We’re on the cusp of something… ordinary
May 22, 2020 6:30 AM   Subscribe

 
If we simply let it die, what will emerge in its wake is a small set of high end eateries for the rich and low quality chains for the rest of us. Radical change is possible and necessary.

Revolution must come to all sectors, not just a couple. And the bankruptcy of liberal wonky policy solutions should be more than clear by now.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 6:41 AM on May 22 [17 favorites]


This is quite a bit more than the click-bait-y title, so do yourself a favor and read all the way through. Helen Rosner interviewing Tunde Wey, what a great duo of minds to put together. It gets at the heart of how complex and fucked the food industry has become (thank you patriarchy, capitalism & systemic racism). None of it is surprising but it's good to see it so clearly laid out.
posted by Fizz at 6:51 AM on May 22 [33 favorites]


His larger point is that specific industries should not get supports; people should get supports. That so many in government think that they are supporting suffering workers by bailing out the auto industry, or the restaurant industry, or the agriculture industry, or the banking industry, speaks to their dedication to the capitalist model. So long as they continue to target industries, rather than the population as a whole, inequity of all kinds will continue.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:57 AM on May 22 [85 favorites]


I do hope people read the article and don't react to the title alone.

The click-bait "The Case For Letting the Restaurant Industry Die" is not reflective of the depth and complexity of what Helen Rosner or Tunde Wey are getting at here. I myself would have appreciated more context posted within this FPP - you know, a paragraph or two of summarization or a few sentences quoted from the article - but that is a separate discussion to have at a later time.

Here's an excerpt that I think reflects well on the article's contents:

The thesis of your essay is that the restaurant industry is so broken that it’s not worth saving. Did you already feel that way before the coronavirus shutdowns sent the industry into crisis?

I had never said those words explicitly—“let it die”—but I don’t think the sheer force of the idea is anything new.

I will say that with most of my work, I’m always a little circumspect. So even though the sentiment has always been “let it die,” I had never said those exact words. And it wasn’t like I was super comfortable saying it! I have people who I care about who are part of that industry. So, in a way, the essay is euphemistic—only because I know it’s not going to happen, I know the restaurant industry is not going to actually die, so I have the space to be very forceful.

But it wasn’t just an essay about letting things die, it’s also about what can rise from the rubble. There is something better on the other side.


Is there something unique to the restaurant industry that makes it particularly deserving of death?

I don’t think there’s anything inherent about the restaurant industry that makes it more worthy of death than any other industry. But it’s an industry that manages to encompass all the different realities of United States life—and I say “United States” because “American” isn’t the right label to encompass all the folks who live here. I’ll be very specific: let’s say you walk into Momofuku at Hudson Yards. You have your transaction: you’re going to buy whatever they sell, and you’re going to leave. But your money is going to Momofuku, which is owned, in part, by David Chang, and owned, in part, by [the real-estate billionaire Stephen Ross’s investment firm] RSE Ventures, which owns multiple companies. The financing of Hudson Yards was done through private capital but also speculative capital, so there was debt involved. But not any kind of debt, a specific debt: commercial mortgage-backed securities. So, all of that is to say that what makes the restaurant industry possible is maybe different from, say, the airline industry, or mining, or some shit. It’s at the intersection of capital, finance, social life, food production, sustenance. It’s all those things. So I think it offers a very important lens to examine the choices that we make.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:59 AM on May 22 [30 favorites]


Thanks nightrecordings - I'm not very good at FPP's, but that's a good summary.

I'd also recommend reading the linked essay by Tunde Wey.
posted by BekahVee at 7:09 AM on May 22 [8 favorites]


I don’t think there’s anything inherent about the restaurant industry that makes it more worthy of death than any other industry.
I briefly worked in the foodservice supply chain, and I came away with the strong opinion that there isn't any other industry [that the public considers to be legitimate] that operates like the restaurant industry.

Wildly unjust labor practices; massive tax evasion at ever level of the enterprise; horrible working conditions for cooks; needlessly-cutthroat relationships between restaurants and their suppliers.

I could go on, but I don't buy the premise at all that the rest of the economy operates like this.

If you meant to say that the industry is messed-up and needs to change... why not just say that?
posted by schmod at 7:28 AM on May 22 [17 favorites]


My town just opened restaurants yesterday. Lots of beloved venues here. They also allowed them to close streets and parking areas to facilitate social distancing between tables. In my town a lot of people take their main meal out. Lots of mom and pops, lots of long standing independents. Bakersfield collectively mourned the impending closure of the Noriega Basque hotel and restaurant and the paper ran articles begging for someone to take it over. I mean how many bars have a side door to the jai alai court? Cities where real estate moguls have made it impossible for ordinary vendors to do legit business, well too bad, and with the very moguls running our country it will only become more corporatised. The model is the guys at the top, pocket the life blood of all human endeavor and set the chokehold prices, and they expect our adoration, audulation, envy, desire, and cooperation. The hummingbird drones are coming to your garden with a reminder dose.
posted by Oyéah at 7:46 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]


His larger point is that specific industries should not get supports; people should get supports. That so many in government think that they are supporting suffering workers by bailing out the auto industry, or the restaurant industry, or the agriculture industry, or the banking industry, speaks to their dedication to the capitalist model.

I'm not so sure it's that simple. I mean, yes we should bail out people. But if we don't bail out the industry as well, then once this is over, people won't have jobs to return to. It's not even abstract - if you don't bail out the ag industry, people can't eat. If you don't bail out the auto industry people can't drive. If we don't bail out the restaurant industry people can't eat. I mean, it's totally understandable if you think those industries suck, but we have 100 years of reliance on them and changing that structure can't be done in a month.

Not only that, the second stimulus is below 50/50 odds for passing, so more than half the country has elected people who are not interested in directly bailing out people. You gotta start at the beginning.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:04 AM on May 22 [10 favorites]


Having eaten in restaurants around the world, the US experience is often genuinely awful, stressful, and non-relaxing. In a weird way (and I am just thinking about this as a consequence of writing this comment) it can feel vaguely confrontational the moment you walk in the door. I'm not sure why, but the low wage/tip system probably contributes. And maybe it's often the emphasis on dispensing a product and turfing customers out ASAP, versus creating a place to relax? I think this particular way of running restaurants definitely needs to die.
posted by carter at 8:13 AM on May 22 [15 favorites]


It’s reasonable to target bailouts at affected industries. The government didn’t make it illegal to farm or to produce, ship or sell unprepared food. It made it illegal to eat or drink out, and to go your office, and therefore effectively to patronize the deli downstairs even for takeout.

I am not sure what his point about Momofuku Hudson Yards except to say that David Chang is a business mogul who uses sophisticated financing for his activities, which as far as I am concerned is a plus - if better financing equals more Momofuku level cooking who can have a problem with that? Isn’t it good to reward David Chang with being a mogul vs yet another Wall Street or tech bro?

I’m also confused at by his point about equity. This tips make tending bar or waiting tables among the highest hourly pay someone without a college degree or journeyman-level trade qualifications can get, and cooking isn’t bad in that regard either.

I did appreciate that he pivoted to outright capitalism at the end!
posted by MattD at 8:19 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


The overinflated bubble that is American restaurant industry was close to bursting before COVID19 for multiple reasons. As far as industries on fragile foundations that are ripe to collapse and be rebuilt around a new paradigm, restaurants are a prime candidate.

“Never let a crisis go to waste” - Winston Churchill
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:21 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


I mean, it's totally understandable if you think those industries suck, but we have 100 years of reliance on them and changing that structure can't be done in a month.

AFAICT from the article, nobody is saying that - Wey intentionally and knowingly stakes out "extreme positions" (fer example, this bit: "In Nashville, he hosted a series of dinners where hot chicken was free for the neighborhood’s black residents, while white diners were asked to pledge a hundred dollars for one piece, a thousand dollars for four, and the deed to a property for a whole bird plus sides.") as a way to get people to examine our reliance on these structures and consider how to change that.

You can like or agree with that approach or not, but it's clear Wey understands that things aren't going to be changed in a month.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:24 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


> I'm not so sure it's that simple. I mean, yes we should bail out people. But if we don't bail out the industry as well, then once this is over, people won't have jobs to return to. It's not even abstract - if you don't bail out the ag industry, people can't eat. If you don't bail out the auto industry people can't drive. If we don't bail out the restaurant industry people can't eat. I mean, it's totally understandable if you think those industries suck, but we have 100 years of reliance on them and changing that structure can't be done in a month.

Right, this is my problem with the piece as presented. Even ignoring the clickbait-y framing, there's an element of accelerationism in "the restaurant industry sucks as a safety net, we need a better safety net, therefore, let the industry die". And let's not blame this on an errant copy editor who chose a clickbait-y headline -- Wey doesn't shy away from what he's calling for:
I don’t know if I like that. There’s a conflation there of a safety net with employment—and with precarious employment, at that. It’s sort of like saying that because we don’t have socialized mental-health care in this country, that prisons and jails are the closest things we have to that, and so if we close down prisons and jails, we’re leaving these folks no option but to be on the street. I’m not equating restaurant work to being in prison, but I think the biggest issue with employment in general—anywhere in the world, but especially in the U.S.—is lack of choice. The existence of precarious jobs is not the same as security. On the face of it, that perspective sounds like an excuse to keep an industry going that’s problematic. It sounds terrible. It’s like somebody saying, “Stay in this marriage, even though you are suffering terribly. Stay in it for your children.”
He's correct in his diagnosis of the problem -- that people lack choice -- but what choice is there in a world where the restaurant industry dies and is replaced with nothing? A robust safety net that guarantees income and/or employment, a healthcare system that protects the vulnerable... none of these things are happening just because our crappy but nonetheless vital safety net of last resort goes away.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:28 AM on May 22 [7 favorites]


I mean, yes we should bail out people. But if we don't bail out the industry as well, then once this is over, people won't have jobs to return to. It's not even abstract - if you don't bail out the ag industry, people can't eat. If you don't bail out the auto industry people can't drive. If we don't bail out the restaurant industry people can't eat. I mean, it's totally understandable if you think those industries suck, but we have 100 years of reliance on them and changing that structure can't be done in a month.

If the industry needs a bailout it's not viable in its current form. If people don't have jobs to return to, you continue to "bail out" people (read: meet the basic needs of the people otherwise wtf is the point of you, government), and the overleveraged industries that could not have survived any other economic reality yet seen on spaceship earth will die. They should die.

The auto industry is orders of magnitude larger than it ever needed to be. You could slough off 3/4 of it and people's transportation needs could still be met. If there are gaps, you continue to meet the basic needs of the people.

Restaurants don't need to exist, they're just a way to have a few paid servants for a brief clip. You can get food by other means.

Grocers, sure! Bail them out if need be or nationalize them (cough, whole foods UNFI, etc). Healthcare, utilities, etc as well! Keep basic need supply lines, infrastructure, and organizing going, but the vast majority of what the U.S. produces is useless outside of this game of monopoly where slavers shored up all the equity before laying out terms to the rest of us on what we must do if we want to eat. In the fantasy world we're envisioning, the U.S. is at the head of the boil that needs lancing, and people only need jobs because the U.S. psyche is such that we otherwise let people literally die in the streets. We should stop with that.
posted by avalonian at 8:31 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


> Restaurants don't need to exist, they're just a way to have a few paid servants for a brief clip. You can get food by other means.

The unexamined privilege in this statement is astounding. Setting aside the obvious example of disabled people who aren't able to cook for themselves, it ignores that cooking for one or even two often costs more than eating at a restaurant when you count wasted food and the value of one's time to cook it, it requires time and effort that may be in short supply due to work and family commitments, and that sometimes people would just like to eat something that they aren't skilled enough at cooking themselves.

This logic is just a stone's throw away from the arguments conservatives have used to restrict what people can buy with food stamps -- "you don't need steak! a 20 lb bag of rice only costs $10!"
posted by tonycpsu at 8:35 AM on May 22 [40 favorites]


If the industry needs a bailout it's not viable in its current form.

That is not true. If you really believe that, you are advocating for extreme increased income inequality, as businesses horde money to ride out shocks.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:42 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


I don't know where I fall on this politically in the wake of Covid-19, but I do know that I am one of the reasons the industry is in trouble.

I used to eat out a lot and have been lucky to eat at great places in many countries. But I barely do in-restaurant service any more. We're blessed with takeout, below, but even that had become a once-every-few-weeks treat. All our rituals are pretty home based now.

The first reason is money. Our salaries have not grown in pace with our basic expenses, esp with daycare and future university tuition thrown in.

Here in the Greater Toronto Area, rent, food costs, and labour laws keep restaurants pricier than in the US, I think. When I was in the States last year a huge breakfast at a nice local diner cost less for three of us than for just me in an equivalent restaurant in Scarborough, including a tip that was 60% of the bill because I could not believe it. (Annie's Diner in Pulaski, NY, vs. The Wexford in Scarborough, ON.) Almost all our meals, with the exception of lunch in Washington DC, were 2/3 to 1/2 what I expected going in, even with exchange rates on US currency.

It may be that as the US industry shakes out, your prices look more like they do up here, I don't know.

But also as our family and awareness have grown, eating out has become a series of tradeoffs that made eating at home more and more attractive. Having kids is kind of a given, I guess...my kids would eat anything and would behave but didn't especially enjoy behaving and so we ended up finding home or a park a better spot for meals that we all liked. Once I adjusted to making my own pizza (breadmaker makes the dough), spending $45 to feed 5 of us just hasn't appealed. I learned how to make risotto, my life is complete, kind of thing. I half blame the Internet for providing me with cooking advice at the time I need it.

Second is a bit hard to quantify but...I guess I'm getting old and cranky or something but I just...don't enjoy the ritual any more. Not the reservation, the entry, the service, the reciting of the specials, the choosing of the dishes...it's kind of like advertising, once I stopped watching TV certain ads became kind of unbearable, and once I spent a few years with toddlers attached to me at the hip and eating food lounging on my deck, I've just never readjusted.

Where I live ironically is a food mecca - but mostly takeout from places in strip malls. Once you know the 'hood, or know how to spot the crowded parking lot at the right time, then you can get amaaaazing roti, goat curry, kebab, lahmajoon, adobo, etc. That's been the only restaurant food that's continued to hold its value for me.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:55 AM on May 22 [10 favorites]


(to be fair, warriorqueen, the Wexford has always been incredibly pricey, even if they haven't redecorated since 1974. Also, I'm not sure they are as good as they were a few years back. But yeah, we budget $40 each plus tip for breakfast there. It's still cheaper than eating out in the UK.)

I look forward to the selection at the surviving restaurant chain after the franchise wars.
posted by scruss at 9:01 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]


I'd like to read the article, but I've hit a paywall- is there an alternative link?
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:02 AM on May 22


From the very first comment above:
Radical change is possible and necessary. Revolution must come to all sectors, not just a couple.

Yes. What we are on the cusp of, or already sliding down the curve of, is a profound reinvention of everything, every business, every institution, every school, every government, everything. Those that are not seeking to reinvent themselves right now are going to be left behind. It is not only possible and necessary, it is inevitable.

This may not seem obvious at the moment. But we have nearly 40 million unemployed in the US right now; and probably an equal number yet to become unemployed (because of multiplier effects, and because only those PPP loans are actually keeping millions of people employed right now, but they will run out in June and July, and then those businesses will shut down, or reopen with far fewer people than they used to employ). The same thing is happening around the world in some form or other, and it will feed on itself in a downward spiral that will not be halted easily or soon. In other words, we are in an upheaval akin to the world wars or the Great Depression, not a garden-variety recession.

A US economy with 80 million unemployed people will not come back to life quickly, or easily, and certainly not looking the same as it was, either on the macro or micro level. So, if you still have a business or institution, "let it die" and reinvent it.
posted by beagle at 9:03 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]


I think that's fair about the Wexford when I think about it compared to say, Ted's. But I grew up in the Beaches so it maybe didn't occur to me it was on the higher end for a brunchy experience. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 9:08 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


The unexamined privilege in this statement is astounding.

As someone with half a decade in foodservice whose last paycheck of an 80 hour pay period was zero dollars, I believe I understand the material conditions of restaurant workers. Just because you need servants to make your life work doesn't mean people should have to be servants. We can do better.

cooking for one or even two often costs more than eating at a restaurant when you count wasted food and the value of one's time to cook it

Yes, because the vast majority of restaurant workers are paid poverty conditions that are not enough to sustain life. This should be intuitive, if examined.

This logic is just a stone's throw away from the arguments conservatives have used to restrict what people can buy with food stamps -- "you don't need steak! a 20 lb bag of rice only costs $10!"

It's really not. Feel free to skip talking past me next time.
posted by avalonian at 9:39 AM on May 22 [24 favorites]


> Just because you need servants to make your life work doesn't mean people should have to be servants. We can do better.

We can do better by paying restaurant workers a living wage, not by letting the industry die without a replacement for those who depend on it. Your statement that the restaurant industry doesn't need to exist is simply not true, any more than a statement that the auto or construction industries don't need to exist because people used to live without cars and built their own homes.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:46 AM on May 22 [14 favorites]


That is not true. If you really believe that, you are advocating for extreme increased income inequality, as businesses horde money to ride out shocks.

No, I'm stating a fact of the standoff where our material conditions are necessarily and strategically tied to capital.

As stated by Wey, this is all aspirational. If an industry is in need of an infusion of financing because they invested in growth/expansion rather than increasing their retained earnings (because institutional investors want to invest in the present value of future cash flows), then bailing them out functions as donations to shareholders who will only seek to strengthen this feedback loop.

The structure needs to change. We need more resilient communities the most imo. We need countless things that I didn't realize I needed to preamble before discussing the material conditions of what happens when slaveholders buy up all the resources in a country before dictating terms to its inhabitants.
posted by avalonian at 9:48 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


not by letting the industry die without a replacement for those who depend on it.

These were your words put in my mouth. Just to be clear.

As accepted as understood in the article - and erroneously presumed by me to hold in the comments - the restaurant industry is not going to die. It's a thought experiment.

If we need to be closer to pragmatic, they should all be worker co-ops.
posted by avalonian at 9:54 AM on May 22 [8 favorites]


People paying others to prepare food for them has been an aspect of urban life for most of the existence of cities. People will continues to prepare food and sell it to others after a new societal equilibrium is established.

What that process looks like, how it’s regulated, where it happens, how it all is organized logistically and economically, all that is likely up for grabs.

How long “The Churn” goes on before that new equilibrium is established as also an unknown. There is no promise that those of us who made our living in the “old food/bev industry” will be the ones to take up the jobs in what ever the new paradigm looks like. American bartending went into a professional and technical Dark Age after Prohibition that didn’t lift till Dale DeGroff in the 1980s.

Beverage service at music events, festivals, and catering have been my mainstay of employment for years. I’ve also worked bars and restaurants. Festivals pay better. Paid better.

But every time I think about how much I miss the lines of thirsty beer-drinkers 8-deep and the hustle and flow of 12-hour days, now all I can think of is
How many people in this crowd are asymptomatic? Worse, how many know they’re sick, and are “hiding their zombie-bite?”
My decade plus of professional experience has a Santa’s Bag full of people not doing the right thing with a belly full of beer. And that was before COVID19.

I have no idea what the future will look like. I know what the car looks like as it hurtles towards the wall. What the actual damage to the car will be, I can’t describe in detail. What the available transportation accommodations will look like after the crash, dunno.

I just see a wall coming and have a sense of how physics works.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:30 AM on May 22 [25 favorites]


not by letting the industry die without a replacement for those who depend on it.

As per Wey's own words from fairly early on in the article:
I will say that with most of my work, I’m always a little circumspect. So even though the sentiment has always been “let it die,” I had never said those exact words. And it wasn’t like I was super comfortable saying it! I have people who I care about who are part of that industry. So, in a way, the essay is euphemistic—only because I know it’s not going to happen, I know the restaurant industry is not going to actually die, so I have the space to be very forceful.

But it wasn’t just an essay about letting things die, it’s also about what can rise from the rubble. There is something better on the other side.
This is a super fascinating and nuanced piece. I hope more people read all of it and not just react to the title.
posted by Ouverture at 10:30 AM on May 22 [8 favorites]


> These were your words put in my mouth. Just to be clear.

Enough with this "I'm not touching you!" style of argumentation. If you say "Restaurants don't need to exist" and do not include anything about what replaces them, then you're arguing for them to die without replacement. Responding when pressed with "okay, fine, worker co-ops!" does nothing to grapple with the complexity of what would be required to transition to a more equitable system.

> This is a super fascinating and nuanced piece. I hope more people read all of it and not just react to the title.

Amazingly, other people can read a piece and come away with a different interpretation of what an author is saying, no matter how much that author lauds their own circumspection and nuance.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:38 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


So then what makes you think he is lying or misleading the audience when he says he knows the restaurant industry is not going to actually die?

Later on in the interview:
I don’t think we should save anything that causes pain and destruction. I want to be clear that I’m only talking about the pain and destruction that restaurants cause. I don’t think they cause pain and destruction to the exclusion of everything else. They do contribute value.
posted by Ouverture at 10:48 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]


> So then what makes you think he is lying or misleading the audience when he says he knows the restaurant industry is not going to actually die?

I don't think he's misleading the audience, no. Perhaps himself, though.

To be clear, in the section of my comment you chose to pull-quote, I was responding to another member's argument that restaurants don't need to exist, not to Wey's argument, which does include more disclaimers about not wanting to cause pain, but includes almost nothing about how that pain would be minimized during the transition.

It's a standard rhetorical trick of accelerationists to outline "thought experiments" with large unknown quantities of suffering in them and then say "but I want to minimize the suffering, and I believe we'll all be better off in the end, so it's cool." It's no more convincing from Wey just because he has more firsthand knowledge than most anyone about the realities of the industry, because this isn't about the industry, it's about how society maintains the necessary and good parts of eating food prepared by others without the exploitation. He's not in a position to understand how that would happen -- and I don't think the answers are easy, so I'm not even blaming him for that -- but we as citizens do have to grapple with those costs before it commits to a plan to address those inequities.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:02 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


It’s also a standard conservative trick to defend all of an exploitative system by pointing to a few people juuuust above the line of exploitation and saying that they can’t pay more, so nobody should. Very comfortable for people well above the line.
posted by clew at 11:21 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


He's correct in his diagnosis of the problem -- that people lack choice -- but what choice is there in a world where the restaurant industry dies and is replaced with nothing?

This I think is something which is too often overlooked in discussion of any exploitative practice. Systems of exploitation survive in large part because they are the least-terrible option available to the particular group they exploit (this is somewhat muddied in exploitative systems in the arts and food service and the like where the exploited might have a genuine affection for parts of the system exploiting them; for purposes of simplicity, it's easier to consider things like sweatshop labor and monstrously-high-rate payday loans). Removing those least-terrible options maybe reduces exploitation but doesn't actually make anyone's life better (and possibly makes it worse). And, yes, for restaurants this is all very much a thought experiment, but it's the kind of thing which does come into my mind whenever there's a push to, say, prohibit predatory lending. Predatory lending is a symptom (specifically, of poverty and lack of good credit options available to the impoverished), and symptomatic treatment doesn't heal a sick system.

That maybe ties into what Assil's argument is in the piece, that exploitative systems are to be repaired rather than eradicated, because those systems don't really go away until something better comes along. In the repair-or-raze discussion metaphors often assume an outsize role (you can't renovate a burning house, vs., say, you can't shore up the foundations of a building by knocking out the old ones before you build the new ones).
posted by jackbishop at 11:27 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]


> It’s also a standard conservative trick to defend all of an exploitative system by pointing to a few people juuuust above the line of exploitation and saying that they can’t pay more, so nobody should. Very comfortable for people well above the line.

Not sure what you're saying, but sign me up paying way more in taxes and at restaurants so that we can eliminate the tipped waitstaff exemption, provide a robust living wage to everyone involved, and increase worker protections. Anyone who thinks the existing system can be preserved without more money somehow going from their wallets to the people who prepare and serve the food is delusional.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:28 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


Things going on as they have done - no better for the workers - is not a very delusional assumption, even in the face of a pandemic. The pandemic plus preexisting conditions could make labor conditions worse. Saying we want it to be better is more effective cover for keeping it bad than it is political fuel for change. (The Walrus and the Carpenter were not exactly in a restaurant, but the dynamic applies.)
posted by clew at 11:54 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


It doesn't seem to me that Wey is any kind of accelerationist. I'd argue that the heart of his proposed solution is here:

If there’s anything I think should be done, it’s that restaurant owners should abandon entirely their pursuit of a bailout specific to the industry, and focus on policy and government programs that support people generally. If everyone had access to health care, housing, leisure, education for their children, education for themselves—all these things I think are rights—and if all these things they had access to were of high quality, I’m sure some business owners wouldn’t even return to ownership.


Which sounds like democratic socialism to me!

Now, I definitely think that it seems very, very hard to imagine the current powers-that-be in the United States agreeing to implement anything like those kinds of programs. And also I would argue that one of the ways to push that agenda forward is to get people talking and thinking about those sorts of things, becoming more aware of the dire need for that kind of support (which includes awareness of how exploitative the current system is, especially for marginalized people), knowing that such change is possible and imagining that it might happen. It seems like Wey's "performance art businesses" are aimed at inciting all of that.

Also though, Wey very explicitly says a couple very non-accelerationist things:

I definitely believe in making money so you can survive

And

If you need salt, buy the salt. You don’t need to believe that you are anti-racist, or believe that you are racist, or even believe that the world is fucked up. You can just buy the salt.

I want to create viable products that can compete in the marketplace, so I can extract as much resources as possible and redirect them to communities that need them the most.


And

When you can’t buy malaria medicine, or you can’t put food on your table, it becomes about more than ideology. It’s a concrete, material battle. I mean, people are dying. Right now, people are dying. A month ago, in Lagos, where my parents live, there were young, able-bodied men going into neighborhoods demanding food from people under threat of violence. There were other people who formed a militia to encircle neighborhoods to keep those men away. This is reality. That’s not a consequence of Africans or Nigerians being incompetent or unprepared, it’s a consequence of a global system that extracts more and more from Africans, people of color, black folks, working-class folks. That needs to be addressed. If that means running a conventional business, I guess that is what it is. I’m conventional in that sense. I don’t want people to die.
posted by overglow at 12:05 PM on May 22 [6 favorites]


> It doesn't seem to me that Wey is any kind of accelerationist. I'd argue that the heart of his proposed solution is here:

If there’s anything I think should be done, it’s that restaurant owners should abandon entirely their pursuit of a bailout specific to the industry, and focus on policy and government programs that support people generally.


I'm all about "policy and government programs that support people more generally." The problem is that we are not getting a robust version of those programs before January, 2021 at the earliest, assuming a wave election that makes Joe Biden's pick for Vice President a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Even if Pelosi were taking the advice of her left flank and offering more robust solutions, they would die at the hands of an indifferent Mitch McConnell, and nothing is going to change that except dozens of Republicans losing their seats. This makes what Wey is arguing for a trade of restaurants' continued survival via a bailout for nothing at all.

Look, bailouts suck. They are a failure of central planning that often rewards bad behavior. And, to be clear, a bailout would reward some bad gambles on the part of restauranteurs, investors, and financial institutions. But absent a credible plan for fixing the antipattern that's developed around exploiting food service workers or abolishing the United States Senate, failure to provide relief to the industry is going to cause immense damage to workers and customers that *didn't* do anything wrong. It's a sin to let such a situation develop where such a large sector of the economy has to come hat in hand to the public for help, but it's a much greater sin to do that and then walk away from that obligation offering only promises of a better tomorrow.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:18 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]


When you bail out an industry that is set up to exploit its workers for the benefit of a few capitalists, almost all the benefit inevitably goes to those few capitalists. I fully expect them to use the coronavirus crisis as reason to reduce compensation and benefits for their workers, and there are already instances of them doing it. If all the restaurant workers go back to work, but are paid less than their previous scraping-by wages, the good done is minimal. Throwing money at industries is giving it to the wrong people.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:25 PM on May 22 [7 favorites]


No one is bailing out the restaurant industry. If anything, the industry is being left out to dry. The PPP as written does very little to support restaurants, especially small ones. The PPP is just debt since restaurants can't employ people while closed. When restaurants are allowed to reopen under various restrictions, they'll not be able to employ a full staff. When the White House held a meeting of restaurant executives, Trump only seemed to be able to talk about truckers and butter. There is no help coming from the government.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:46 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]


A consideration; people pay for the restaurant experience for more than just calories to consume and a place to consume them.

They pay for the art on the walls, for the architecture, for the design of the menus, for the experience of everything that goes into “the restaurant experience”. Let’s postulate that “the restaurant experience” as we have come to understand it is essentially over with for the forseeable future. Whaty then?

What if “The ‘Rona” proves more resistant to a vaccine than our best efforts, and going back to the way things were done is fundamentally not an option on our long-term societal planning horizon. What if The ‘Rona is just an ambient fact of life we need to deal with, like the weather. What then?

If people think “This is just for now, so we can make sacrifices”, people will pay premium prices for “socially distanced dining” at their favorite joints. For a while.

But what if they are unable to come up with an effective vaccine? What if social distancing measures are here to stay, and this is how the children of today are going to grow up. What if we end up talking in terms of “This years COVID season looks like it’s gonna be a bad one” on the regular. What then?

How much of of a premium are people willing to pay to go out to a socially-distanced restaurant when they realize that’s the new reality that isn’t going away? Not all restaurants can or want to shift to a permanent to-go window, especially given the razor-thin profitr margins that usually go with exhorbitant rents .

What if the basic facts on the ground make dine-in options failing propositions from a numbers angle? Can restaurants afford to operate socially-distanced dining rooms? WIll enough people have means and the motivation to patronize such establishments? Or will they just decide to get it to go?

Americans have fundamentally gotten used to paying less for a restaurant meal than it actually costs to make and serve. This is why it’s legal to pay servers less than minimum wage given they’re expected to make it up in tips. The idea of actually having to pay for what it actually costs to make and serve a restaurant meal makes Americans flip out and curse. Asking to pay that muich for a socially distanced experiences... Karen and Chad won’t stand for that

Whether or not the restaurant industry as currently constituted “should” die or not is an issue aside from whether or not is has the capability to survive the current stresses on it.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 2:20 PM on May 22 [12 favorites]


Also, what about tourist. How are they supposed to eat without restaurants? Hope they get a room with an en suite kitchen (and can afford that)?
posted by MikeKD at 2:38 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


The restaurant industry, and the exploitation of the workers in it is largely due to what restaurant owners and managers can get away with. Because it hires so many people from so many backgrounds (good!) and offers jobs to people with criminal records (good!) and people with unstable employment histories (good!), but employment laws are lax (bad!), the minimum wage is not a living wage (bad!), and there are exceptions built in for minimum wages in the industry (shitty as all hell!), you’ve got a system ripe for exploitation.

You’ve also got an amazing testing ground for universal basic income. All of the pearl clutching panic about paying out unemployment benefits that were higher than people’s normal income is a perfect window into this: who would work a shitty job if they don’t have to? After all, restaurants are famous for turnover, for firing people who miss a shift, for threatening people who can’t get a job elsewhere (which was supposed to be a good thing, right?) with losing their job.

What if, with a UBI, people weren’t forced by circumstance to take a shitty abusive job? What if, with a UBI, restaurants still needed staff, but couldn’t keep staff too afraid to fight for better conditions? What if, under a UBI, workers felt safe enough, insulated enough from poverty that they could choose to leave abusive places of employment? What if abusive/exploitative restaurants could no longer find staff? What if, under a UBI, restaurants had to re-evaluate their norms and forms of exploitation?

It’s not that restaurants don’t need to exist, it’s that the exploitation the industry is built on is tied to the laxity/viciousness of the system and how workers, especially marginalized or vulnerable workers are allowed to be treated. Sure, UBI might well be pie in the sky, but talking about ways to actually implement change and end exploitation is a part of the process, just as important (a hell of a lot moreso, to me) as drawing attention to the issues through dramatic statements and art installations.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:28 PM on May 22 [17 favorites]


I'm not very good at FPP's

You did great, and it's an interesting article! Thank you for posting it!
posted by Greg Nog at 5:55 PM on May 22 [13 favorites]


Look, bailouts suck. They are a failure of central planning that often rewards bad behavior. And, to be clear, a bailout would reward some bad gambles on the part of restauranteurs, investors, and financial institutions. But absent a credible plan for fixing the antipattern that's developed around exploiting food service workers or abolishing the United States Senate, failure to provide relief to the industry is going to cause immense damage to workers and customers that *didn't* do anything wrong.

I find "let it die... nah we all know that's not going to happen in the long run I just wanted to get your attention" to be sort of an obnoxious rhetorical approach, but Wey does have an idea about what would be better than bailing out restaurants, and that's bailing out workers. You could try to take some "pragmatism" line against that as a possibility but I think it would be missing the point because Wey is specifically talking about envisioning a better way.
posted by atoxyl at 6:59 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


The idea of a bailout is predicated on the assumption that businesses are going to be facing a short-term struggle after which they will be okay, making it cost-effective for the government to keep them afloat through that struggle. There's sound logic there, if that's the situation at hand. But if we are truly facing apocalyptic times for restaurants, a downturn going on for (or repeating over the course of) a year or more, a downturn that they can't get through by pivoting to delivery and takeout, I have a hard time thinking of any practical reason to bail out the businesses, rather than giving the money directly to the people involved (owners included) except that you specifically want to reward the ownership class over the employee class.
posted by atoxyl at 7:10 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]


(Okay yes you can argue that food delivery operations are actually something the government shoud support directly as a service during the pandemic).
posted by atoxyl at 7:15 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Kirth Gerson: When you bail out an industry that is set up to exploit its workers for the benefit of a few capitalists, almost all the benefit inevitably goes to those few capitalists. I fully expect them to use the coronavirus crisis as reason to reduce compensation and benefits for their workers, and there are already instances of them doing it.

Tillman Fertitta (Landry's corp. Check out some of those chains. You may have been!) attempted to do this immediately. This was five days after things started locking down. I heard about it overhearing sports radio, of all places. Check the dateline. He had to walk that decision back in hours.

Less than a week later, he furloughed 40,000 people. 70% of his staff.

So, yeah. The first "US restaurant billionaire" (and casino owner and owner of the Houston Rockets...) was ready to cut benefits immediately before Texas even went into lockdown.

I distinctly remember after Hurricane Ike, he went on one of the morning radio shows talking about how everything was going to return to normal super fast and someone texted in asking how he was going to take care of the affected staff.

(Ike had Galveston completely shut down for 10+ days. 20 days in, less than 5% of the island was operational.)

His answer, "Oh, yeah, we will take care of our employees first. Always." Which, obviously is not happening now. And, then, his idea of taking care of his employees was, "Buy new uniforms to match the concept you will be working at temporarily after not having received ANY money for three weeks. Also, go ahead and commute an extra 45 minutes and be scheduled 6 a.m. - [whenever curfew ends. 9, then 10, then midnight]) every day. No, not every weekday. EVERY DAY!"

He also has a book now. Delightful title.

***********************

tonycpsu: I'm all about "policy and government programs that support people more generally." The problem is that we are not getting a robust version of those programs before January, 2021 at the earliest, assuming a wave election that makes Joe Biden's pick for Vice President a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

...

Look, bailouts suck. They are a failure of central planning that often rewards bad behavior.


Agreed. We are not getting those programs any time soon. I doubt we will get much of anything even if Biden wins and somehow swings the Senate. (Even then, I see getting shot in the foot by keeping the filibuster.)

So, two things:

1. Why should we not be talking about this right now? We talk about UBI, M4A and all sorts of things that would benefit before we can actually implement them, IN ORDER TO have plans in place to go on day one of a next left-ish president.

2. Look, bailouts suck.

I think most of us in this thread relatively agree with this concept, if you take it as "societal collapse would be worse than sending some money to a company AND THEN doing a better job of mitigating the risk for the future."

To the second part:

They are a failure of central planning that often rewards bad behavior.

I 100% disagree. This is all planned. Companies (Banks, Car Manufacturers, etc.) KNOW they will be bailed out and so they can take more risks.

and treat their employees worse.

who have to stay with the employee because where else where they will work?

and, thus, a really large amount of (just for this example) food service workers are treated with almost no dignity, if any at all.

****************************
I have a ton of empathy for food service employees. I hope all of those I know (and, wow, is it a lot) working in the industry are okay. It breaks my heart, and keeps me up many nights pretty sure that they many of them are not.

This is a shitty, shitty situation for all of us, of course. I am fine with the way Wey is increasing awareness on multiple fronts. It's not how I would do it, but I admire it and I am glad to have heard of it. (And reading anything from Helen Rosner is usually pretty awesome.)
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 7:56 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


Being in an enclosed space with other people seems to increase the risk of transmission. Loud environments (like restaurants are designed to be) are also a risk factor, because they cause people to speak louder, and pump more moisture out of their lungs.

I could see outdoor seating and beer gardens becoming a cultural preference for dining.
“Don’t sit trapped in a box full of strangers pumping who-knows-what out of their lungs into the communal breathing air! Come to our open patio, where you can always lots of get fresh air and sunlight. Remain 6’ away from people... and whatever they’re spreading.”
Self-serve buffets have to go. Those were an epidemiological nightmnare before The ‘Rona.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:38 PM on May 22 [6 favorites]


The American food industry is unique in good ways and bad. It's good because everyone can find a nutritious meal at a low cost almost everywhere. It's bad because the cost of that easy access is worker exploitation.
You Americans have to do you and figure out a better way of feeding people that fits with your approach to life. But here's just a reminder that countries all over the world, rich and poor, have figured out how to feed their nations even though restaurant workers get a living wage. You decide wether American exceptionalism is a good idea, but if you feel the urge, look out and notice that in other countries which are not nearly as wealthy as the USA, waiters and cooks can earn a living.
A comment above stood out at me, because it addressed my personal situation: what about disabled people, who can't cook for themselves? Well, there are many, many answers to that, but to keep it simple: only in America do disabled people depend on a food industry based on underpaid workers.
posted by mumimor at 4:50 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]


No, Pirate, I hadn't seen that Tillman Fertitta activity. I was thinking of this: Boston University to halt contributions to employee retirement funds due to Covid-19 issues
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:51 AM on May 23


You Americans have to do you and figure out a better way of feeding people that fits with your approach to life.

Unfortunately, we Americans count among us the large cohort of Trump assholes. That bunch are perfectly willing to return the country and society to the 1920s, and are going to have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, back to even where we were in the '70s. I am not at all optimistic.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:59 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


No, Pirate [sic], I hadn't seen that Tillman Fertitta activity. I was thinking of this: Boston University to halt contributions to employee retirement funds due to Covid-19 issues

Yeah, I mentioned it for two reasons. First and foremost to lay concrete proof to your assumption that:
I fully expect them to use the coronavirus crisis as reason to reduce compensation and benefits for their workers
was happening. And they wasted zero time to make it happen.

The second reason is that I have not seen any coverage of either of these incidents outside of the Houston media market. In fact, the larger story (laying off 40k) I only heard about because my mom e-mailed me the story. It is disheartening to think things like this are not getting coverage because "business gotta business. whatcha gonna do?" when they people that are most negatively impacted are the ones that can least afford the impact.

Fertitta's original stance was:
This is very hard on a lot of working families but we have to survive or there is no company.
That must not have played well. (I know it didn't with me.) So, he changed it to:
You’re doing the people a favor if you get them furloughed first, because you have them first to unemployment line after the severance that you give them. It’s a trick that I’ve learned many years ago.
(on Fox News, natch.)

I think both quotes show what a lot of us assume is the typical thinking of CEOs, etc., which is benefits come from the company and not the people that make up the company. Whereas, I think that is the opposite of what many of us think.

There is another "CEO" that was also born and raised in Galveston who believes that people are not only what make businesses succeed, but more important than business.

After Hurricane Ike, Mike Dean took ~10% off all costs on his menu at Yaga's, saying "Yeah, we're all struggling. I just wanted to make food more affordable during these times." I was googling for that, but of course it is in a comment on the local newspaper behind a paywall.

But, that is also the point. He didn't even advertise that he was dropping prices. He just did it. Because it was good and it was right.

**************

To circle back to Wey: the restaurant industry doesn't need to die, just like he explicitly said in the first sentence of the article. How can we dramatically change it, though, so it is equitable, fair and supportive to all that interact with it?

How do we get more Mike Dean's who take their opportunity and pull others up both via career development in his restaurants and through his charity leadership? How do we reduce the amount of Tilman Fertitta's who attempt to cut benefits for employees because reducing benefits is more important than getting rid of his yacht that mostly leaves dock only to keep flag status in the Cayman Islands so he doesn't have to pay taxes or the staff properly?

(No cite on the last part, except personal witness.)
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 7:59 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


The ending is particularly striking.

"I wouldn’t say you’re disposable.

Shit, Helen, we’re all disposable. You’re disposable, too. The New Yorker could be like Helen, we’re downsizing because people aren’t advertising anymore. That’s how this works. Same with me. We all have to find ways to keep ourselves indispensable, for the time being.
"

This notion that lives (or anything on this planet for that matter) are disposable lies at the core of so much that's wrong with our current system.

It seems to me, that #essentialworkers (excluding doctors and healthcare workers) is a euphemism for essential labor, but expendable lives...

That interview was a lot more thoughtful than the click-baity title would suggest, thank you for sharing.
posted by nikoniko at 8:25 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]


On my first read through I was frustrated with Wey's backtracking and contradictions; for example, arguing with Reem Assil that one can't effectively help the community while maintaining a stake in the corrupt system that exploits the community, but then he explains how he intends to sell salt using the same corrupt system to help the community. And it's not like having a large percentage of, if not all, of one's sales proceeds go to charitable actions is anything new nor has such a practice really changed anything with regards to overhauling the oppressive capitalist system we live under. In fact such proceeds-to-charity actions are just dove-tailers on a corrupt system -- beneficent ones, but not system changers. But on a second read through, I began to appreciate his honesty -- that he doesn't have the answers, but he can effectively point to and dramatically highlight the problems, using the restaurant industry as a scope to the wider global ills. The exploitative system we live in is so rotten and so entrenched that it seems near impossible how to dismantle it and arrive at something better that doesn't involve even more misery and oppression for those already exploited. During the Covid lockdown, my husband, myself, our family members and friends have all been discussing this very thing -- can we and how do we as a world get on the right side of things in the post-Covid world? I'm not sure any of us have the solutions but we need people like Wey to constantly poke us and point to the problems.
posted by SA456 at 9:03 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]


Regarding UBI; I do believe that the service industry would more be populated with professionalsd who are good at their job. If you have ever worked a busy shift doing table service, it is a skill set. There are “dance moves” you and your co-workers have to know, and deploy on the fly. And either you thrive on those hours, our they will break you.

Some of us do this stuff because it’s what we do. Yeah, there’s money to be made, but there’s some shit that goes along with it that a lot of normals would run screaming from. And I’m talking wholly non-abusive, fully-supported work environments that are just insane volume that doesn’t stop. It’s exhilirating. For those of us who love it. We hate and are bad at desk jobs.

Getting rid of the short-timers looking to secure an bag “easy” in favor of gnarled professionals with their own tools and industry-related tattoos would be great.

And then restaurant meals can be priced at a level that actually reflects the costs (including a profit for the business owners) without doing so on the backs of the employees. It also means we can do away with tipping without having any particular owner to be the first one out in front; everyone can make the move away from barbarism together. And everyone has a basic level of disposable income for some meals.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:28 AM on May 23 [6 favorites]


Marian Bull - Blow Up the Restaurant Industry and Start Over:
Still, fixing the restaurant industry isn’t just about fixing restaurants themselves. Even if you make individual workplaces more fair, you can’t remake the industry, or at least not fully, without massive changes to the systems that it operates in and around, like agriculture, real estate, and health care. “Because most people running restaurants aren’t the owners of that real estate, they can’t dictate the cost of running a business,” she explained. Commercial rents in the Bay Area are among the highest in the country, with Curbed SF reporting in 2019 that retail rental sites that year posted “record increases in average prices almost every month, breaking all-time high records not just once but several times.” (Just last week, a restaurant an hour north of the city closed after 46 years because its landlord hit it with a staggering 300 percent rent increase.)

And owners have long relied on exploitation, not just of their servers making $2.13 an hour (the national tipped minimum wage) or of undocumented back-of-house workers, but also, at a distance, of the agricultural workers growing and processing the food served on their tables, from farms to meat and poultry plants. Any attempt to “fix” restaurants must also include a fight for fair wages, reliable benefits, safe conditions, and workplace democracy for workers in the industries that restaurants rely on, not just the workers placing the fried chicken sandwich on the table. Unfortunately, Wey said, “a lot of people have a difficult time imagining a system that doesn’t exploit people.” (Just look at how take-out customers are tipping horribly during the pandemic.)
Special Sauce: NYT’s Pete Wells on the Future of Restaurant Criticism
EL: Because you're right, anybody who really starts seriously reviewing somebody who's desperately trying to stay in business by offering takeout and delivery really deserves to be ex-communicated from the restaurant critic association.

PW: Right. So as a journalist, you could say this is available, you know which The Times has been doing. Florence Fabricant’s been rounding and finding some interesting stuff here, people doing lobster dinners here. So you can certainly do that. This is available. This is an option that you might choose to avail yourself of. But to sort of, I don’t know… to do a thumbs up or thumbs down, forget it. And then the other part of the job is in good times is to not just say, "This is good, this is garbage," but it's to take things and put them in context a little bit. And sometimes it means understanding what the chef is up to. Understanding how is northern Thai cuisine being presented in this restaurant that's different from the restaurant across the street. And none of that really applies now, nobody needs you to you know help them understand the meaning of a restaurant right now.
posted by Ouverture at 10:46 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


I'm glad to see some comments here with broader knowledge of the restaurant industry. The fact is, "fixing" the restaurant industry won't correct the larger problems of the economic system they exist within. It's not a high-margin business - owners are not walking around with all the money. People who start restaurants see the chance to do something they love and to be a part of a community.

The focus shouldn't be on punishing restaurants, or 'letting them die,' but on correcting the wrongs of the broader system. This appears to be Wey's point, though it seems a little lost in this interview.

Unfortunately, restaurants have borne the brunt of the shutdowns - and have had little to no assistance. Many will of these businesses will die, and will eventually be replaced by systems even more exploitative.

'Let it burn' isn't a solution. What people have to finally accept is fixing things is hard work. We can't just let systems collapse, cheer, and then expect anything to grow from those ashes. We have to engage our world and form it to our needs.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:52 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Thank you for posting this, it was a really interesting conversation. At first my reaction was, well what he's really calling for is socialism, what does it have to do with restaurants? How is he going to change a huge system from within one industry? But then I realized, this is the industry and world he knows, if others with his drive, ambition, and intelligence in other industries advocate for similar changes, the chances of more global change increase.
posted by chaz at 1:16 PM on May 23


No, Pirate [sic],

Sorry, a non mouse, I overscrolled.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:33 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Sorry, a non mouse, I overscrolled.

I took no offense.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 2:22 PM on May 23


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