Rebuilding restaurants post-pandemic will require radical changes from their operators — and their patrons
A guest column from Chris Starkus
It was the unspoken rule. As a young cook, I was expected to work off the clock in order to earn palmarès (kitchen cred). I laid my body and life on the line each night, working 12 to 14-hour shifts, to make my way up the culinary hierarchy.
I did this out of a passion to grow in my profession, so I accepted the system, kept my head down and worked. It was a system created hundreds of years ago to keep a restaurant going, its bones brought forward with each generation of new chefs and restaurateurs.
After 25 years in the culinary industry, I now understand that a system created hundreds of years ago now works against the very people keeping it going. Even in the best of modern times, operating a successful restaurant is a walk on the razor’s edge.
Successfully reopening and rebuilding restaurants post-pandemic will require radical, sustainable change from their operators — and their patrons.
Start with fair wages and sustainable hours
How do we excite a new generation to be part of a (currently) vulnerable industry? Begin by paying everyone — from the executive chef to the dishwashers — a fair, livable wage.
This needs to be adjusted for inflation and include functional perks like train or bus passes to get to and from work. If the job’s pay or hours are not sustainable, quality food service workers won’t stick around.
Stop making culinary school graduates give up their dream because being a Lyft driver is more lucrative. Eliminate tipping and end wage inequality between staff in the back of the house and the front of the house.
Fair wages reduce income insecurity in case of medical or financial emergencies and give people a chance to build savings. A livable wage also cultivates a healthier restaurant culture, but more on that later.
Close your restaurant one or two days a week. By working five days a week for 10- or 12-hour shifts, restaurants can keep a smaller crew. It would mean restaurant staff works long hours but for fewer days.
When employees can predict on days off, count on predictable days off, they plan time away for their other interests. They spend time with family, travel, and invest in gaining new perspectives for life and longevity.
This new model would leave room for personal and mental health care, which is long overdue in this industry. Predictable days off also opens the possibility of in-house professional development, creating a more talented and resilient workforce.
Lead the way in sustainable practices
Not least, it is time to create a minimum sustainability requirement, so restaurants can lead as stewards of the environment. No one entity or person operates in a vacuum and concern for sustainable operations and food sourcing are at an all-time high.
Minimum food waste diversion rates, recycling and composting should be available to and operating in every food service establishment. If everyone gets on board, demand will dictate better options for climate recovery and, ultimately, become more readily available and affordable.
Environmental initiatives — large and small — are paramount for ongoing, responsible restaurant operations. With utility costs rising every year, restaurants need real, resource-saving solutions to preserve precious capital.
One way restaurants can do this is by taking advantage of commercial utility rebates for energy efficient kitchen tools that reduce monthly utility bills. Another way is by supporting collective urban farms in both high and low seasons to shrink food distribution routes.
Buying local foods in season is another easy way for restaurants to watch their bottom line while getting the most out of their ingredients. Foods in season are often more affordable and at their peak nutritional content.
So, chefs can give their guests life-sustaining foods for the repeat business we need to continue well into the future. This is where innovation and crowd sourcing will win the day.
Restaurant guests: accept the true cost of fresh, in-season food
The elephant is in the room is how to pull this off and how to pay for it. Slow and steady wins the race. This is where restaurant guests step in and step up to accept true menu prices reflecting what good food — fresh, nourishing, in-season food — actually costs to produce. Even fresh frozen food has an origination point, and there are a lot of hands along the way to get it to you.
Everything in a restaurant is tied to the good health of our environment. If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, we are seeing positive effects for the earth, air, and water. It is time to enact new policy and adopt a culture change to disrupt old paradigms and mindsets that keep restaurants vulnerable.
Restaurateurs are thought leaders that live at the forefront of trends and tastes. This is our time.
Chris Starkus is an Eco-entrepreneur living in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and their two children. As a chef, farmer, and journeyman beekeeper, he owns and operates 360 Culinary Consulting, Lost Creek Micro Farm, Waggle Bitters and is a partner at Boss Defrost. Keep up with him on his Instagram and Twitter pages.