we won’t ask without having the time to listen: “Well, I was just shopping, got some lovely vegetables, I changed detergents, and did you know poor Betty has sciatica …”

On the flip side — and I get asked almost daily — I often have to bite my own lip and give that common one-word Lowell response, “Goodnyou?” while resisting the omnipresent rant.

Not today. The restaurant industry “is under siege” — as characterized by Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. My lifelong pursuit is being challenged like never before in the 40 years I’ve been scraping plates into the trash, and many of us are very concerned.

You may have noticed that for the first time in history, meals eaten outside the home have topped 50 percent, or how often a new restaurant pops up. These related realities would seem like good news — surely for the more than 300,000 Massachusetts folks who earn in our industry, 10 percent of the state workforce. So, what’s the problem?

This column is not long enough to properly detail the profuse factors that will be changing the landscape of this great business without sounding like I am whining.  But change is imminent. It is already squeezing operators and small businesses, threatening opportunities and benefits that are important to our employees, and ultimately it will be affecting our guests. The big shame is that many changes are being driven by self-interested “outside influences” who pose as champions of employees’ rights — organizers who pay huge dollars for negative publicity and protestors to manipulate a well-intentioned liberal media and the voters, both of which intend to advocate for the workers. This current manipulation paints us as exploiters, and the subsequent legislation by folks who truly do not understand our business will be fostering an unsustainable business model.

As an industry, we are accustomed to the ongoing additional expense of legislative change relative to safety, licensing, insurance, “affordable” health care and employee benefits. I also personally agree that the minimum wage needs to rise —incrementally — as entry-level staff must be able to afford life before ascending to greater opportunity.

With that said, endless legislation has adversely promoted laziness and entitlement for years.

Mandated server minimum wage increases for the already highest earners will likewise drive all wages higher, along with menu prices. Add to that the overtime and tip pool legislation that has “… made it impossible for tipped employees to take on an apprentice roll in management,” according to Massachusetts restaurateur Jeff Gates, a member of the National Restaurant Association’s board of directors. “It has really trapped [many] in the role of server. Very sad.”

The next assault on our collective horizon is mandated scheduling regulations and mandated pay for all schedule changes. What happens if we have to pay staff who are required to be scheduled weeks in advance — even if a blizzard blows through town … it rains on the patio all day … the large group cancels two days before? Say goodbye to staff-friendly flexibility in scheduling, one of the greatest benefits for our employees. Or to costly table service. What’s next? Such burdens will ultimately result in other costs, such as the continued manipulation of our food supply, and in even more unemployed and unmotivated as jobs are cut.

In my first “real” job, at age 13, I was allowed to work past 8 p.m. as both a busboy and a dishwasher. I mostly made tips for my pay. No one seemed to mind. Over the next many years in the kitchen, the chefs verbally abused me. They called me “Skata,” which I found out later is, um, not Greek affection for “Scott,” but far less flattering!

Schedule me, abuse me, welcome me back. “Opa Skata!”

I loved it all. I couldn’t wait for the next opportunity, the next recognition and pay increase. Labor board hear my cry: I was OK. I survived, and thrived. This was a long time ago, but cost saving was a precious necessity then, too. The lights were turned off between lunch and dinner, perfect for weekend double shifts, when staff sometimes napped in the booths. I loved the exhaustion and the relative reward for working so hard, both financial and, as importantly, intrinsic, a waning value. When there was downtime, we dusted, Windexed and cleaned the entranceway ashtrays. “Cleaners cost money,” one of the owners would wink. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” We got it. We would make great money when the guests arrived. That’s the model.

For years to come, I excelled outside of work while developing skills that would sustain me financially through college and beyond. As a young father, I ultimately benefited from flexible hours that allowed for the offset of child care as I strived for ownership.

Our industry has evolved since back then — when hummus was an exotic food — as we constantly progress new ways to remain viable while more safe, sanitary and humane. I champion all that. Yet, profitability remains an oft-elusive state in the biz, our precarious profit margin an occupational hazard, our failure rate well chronicled. Well beyond staff dusters, we have always been an industrious lot.  We represent some of society’s most creative (or desperate!) minds, finding angles while creating trends. How else do you think kale becomes an iconic vegetable and “industrial chic” becomes a ubiquitous design — with all the sex appeal of iron piping and reclaimed barnwood! We. Are. Good.

In steakhouses, side dishes are priced high to compensate for the margin sacrificed by the ever-increasing cost of beef and seafood. And when is “salad included” anymore? (We miss you, Hilltop!) I remember when this was the role of draft beer before it morphed to craft beer, now multiple times the cost per keg. I am sure brewers face many of our same challenges. As luxuries like free bread and linens become less common, protein portions shrink, masked in rice bowls, pasta and burritos. Styrofoam, wings, plastic, steak tips, pesticides, farmed fish, hormone produced “jumbo” chicken breasts and factory farming, smaller glasses, short ribs, repurposed … and kale: a brief history of remaining viable.

We find a way.

But it feels now, according to an industry leader I know, “like we have four fingers in the dike.” Legislatively, we are eliminating creativity, soul and “from-the-ground-up” opportunity from our environment. And when a burger and a beer are ultimately forced to exceed $20, even in places where aioli is still called mayonnaise, we will all lose guests. When I asked Mr. Luz how we will respond as an industry, his answer was predictable: “Ongoing and proactively.” It’s what we do. I only fear that we are running out of fingers!

How does a romantic dinner buffet at your local supermarket sound? I hear you can even order a glass of wine these days. Maybe I’ll see you there.

“(Big sigh.) I hear that cheap wine is good for my sciatica …”

Seriously… What collective level of aspiration is inspired by promoting a 40 hour work week!

 

Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which can be found here on our website.

 

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