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America’s Restaurants Are Worth Saving. Here’s How.

23 chefs, activists, restaurant owners, documentarians, and workers look into their crystal balls to envision: What would a utopian restaurant industry look like in five years?

The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has devastated the restaurant industry and irreparably altered the lives of everyone who works in it — have forced a painful, impossibly forward-looking conversation to the front of people’s minds: How will the restaurant industry rebuild?

It’s not a premature or needlessly pessimistic question; the restaurant industry has been held together by a frayed thread since long before the pandemic. Recent months have revealed how precarious the livelihoods are of a largely uninsured and often undocumented workforce; the extent to which independent restaurant owners face paying unforgiving rents; and how deeply diners have been encouraged to devalue the labor that goes into growing, transporting, cooking, and serving their food. The culture of restaurants, too — long known to harbor a cartoonishly masculine, often hostile environment — came under a fresh round of scrutiny, years after the beginning of #MeToo, as a summer of social justice protests rooted in the Black Lives Matter movement inspired more and more restaurant employees to publicly expose racist, sexist, and abusive work environments.

The term “reckoning” has been bandied about in response to the intertwined awakenings, but this is just the beginning. In fact, to some, it’s an opportunity. The restaurant industry’s precarious position — one where survival is not guaranteed — places it in a position to actively imagine the terms of its own rebirth.

Eater asked 23 leaders to predict what a revitalized restaurant industry would (and should) look like five years from now, in (a presumably post-COVID vaccine) 2025. The images can feel utopian: Scenes of community-based food systems from the grower on down, of dining rooms and kitchens where every employee has access to health care and a living wage, of flexible business models that encourage creativity but place the needs of the immediate community first. But as these voices reveal, there’s an army of chefs, activists, restaurant owners, documentarians, and workers armed with big ideas and even bigger expectations. And they’re already making it happen.

The untapped promise of America’s restaurants means they are worth saving. Here’s how.

First, burn it all down…

“The tastiest, healthiest food, made from responsibly produced ingredients, that’s affordable to all, made by a well-paid, well-trained staff that are not overworked, will remain a pie in the sky unless we undergo nothing short of a revolution. As long as the Farm Bill incentivizes food that makes us ill; as long as our governmental policies perpetuate abuse and oppression of Black people, the Indigenous, immigrants, women, and the poor; as long as our government continues to allow corporations to destroy the environment, vast systemic improvements to the restaurant industry will not happen, and the sustainable food movement will only significantly benefit the rich.” — Bun Lai, chef/owner of Miya’s in New Haven, Connecticut, the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world

“Dismantling of the brigade system. Dismantling of a singular concept driven by the face of a chef. Representation in a restaurant of the people that work there, not just a brand of a chef or a restaurant group... More needs to be done on transparency in pay at restaurants. Not just tipping, which needs to go away. It’s racist, it’s classist. It’s really about passing the buck, and that’s what this industry is about: never really taking responsibility 100 percent.” — Eric Rivera, chef/owner of Addo in Seattle

…to create a new, fair, inclusive system…

“Restaurants are creating a surplus of disadvantages for people that live at or below a certain poverty line. The issue of solving restaurants is the issue of solving hunger ... [and] the vast majority of the people who have those issues work in restaurants. Most chefs don’t eat the quality of the food in which they sell because of the hours in which they have to work to make ends meet to be successful. Servers who work in these restaurants often aren’t treated properly or make enough money to take care of themselves.” — Houston chef Jonny Rhodes, who will close his fine-dining restaurant Indigo in 2021 to focus on his grocery store and farm

“We need to totally redesign the way we think about service and compensation. I would love it if there was a world where all of the porters and dishwashers had health insurance. If we could just get the diner accustomed to what that actually looks like, in terms of menu prices. Dining out ethically means you’re going to be paying a lot more than you ever thought you would. There are hidden costs to that hamburger. That unpaid, invisible labor. I want to see a world where working at a restaurant is given respect and you get health insurance and you make a living wage. It would be great if they could be paid what they actually contribute to society, which is so much.”— Sohla El-Waylly, assistant food editor at Bon Appétit

“This industry was really built off slavery, essentially. That’s why it was a profitable business. Because they didn’t have to pay for labor. They didn’t have to pay servers. They didn’t have to pay their cooks. They just had to pay for their food. So I think taking a hard look at this industry, and what it’s really going to take to change is the whole industry waking up to that narrative. That’s not going to be easy. I’m not saying that I have the answers, but that’s what I would like to see and I hope we can figure out a way to get there together.” — Washington, D.C.-based chef Kwame Onwuachi

“I think workers will be paid and treated as the professionals that they are and that will result in a better bottom line for employers, less turnover, and a better dining experience for customers. It will be a world in which everybody gets a full, fair livable minimum wage. Nobody’s living off of tips as a part of their base wage, and that dramatically reduces sexual harassment in the industry and racial inequality. It will mean that the industry would have moved away from the legacy of slavery and toward a future of stability and equity for everybody.” — Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley

“In this most generous future, the pay wouldn’t matter because maybe your income isn’t as tied to your performance of labor. It wouldn’t be as dire or as important, being paid well or not paid well. I think from that standpoint, it would be interesting to consider restaurants as a place for performance, a more engaged performance of labor, a more engaged performance of diner — folks who are fully present. But I don’t think those things necessarily preclude conflict or tension, because those things are inherent in people, despite whatever system is in place ... but I do think that the framework, in my most generous interpretation of the future, would be more compassionate. And the folks who inhabit that framework would be faced with different challenges. It wouldn’t be utopian, but it would be egalitarian and rewarding in some way.” — Tunde Wey, chef, documentarian, and author of the essay “Don’t Bail Out the Restaurant Industry

“In the long-term future, I think we will have to think about socializing the cost of health care. That is, we cannot run this business on the backs of people who are the most vulnerable politically, vulnerable socially, and vulnerable as people to healthcare risks, including COVID-19.” — Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at NYU and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur. Read more from our conversation with Krishnendu here.

… and a business model that’s both ethical and sustainable...

“Restaurants are mini capitalism petri dishes… everything about capitalism is sort of amplified in a restaurant, because everything is an extreme. And it really hurts me, because I think a fundamental thing about cooks and chefs is that we want to be generous. Yet the business doesn’t allow for that.” — Samin Nosrat, chef, writer, and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat star

“I’m really hoping that there’s going to be different ways of structuring a business — from the ownership, compensation models, whether it’s cooperative or profit sharing, tipping or no tipping — various different ways of solving the problem of equitably paying people. A lot of the issues that workers face are due to low wages or lower amounts of leverage. People exploring innovative ways to structure their businesses is going to be the next way that people are going to get out of this.” — John deBary, bar expert, writer, and co-founder/president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation

“I’d like to see more cooperative and collective ownership. I think there’s a lot to be gained from that, particularly in a country where there’s been so many conversations about cultural appropriation. I think it’s time for us to put our money where our mouth is and give back to cultures and values that have built us as individuals and really disperse the benefits.” — Emiliana Puyana, program manager at the nonprofit San Francisco food-business incubator La Cocina

“The things that I find really exciting, too, are the ways in which the food industry has stepped up through programs like SF New Deal, Frontline Foods — to find other ways of existing outside of a retail identity. Not necessarily charity, but community-oriented work, is going to be a bigger emphasis. Because it’s so meaningful, because it really does help people, if you can find a way to square your operation and make it work with that model built in, I think that is really great.” — Soleil Ho, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic

“If we’re really going to think about what transformation and opportunity look like, what does it look like within the context of having spaces that restaurateurs and chefs could afford? Does that model look like ownership? Does the model look like cooperative ownership? What does it look like to be able to be successful?” — Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit

… which would help change the culture…

“I’m interested in seeing what food will look like if we allow all cultures to participate. Every culture that’s allowed to be elevated on a higher level in this industry, to showcase their techniques and cuisine, people pull from it. If you allowed African Americans to rise to that level, then let’s [ask people to consider]: How will European or French cuisine taste using a blend of West African spices and West African techniques, or Southern techniques? We’re missing a whole flavor profile of food by keeping chefs or a culture of people at a lower level where they’re not able to bring information and knowledge to this industry.” — Keith Corbin, chef of Alta Adams in Los Angeles

“Most of the industry’s still operating under an obsolete system that still glorifies long hours, misogyny, and the bullying of the queer community. I think it’s essential to get rid of these toxic behaviors and start working toward a more inclusive environment that takes care of mental and physical health.” — Paxx Caraballo Moll, chef of Jungle BaoBao in San Juan, Puerto Rico

“Being a little bit more holistic in thinking about how tedious and physical and also mentally draining it is to be in kitchen culture, restaurant culture, sometimes even for seven days straight for some people. I’m looking forward to seeing a care-based approach on how we support people that are working in this industry from the ground up.”— Francesca Chaney, owner of Brooklyn’s Sol Sips. Read more from our conversation with Francesca here.

“There is very little contact between the Thomas Kellers of the world and the Steve Ellises of the world. There’s a lot of things we can learn from each other that unfortunately doesn’t exist because there hasn’t been the platform or the incentive, up till this point, to have those conversations. Chipotle should be talking to the Cambodian noodle restaurant, and they should be helping each other out. Fine-dining restaurants should be in conversation with people like us.” — Lucas Sin, NYC-based founder and chef of Junzi Kitchen

“Instead of these big mega-restaurants, I see lots of small places, lots of small gathering places where there is a lot of exchange of ideas. Food just becomes part of that. It’s not just food. It’s not about coming and eating and leaving. It’s about talking. It’s about politics. It’s about everything else.” — Vishwesh Bhatt, chef of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi

“Right now we’re not really charging the correct cost of a meal. We as a business have to do our job to create that awareness. I think that’s the change that needs to be seen so people don’t question and will be more willing to pay for the true cost of a meal.” — Azalina Eusope, a fifth-generation street food vendor and chef-owner of Azalina’s in San Francisco

“I just really hope that even in six months’ time, that we have this amount of energy. If I could give anybody any advice, it would be: Keep going. Anytime you think that you’re not enough, keep going, because you’re going to be enough for you. And ultimately, as people of color, as Black folks, we have all the tools that we need to survive on our own; we’ve always been that way due to the structures of capitalism and the impact of these socialized systems.” — Zenat Begum, owner of Brooklyn’s Playground Coffee Shop

… fix the supply chain...

“The understanding of Indigenous food systems is the understanding of how regional food systems work, and I really believe that that is where we need to be moving toward in the future. We need community-based food systems, we need a lot more local community-based farming systems that can produce a lot of food for very particular regions.” — Sean Sherman, founder/CEO of the Sioux Chef and the Indigenous Food Lab. Read more from our conversation with Sean here.

There’s still a lot of exploitation that happens at the farm level. I would say that’s probably the single biggest challenge and weakness that this entire industry has. The people who are doing by far the most labor-intensive portion of the entire supply chain are at origin, and they’re getting the smallest piece of the pie in terms of compensation and how the dollar is divided up. The level of exploitation and the level of poverty that exists for the farmers and producers is a tragedy.” — Keba Konte, founder of Red Bay Coffee in Oakland, California. Read more from our conversation with Keba here.

… and finally, save the world.

Implement carbon farming. Globally, 1 percent of GDP [investing in carbon farming] would have society on track to solve climate change and lower global temperatures. That’s all it takes, sending 1 percent instead of 0.00 percent.” — Anthony Myint, co-founder of Mission Chinese Food and Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit organization that funds renewable farming efforts.

Interviews by Monica Burton, Brenna Houck, Nick Mancall-Bitel, Rebecca Flint Marx, Meghan McCarron, Jaya Saxena, Elazar Sontag, Lesley Suter, and Jenny G. Zhang

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