It’s been said before: There are problems with traditional restaurant awards. They favor fine dining above other styles, the winning chefs are mostly men, and they’re consistently lacking in cuisine diversity. It’s only in recent years that power wielders in the hospitality industry have attempted to fix these problems. But one restaurant recognition vehicle, now in its third year, has decided that to truly change the kinds of restaurants that get recognized, the definition of good has to change first.
For the Good Food 100, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, “good food” is about more than taste and technique, it’s about restaurants’ big-picture impact. “Bad-tasting food is a conversation stopper,” co-founder Sara Brito says. “But a good-tasting meal should open the conversation up to all of those other elements of food: the soil, the water, the animals, the farmers and ranchers and fishermen, and the restaurant workers.” The 137 restaurants, caterers, and food service operators recognized on the 2019 Good Food 100 — including LA institution Lucques; Pacific Northwest bakery chain Grand Central Bakery; and Button & Co. Bagels in Asheville, North Carolina — opted into sharing their practices on all of these points. They receive a rating of up to six “links” based on how their “good food purchases” compare to other participants, and all of the data they submit contributes to an annual industry impact report.
In an interview with Eater, Brito discussed how the Good Food 100 works for the restaurants that participate and why it has implications for the restaurant industry as a whole. The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Eater: What inspired the Good Food 100?
Sara Brito: Our ultimate vision is to change the way restaurants are viewed and valued, and to me, the first way you can change the way something is viewed and valued is to change the types of restaurants that are being recognized. There’s no other list that I’m aware of that puts the power of recognition back in the hands of chefs and restaurants. Every other list is done based on an editorial producer or awards committee. It’s professional expertise but still subjective expertise. The criteria that are used to get on the list tend to be very opaque, and that lack of transparency in the editorial process favors the privileged; it favors the establishment. And so, I wanted to create a recognition vehicle.
In 2020, the conversation about food needs to be about more than just taste; it needs to be about what I like to refer to as the whole story of food. Why are we, in 2020, only focused on making the eater happy? The eater is important, but they’re the beginning. We need to care about the whole story of food. If there are chefs and restaurants that are really and truly dedicated to caring and trying to do the right thing for food, we need to give them a way to get recognition so that they, too, can get the investors they need to ultimately change the world. We like to say, “Change the world for good, both positively and permanently.”
What kind of metrics are you taking into account?
There are three parts to the survey: There’s the sourcing piece, here’s the business practices piece, and there’s the labor practices piece. In the sourcing piece, we’re tracking restaurant purchases in six categories and how much of their total budget they’re able to allocate towards good food producers and purveyors that meet our minimum guidelines for defining good food. So, for example, in the seafood category, purchases either need to be wild fish or seafood or sustainably farmed fish or seafood.
On average what we’ve found is that the chefs are spending almost 70 percent of their food dollars on “good food” but for whatever reason around about 30 percent of their food is still coming from non-good food sources. Then, we evaluate them versus their peers. So if on average the list is spending close to 70 percent of their good-food dollars, those that are doing better than that are going to get a higher rating and those that are doing not as good as that will get a lower rating. It’s a peer-to-peer rating system that we’re only able to do because of the transparent actions of these chefs.
How has the Good Food 100 list evolved?
Last year, we added labor practices to the survey. We also collaborated with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and got input from ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center) and incorporated a number of questions from their surveys: “What are you paying your people, both tipped and non-tipped employees? Are you offering health insurance? Are you offering vacation? Are you only offering vacation to your management or to full-time employees, or to part-time employees?” We ask them if they have an official sexual harassment policy. We’re trying to create industry benchmarks because going back to our vision of changing the way restaurants are viewed and valued, I’m a big believer that you can’t change anything unless you know where you are. [According to Good Food 100 2019 report, over 78 percent of the survey respondents reported providing access to health insurance, and 87 percent of the responding restaurants had a sexual harassment policy in place.]
Independently owned restaurants don’t have to report their data or practices to anyone, and so we thought that by creating an independent nonprofit whose mission is really to advance the industry by accelerating transparency, that we could then start to provide some benchmarks to these restaurants that would help them know. You know, maybe I thought I was a leader. Maybe I trained with one of the early pioneers in this good food movement, and maybe I thought I adopted all those practices, but now all of the sudden the Good Food 100 industry impact report comes out and I find out that I’m just average.
How do you ensure the accuracy of self reporting?
We start with self-reported data, and then we partnered with another nonprofit called NSF International [founded as the National Sanitation Foundation]. They verify the self-reported data on a spot audit basis so the restaurants don’t know when they’re going to be audited and what they’re going to be audited on. If they are chosen to be audited they have to provide invoices and all of the backup calculations that led to what they put in the report.
We’re always getting chefs’ input on how we can make this easier for them, because ultimately we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an educational mission and so we want the data that we’re collecting for restaurants and for the restaurant industry to be of service and to help them improve their practices. If it’s not of value to them, if it’s not helping to move the industry forward. then we have more work to do to improve it.
What has been the most surprising insight you’ve gleaned in the three years of the Good Food 100?
We had no idea if chefs would feel comfortable giving us information, and when I told other people this in the beginning they were like, “You’re going to ask chefs to give you actual producers that they’re buying from and the contact information of those producers?” I was surprised at how willing they were. Three years in we now have a lot of data. We recently asked the chefs if they would be interested in us doing something with the producer and purveyor data to help restaurants know how to source good food, and if they’d be open to us sharing that data with other restaurants. I was really surprised that the answers to those questions were yes, and yes.
That’s really powerful because today that data only exists in what I like to refer to as the chef whisper network, but nobody has aggregated all that data. Nobody has made that data transparent and available and accessible to a broader section of the industry. Ultimately, to grow the market for good food, we have to share who those producers are so that people know how to buy good food. My hypothesis is part of the reason that number has been consistent around that 70 percent mark of purchases coming from good food and why it’s not 100 percent, part of that is a supply issue. Something that we’re exploring is how could we help grow the supply of good food to then help restaurants be able to find good food more easily and to make good food more accessible and more affordable to all.
What do you envision for the future of the list?
Participating in the Good Food 100 is sort of the on-ramp or the gateway drug for chefs to get a little bit of a taste of becoming more vocal in their beliefs and values. It’s a way wave the flag to say, “We’re a restaurant that cares, and we care about good tasting food, but we also care about the environment. We care about farmers, we care about people, we care about our restaurant workers, and of course we care about you, the eaters.”
It’s great that awards like Michelin and the World’s 50 Best recognize the fine dining and tasting menus that are serving the one percent, but we need to also have recognition programs that are recognizing the restaurants that are serving the 99 percent. We would love to get the Sweetgreens, the Dig Inns, the Little Beets. We would like to get those types of restaurants showing that they are willing to be transparent and demonstrating to eaters that they are walking the walk. It’s one thing to put farms on chalkboards; it’s another thing to put pen to paper and fill out an application and be transparent with your purchasing practices.