How Can We Fix the Restaurant Industry?

The other day, my friend Jerri Chou from All Day Buffet asked an interesting question via Twitter: “I don't know why I don't know this, but who's totally reinventing the food industry?”

It’s an intriguing question, the answer to which entirely depends on what you mean by “reinvented.” The easiest way to address the issue is nutritionally. If you’re reading this, you likely own at least one Michael Pollan book. You know who Dan Barber is. You probably saw Super Size Me or Food Inc, and you've hopefully read Fast Food Nation. Heck, you might have considered starting a rooftop garden or a farm like Jerri did. All this is to say, many people are now clearly taking an interest in where their food comes from. Ten years ago, I didn’t know a single vegan. Now, I can’t leave the apartment without tripping over a gluten-free locavore.

Of course, that might not have been what Jerri meant. Maybe she wanted to know about the people who are creating innovative dining experiences. Perhaps I should have referred her to Wylie Dufresne, or Graham Elliot, or Grant Achatz, or any of the other folks involved in fusing chemistry and culinary arts. However interesting as that all is, the more I thought about it, I became certain that the real issue that needs reinventing is the disparity between us—the people eating the food—and the people making it.

Despite the recent Top Chef-fueled romanticism surrounding cooking, the truth of the profession is, for many if not most, it's lousy pay for long hours (often with no insurance). By and large, you don’t make good money unless you’re a name brand chef, despite the fact that many of those individuals aren’t really doing any of the actual cooking. Granted, it’s a common model that spans a variety of industries. If you’re going to a premier law firm, chances are that an associate is working on your case rather than a partner. The difference between the industries, however, is that the law firm associate is still pulling down $160K.

While there have been some attempts to document what chefs make, the numbers tend to be a bit misleading. I’d contend that a $30K salary in the cooking trade isn’t really worth $30k, when you consider that most cooks are working significantly more than your standard 40-hour weeks.

At the end of the day, the person who cooked your meal is probably making less than your server, which, frankly, is insane. I waited tables for years and I’ll be the first to admit that, challenging as that profession may be, it’s got nothing on being a line cook. Nonetheless, the fact remains: If you’re eating in a half-decent restaurant, many of the people making your dinner could never afford to dine there themselves.

So, how do we fix it?

One of the chefs I mentioned, Grantz Achatz, might have a way, by virtue of a new, innovative reservations system. For his upcoming restaurant, Next, Achatz will sell tickets in advance, the price for which will include all food, drink, and service. As this New York Times article explains, by having the money up front and predetermined, Achatz will remove uncertainty from the equation, freeing him to divvy the money as he pleases. The Times posits that he “could pay cooks more than members of the wait staff, a reversal of the usual pecking order that could allow him to recruit shining kitchen talent.” And while I doubt that a chef of Achatz’ caliber has any trouble finding qualified applicants, the idea remains nonetheless intriguing.

Even if Achatz does decide to flip the pay hierarchy in his new restaurant, that’s clearly a special case. While he’ll basically be selling tickets to culinary events, most restaurants run like, well, restaurants, with tipping and menus and variable costs. So, I ask again, how do we fix this? Do you have a way to save the restaurant industry? Any ideas on how to make the lowliest cook not quite so low? Post your thoughts in the comments.

In the meanwhile, the next time you have a mind-blowing meal, instead of throwing an extra five percent onto your tip, buy the kitchen a round of drinks. God knows they deserve it.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Neutronboy

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