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Contemplating Luxury Yurts as Corporate ‘Support’

From the Editor: Everything you missed in food news last week

A colorful illustration of diners inside a yurt village.
The flyer from AmEx/Resy

This post originally appeared on December 19, 2020 in Amanda Kludt’s newsletter “From the Editor,” a roundup of the most vital news and stories in the food world each week. Read the archives and subscribe now.

Back in the summer, reservations platform Resy and its parent credit card company, American Express, helped fund an effort to give modular outdoor dining structures to hard-hit restaurants, focusing first on New York’s Chinatown. It saved restaurants with no support thousands of dollars.

Now they are supplying restaurants with outdoor dining structures once again, but with a different flavor.

A few weeks ago, the companies gave over 100 luxury yurts to 13 buzzy and high-end restaurants across the country and “winter patios” to two restaurants run by the investor-friendly Major Food Group in New York, so long as the restaurants create special menus for the diners there and only open the experiences up to AmEx card holders. In cities where indoor dining is closed, some restaurants have become defacto AmEx-only operations.

It’s obviously not the most efficient or equitable way to pump ~$2 million — an estimate based on what yurt recipients tell me but AmEx didn’t want to provide a number — in “support” to restaurants. But AmEx is a credit card company, not a charity. Its goal is to provide exclusive experiences for its customers, even, I suppose, during a pandemic. And it just so happens to be offering a lifeline to some (connected and in some cases well-financed) restaurants along the way.

Reps say the companies wanted to “extend and support existing chef and restaurant partnerships” in choosing which restaurants got their support and they have other programs that are more far-reaching. But it does seem another reminder that the restaurant business (like so many others) is really all about relationships and access. Just as getting the PPP paperwork through quickly or the phone call from ReThink might take knowing the right people, so does getting yurt money (and bonus decorating budget).

I tried out the yurt at Crown Shy in New York and it was (predictably) fantastic and cozy and infinitely warmer — with multiple heaters, blankets, and shearling throws — than the meal I had the next week, on another 37-degree night, on an outdoor patio, bundled up in front of an electric heater.

I’m curious: If you’re a restaurant owner, would you want a yurt? If you’re a diner going out right now, would you eat in one? Alternately, who would you give one to? I’m

On Eater

— On the dining restrictions front: London closed indoor and outdoor dining again (but extended its furlough scheme, paying restaurant workers 80 percent of their former salaries and saving about 600,000 jobs); the Bay Area is under lockdown; New Orleans bars can, surprisingly, stay open while bars in every other parish in Louisiana close; outdoor dining is permitted again in Minnesota; New York City announced new rules for operating during snow storms and for outdoor dining in general; and a judge in San Diego ruled that two strip clubs could remain open and implied his order extends to all indoor dining.

— Uber Eats and DoorDash announced new fees for California customers to offset the cost of benefits for gig workers in that state. That seems like welcome news to me, because consumers have been paying superficially deflated costs for food delivery for years. Workers should get benefits and consumers should pay for them.

Meanwhile, Grubhub dropped customer charges in Chicago as a swipe at DoorDash’s $1.50/per order “Chicago fee,” which that service put in place as a way to claw back money lost on restaurant commissions due to city regulation.

— Closings: In New York, neighborhood fixture Franklin Park and beloved paleta brand La NewYorkina; in Portland, Bar King; and By Chloe, the vegan fast-casual chain with a litigious history, filed for bankruptcy, as did its parent company BC Hospitality Group.

— Thomas Keller’s restaurant the French Laundry received far more aid (17 times more) than the average Bay Area restaurant. People are annoyed, but that only seems a fair response if the PPP program had run out of money.

— A first-hand account of the subtle (and overt) racism Black pastry chefs face in the refined pastry kitchens and culinary schools in Paris.

A masked male employee wearing a hat reaches into the pastry case at New Yasmeen Bakery in Dearborn.
Yasmeen Bakery in Dearborn, MI | Razi Jafri
Razi Jafri

— The city of Austin will funnel $15 million in relief funds to small-business owners, earmarking the majority for “iconic” restaurants and music venues.

— TIL hot chocolate bombs are a thing on TikTok and in the suburbs.

— Looking into the growing Jewish food scene in Mexico City.

— ‘Tis the season for stocking up on base layers, compression socks, new gloves, and sweaters for dining outdoors.

— How Portland, Oregon’s unemployed workers are getting by.

— Why the restaurant scene in the Muslim enclave of Dearborn, Michigan, is especially struggling right now.

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