A few words on the plight of the restaurateur—surely one of the most valiant entrepreneurial endeavors in the vast spectrum of human enterprise.
Running a restaurant—whether it’s a tiny noodle shop in a suburb of Shanghai or a big London brasserie, such as the Wolseley—requires more hats than a MAGA rally. You must be equal parts set decorator, lighting expert, financial manager, stage director, time-and-motion wiz, H.R. head, psychiatrist, M.C., traffic cop, table-scape artist, and motivational speaker. On top of that, you need to know a whole lot about food and alcohol. And people.
A well-run restaurant, like, say, Le Bernardin in New York or London’s River Café, is simply a marvel of human engineering, with more moving pieces than a Swiss watch. Even the diner around the corner from you is a wonder of hospitality, commerce, and endurance.
It’s a miracle anyone goes into the business. The hours are long. The margins are slim. You ever hear of a restaurant heir or heiress?
City governments—certainly the one in New York—are not only not on your side, they are the opposition. There are constant inspections for code infractions or cleanliness, with attendant fines or closures. You want a few tables out on the sidewalk? You’ll need a license for that. You want to have a piano player or a guitarist? Maybe a bit of dancing? Until recently, you needed a cabaret license for that—along with a whole slew of compliance measures.
The hospitality business has been a proven gateway for new immigrants. For that it should be celebrated and nourished. And the younger generations in this country are far more entrepreneurial-minded than their parents. This is a blessing. This aspect of their collective character should be celebrated and nourished as well. Young people are also interested in food as an art form and a political and ecological statement rather than just as provisional grub to accompany booze—which is pretty much the way previous generations have treated it.
The hours are long. The margins are slim. You ever hear of a restaurant heir or heiress?
It’s no secret that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the restaurant business around the world. It’s hard to notice when so many are shut down, but restaurants are the very soul of a small town or a big city. If you take restaurants away, what do you have left? Hollow, barren landscapes of offices and shops—and even they have been laid low by the virus. Restaurants are places where we celebrate, where we mourn, where we fall in love, where we break up, where we make up, and where we sit back and enjoy the fruits of experts in the kitchen—and with no cleaning up to do after.
In New York, and in other cities and towns in the Northeast, Northwest, and Midwest, where the winter was harshest, restaurants were brutalized. With no indoor seating, it was either close up shop or innovate. Takeout was an option. As was home delivery. But those are break-even propositions at best. Delivery companies such as Grubhub, Postmates, and DoorDash charge the restaurants between 15 and 30 percent on each order. And no-shows have become a crippling aspect of the restaurateur’s life in the past year.
Many restaurateurs went to great lengths to construct outdoor, après-ski-like settings, with heaters, soft lighting, and distanced tables. It worked—but only up to a point. When the temperature dips below freezing, only the hardiest Canadian or Norwegian diner is game for an evening meal alfresco. From this week’s photos of Putin picnicking in the snow with his defense minister, it would appear that he might go for it. But he’s just one customer.
Have you ever been in a restaurant kitchen? The one at the Waverly Inn, a dinner spot in the West Village that I am a part owner of, is about the size of the screen you’re reading this on. Some nights, more than 250 meals come out of that tiny production line. In the summer the heat is punishing. The inhabitants spend hours upon hours on a hard floor, preparing food for others.
Young people are also interested in food as an art form and a political and ecological statement.
Restaurants that do brisk lunch business might look healthy, but often they’re just breaking even on it. Many lunch get-togethers involve two people, frequently at tables that accommodate four at dinner. And nobody—certainly not in New York or Los Angeles—drinks at lunch anymore. Also, food—good food, at least—isn’t inexpensive from the restaurateur’s point of view. The $20 order of pasta might have cost the restaurant $4 to get onto the plate. It’s one reason why there are so many Italian restaurants. But that $40 rib eye or fresh, line-caught trout you ordered might have set the restaurant back $25 or more.
Yes, it’s a brutal assembly of tasks and worries, big and small. It also can be one of the most exhilarating jobs in the world. When a restaurant is in full swing, every night is like a different evening of theater. And that’s what brings new people into the arena year after year. Last week we ran a feature on Mory Sacko, a six-foot, five-inch 28-year-old son of West African immigrants who is now the hottest young chef in Paris. He’s gotten his Michelin star and a television shot with a series about French regional foods. But even he might not make it. French restaurants have been shuttered by the government since November.
This is one of the rare times in history that the whole of the human race has been affected in one way or another by the same damn thing. And it may well be the training round for the next big global problem—climate change. It could also reasonably be said that the entire world has suffered from a collective nervous breakdown. In France, the government is offering students returning to university three free therapy sessions. And at some point this year—hopefully this year—many of the 7.8 billion of us will be ready to let off a little steam.
To look on the positive side, all that money that people have saved by not being able to go anywhere or buy much of anything is going to drive them out of their apartments and houses. In New York, apartments where young people are quartered are generally cramped and overpopulated, and therefore are not ideal venues for in-home entertaining. Back when I was first looking for an apartment in Greenwich Village, virtually every place I looked at had a bathtub in the kitchen—a tenement holdover from the early 20th century that was intended to encourage cleanliness. The bathtubs have blessedly migrated to bathrooms since then. But four walls are still four walls.
As the temperatures rise—it got into the 70s this week in New York—the city, being the city, will attempt to reclaim the space restaurants have used on sidewalks and in parking lanes for their outdoor-dining facilities. New York City governments have historically liked cars. Cars mean shoppers from the outer regions, as well as bridge and tunnel tolls and parking tickets and traffic violations.
This is one of the rare times in history that the whole of the human race has been affected in one way or another by the same damn thing.
Right now, the city should ignore the rights of drivers and lean heavily on the side of diners.
There isn’t a restaurant in all of New York that saw a windfall from the punishments of the pandemic. Many have managed to hold on, but barely. For the health of the restaurant business, and for the welfare of the city as a place to live and not just work, restaurateurs should be encouraged to keep up their outdoor sprawl—for, I don’t know, a year and a half. Enough time for them to recoup their losses and get back on their feet.
In other words, the best thing the city can do for its own vibrancy and the well-being of the citizenry is to just get the hell out of the kitchen and give desperate restaurateurs, and their equally desperate customers, a break.