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.

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