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Five Steps Restaurants (and Diners) Can Take Right Now to Make the Industry Better

In a lot of ways, the restaurant business is broken. Pros Martha Hoover and Devita Davison on how to actually fix it

Closeup of chefs cooking in the kitchen. Shutterstock
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

The business of food is notorious for its toxic workplaces, underpaid workers, and struggling farmers, and it seems like every week another restaurant closes, unable to cover increasing costs related to rent and labor.

At the Eater Young Guns Summit in July, two industry heavyweights who focus on sustainability and social justice shared a stage with Young Guns editor Osayi Endolyn to discuss what operators and diners can do to push the industry forward. It’s simply not true that, as Endolyn put it, “if you pay people a fair wage, you can’t stay in business; [that] sourcing locally, working with farmers that have particular objectives in mind around organic and locally sourced foods is too expensive.”

Martha Hoover is the empire-builder behind the Patachou restaurant group in Indianapolis, which includes multiple concepts and 14 locations, as well as a foundation that combats food insecurity in Indiana. She credits her forward-thinking approach in part to her early naïveté, as she opened in 1989 without prior restaurant experience. “I did not know that restaurants were supposed to be run a certain way, and thank God I didn’t. Because had I known, I don’t think I’d be in business. Even worse than not being in business would be the knowledge that had I followed the template that was out there, my business would be just as broken and just as toxic and just as systemically harmful as other businesses under that umbrella.” Hoover has extended that thinking to the way she works with purveyors as well. Today, she reports that her restaurant group supports more family farms than all the other restaurants in the state combined.

Devita Davison is the executive director of Detroit’s FoodLab, an organization devoted to supporting and promoting local food businesses. Members of the FoodLab are actively building new businesses, and Davison ensures that environmental stewardship and equitable models are baked in from day one. As she puts it, “in the city of Detroit, we can work toward a food-sovereign city and make it a community-based food system, all the way from the seed.”

Here are five takeaways from their conversation:

1. Operators need to think beyond just getting the best out of their employees.

Martha Hoover: “In my company, we truly believe that we need to enrich employees’ lives: It’s more than just offering benefits, and more than just offering a beyond-livable wage, which we do. It’s giving support to life, to information that allows people to understand the power that they bring to the table. When you talk about empowering people, it always indicates that I’m giving up some of my power to somebody; I always like to remind people, at least when they’re within our four walls, they come in with a lot of power and knowledge.

“We have a very robust financial literacy workshop program. We have what we call a PEER Fund: Patachou Employee Emergency Relief Fund. It’s completely company seeded financially, but it is 100 percent employee run and operated. We have a 24-hour, 365-day-a- year employee assistance plan that offers free legal, free psychological, drug, alcohol testing and counseling. Things like that show to people that we care about you not just when you’re engaged at work. We care about you as a whole person.”

2. Normalize fair conditions and equitable corporate structures.

Devita Davison: “The work that we do at FoodLab — whether with entrepreneurs, small business owners, aspiring restaurateurs or chefs — what we try to do at the early stage is normalize what the restaurant or the food retail of the future is going to look like. We want to normalize what we want to see in the future so [there’s no] baggage or idea of this system that we’re trying to dismantle. We’re trying to teach our way forward...

“We ask our members that they commit to this methodology called the triple bottom line of accounting. And that means that you are not only paying attention to the ‘P’ of profit but you’re paying attention to the ‘P’ in people and the ‘P’ in planet. So we call it the three P’s. Even though we are a nonprofit organization, I’m not going to tell this audience that in order for us to dismantle this system, you cannot do it without being profitable. You can’t be broke and try to dismantle a system. But here’s a thing: Having a profitable business means that you have a profitable business model.”

3. And start by building the working culture you want from Day 1.

MH: “For all of you people who want to open up your own restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, whatever it is, you have the opportunity to create a business with a healthy, nontoxic culture. It is much easier to continue a healthy culture than it is to correct a toxic one. And the sooner you realize that, you have a duty when you open up in 2019 and beyond, to open up [with] a healthy culture and to define what a healthy culture is.”

Young Guns editor Osayi Endolyn (left), hosts a panel at the Eater Young Guns Summit with Patachou restaurateur Martha Hoover (center), and Devita Davison (right) executive director of FoodLab Detroit.
Young Guns editor Osayi Endolyn (left), hosts a panel at the Eater Young Guns Summit with Patachou restaurateur Martha Hoover (center), and Devita Davison (right) executive director of FoodLab Detroit.
Alyssa Ringler

4. Consumer culture around pricing must change.

MH: “We say it’s a good value when you get the most food for the cheapest amount. And if that’s your model, you are never going to be able to have the correct sourcing of your food product, pay your people well, take care of the planet through your environmental sustainability initiatives, and pay your community back. It’s the bottom line. The reality is, is that none of you [consumers] know how much the price of food costs.”

DD: And the reason why we don’t know how much food costs in this country is because processed food, food that is created with soy or sugar, is highly subsidized so it’s cheaper. And so you ask yourself, Why is it that soy-based or corn fructose syrup–based food is so cheap? Whereas we can’t afford to pay our farmers growing fresh and all natural and organic a fair and equitable wage. When we think about it, not only do we not value the true cost of food, but there are only certain people who we value who actually make the food.

“We, as consumers, we have to dismantle our implicit biases to really understand what costs are. Because if we understood costs, then we would bake the operational costs in to run the restaurant and to the price of the food. Therefore, we can pay our employees an equitable wage.”

5. Consumers should keep going to restaurants — and ask more questions.

DD: “How do we get these restaurants to sustain? We go there. We support those restaurants and listen, I get it. It may take a little extra work on the part of the consumer because these smaller restaurants don’t have the marketing budget that larger restaurants do. But when you see a restaurant that’s owned by a family or a mom and pop, don’t discount them. Go in and support them with your dollar. Ask them how can you be of service.

“You know what I do when I go into restaurants? I look around. You know what I’m looking for? I want to see who’s on the floor. Who’s front of the house and who’s back of the house. And I guarantee you, if I don’t see nobody who looks like me, I’m out and I’m going to tell all of my friends about it. Or I might ask the person who’s in charge: ‘Why you all don’t hire no black folks up in here?’

“You have to be very cognizant of where you spend your dollar. When you do spend your dollar at these places, you have to be cognizant of what they look like. Those are things that you can be doing on a daily basis.”