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Are There Too Many Restaurants?

From the Editor: A labor crisis, two openings in California, Mitt Romney’s hot dogs, and more

restaurant kitchen Wasant/Shutterstock

This post originally appeared on May 5, 2018, 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.

You’ve probably read about the restaurant industry labor shortage. It’s hit D.C. hard. We feel it in New York. I’ve read about it from pretty much every American city we cover. Chefs have been complaining to me about how hard it is to find, maintain, and elevate talent since I started this job a decade ago, but only recently — with record-low unemployment, with the threat to undocumented workers, with the boom in restaurant openings — has the labor issue reached crisis levels.

Now we learn there aren’t enough teens to keep Subway sandwich shops and their fast-food ilk open. While 45 percent of teenagers were working in 2000, only 30 percent are now (they apparently want to work for themselves and/or focus on education and scholarships). And in that 18-year period, the rate of fast-food restaurants has grown incredibly rapidly compared to the population. In the last eight years alone, fast-food jobs have grown at twice the rate of jobs overall.

If you were to swap in everyday restaurants for fast food, and available low-wage workers for teens, I bet we’d end up with a pretty similar chart. (That’s responsible data-science-ing, right?)


Which brings me to the question: Why? I have some answers, but… why do people keep opening restaurants? It’s not like the rate of success has changed that dramatically. It’s still a low-margin industry that struggles to find a business model to pay workers a living wage with reasonable benefits. People may eat out more, but customers can’t sustain the explosion of growth we’ve seen across America. And the labor just isn’t there — unless owners are willing to pay more, which changes the business model, which would result in fewer restaurants.

I appreciate the fact that owning a franchise of a fast-food chain like Subway is the stepping stone to the American Dream for many working-class and middle-class individuals and families. I also understand that chefs often say they’re expanding their restaurant empires in order to keep talent, so they can grow and learn and try new things. And I know it’s a creative outlet for many to show off unique talents. But with charts like this, and with unemployment hitting 3.9 percent yesterday, something’s gotta give here.

Openings of the week

A couple to add to your dining agenda:

Birdsong, a new SF restaurant from an alum of Atelier Crenn and Saison that focuses on cuisine from the Pacific Northwest (that the chef is trying to sell as “heritage”), just opened:

Inside of Birdsong
Photo by Patricia Chang

And Rappahannock Oyster, a new oyster destination in downtown LA:

Seafood towers at Rappahannock Oyster
Photo by Wonho Frank Lee

On Eater

On the Upsell

This week on the Eater Upsell podcast, we tackled the biggest food stories of April. Highlights include Christina Tosi on Chef’s Table, Eater restaurant critic Ryan Sutton on the Impossible Burger, Eater Chicago’s Ashok Selvam on the the newfangled McDonald’s in the chain’s giant new HQ, and restaurant editor Hillary Dixler on why so many critics have reviewed the reopening of Copenhagen restaurant Noma. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Off Eater

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